Missionary to Laos and Cambodia, member and superior general of the Congregation of Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate (O.M.I.), and secretary of the Congregation for the evangelization of peoples; b. Villorba in the northeastern Italian Province of Treviso, Aug. 9, 1932; d. Rome, March 1, 2001. Ordained in 1959, Zago was sent by the O.M.I. to Laos and Cambodia during a turbulent period in that region's history, i.e., at the height of the Vietnam War with its spillover effect on Laos and Cambodia. In Laos, he became deeply involved in Buddhist Christian dialogue and was highly knowledgeable in Buddhist thought and spirituality. Frequently invited by Buddhists to speak in their study centers, in 1971, at the request of the bishops of Laos, Zago established the Center for Study and Dialogue with Buddhists and in 1972 led a delegation of Laotian Buddhists to Assisi and Rome.
In 1974 Zago took part in the first plenary assembly of the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences in Taipei on "Evangelization in Modern-Day Asia." That same year he was elected to a six-year term as assistant superior general of the O.M.I. From 1983 to 1986 he served in the Vatican as secretary for what was then called the Secretariat for Relations with Non-Christians, the predecessor of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. In 1984, the Secretariat issued the statement "The Attitude of the Church Towards the Followers of Other Religions: Reflections and Orientations on Dialogue and Mission." This document bears the stamp of Zago's thinking in recognizing the evangelizing mission of the church as a "single but complex and articulated reality" that comprises: (1) presence and witness; (2) commitment to social development and human liberation; (3) liturgical life, prayer, and contemplation;(4) interreligious dialogue; and, finally, (5) proclamation and catechesis. Missiologists have acclaimed these five elements as the single most comprehensive statement of what Christian mission entails as a complex process directed toward the communication of salvific truth, while respecting the dignity of followers of other religious traditions. While at the Secretariat, Zago helped organize Pope John Paul II's meeting with leaders of many religious traditions at Assisi in October 1986, an event widely regarded as an ecumenical landmark.
Zago was elected superior general of the O.M.I. in 1986 and re-elected to that post in 1992, during which period the congregation began 13 new missions. As superior general, Zago was one of the key persons behind the writing of redemptoris missio, an encyclical that refused to oversimplify mission's many dimensions or denigrate other religious traditions. On March 28, 1998 he was appointed secretary of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples by Pope John Paul II and ordained bishop in St. Peter's Basilica by Cardinal Jozef Tomko, prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples on April 25, 1998. His appointment was the capstone of a career, but especially marked a period during which this humble but brilliant missionary helped the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples understand other religious traditions, evaluate them as worthy "others," and, at the same time, remain true to Christ's admonition to "teach all nations what I have commanded" (Matthew 28:18-2).
[w. r. burrows]