The call to evangelize is at the heart of our Christian faith. We are evangelizers at our core; it makes up our very identity. And yet, if I were to ask most people sitting in the church pews at Mass if they are evangelists, they would probably shake their heads and identify themselves in other terms: vocation, occupation, role in the family, country of origin.
A professor of mine in graduate school put it starkly when he said most of the laity are experiencing an “identity crisis.” We do not know, or have forgotten, who we are as members of the Body of Christ and what our role is within it. Today, Pope Francis echoes his predecessors in reminding the laity of their call to become missionary disciples. This is a call that originates from God Himself, with the Risen Christ saying to his beloved disciples before ascending to the Father, “Go and make disciples of all nations.” These words reverberate ever more powerfully for us today.
Though the universal call to holiness and a greater emphasis on evangelization has roots in the papacy of Pope Paul VI and within the Second Vatican Council, Pope Francis calls the concept of sharing our encounter with Jesus Christ using the means available to us “missionary discipleship.” It is a profound concept that Pope Francis assures us is relatively simple. “The new evangelization calls for personal involvement on the part of each of the baptized,” he writes in Evangelii Gaudium. “Every Christian is challenged, here and now, to be actively engaged in evangelization; indeed, anyone who has truly experienced God’s saving love does not need much time or lengthy training to go out and proclaim that love.” Once we have encountered Jesus Christ and His merciful love, we are called to bring that encounter to others, therefore playing a unique role in salvation history.
Several of my colleagues from the Catholic Apostolate Center and I were honored to discuss “The Call to Missionary Discipleship” at the Catechetical Day hosted by the Archdiocese of Washington in late October. We discussed that, as baptized Christians, we have been given the grace of Jesus Christ in order to respond to the both daunting and exhilarating call to “go out to all the nations.” This understanding of evangelization subsists not only on our personal encounter with God’s transforming love, but also on our proclamation of it. It is not enough to encounter Jesus Christ for ourselves. Like the woman at the well, we must go forth telling anyone who will listen, “Come see a man who told me everything I have done.”
Below are five practical tips we came up with for living out the call to be a missionary disciple. What are we missing? Feel free to add to our list by commenting on our post below!
If we are to be missionary disciples, we must be people of collaboration. This does not mean that we attend endless meetings, join committees, or fill every moment of our schedule. We propose collaboration from the beginning, which means a willingness to begin an endeavor communally with others—recognizing the valuable role each person has. Collaboration must happen among, for, and with those in our parishes and organizations. It requires openness to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, humility, dialogue, and flexibility. How can you learn from others in your community, parish, family, workplace, or neighborhood? How might God use the gifts and talents of a diverse group of people to strengthen His kingdom on earth?
As followers of Jesus Christ, we are called to use the tools of this present age in order to re-present the Gospel to our world in a way that is innovative and re-invigorated. A major tool today that can be used to spread the Gospel message is technology, especially the internet. We can share digital content that is valuable, such as Scripture, the Catechism, and Papal and Conciliar documents, in order to become better informed about our faith. Technology can also create a new type of community, enabling us to connect with others and share information in a way that is cost-effective and not limited to physical proximity. What are some ways you can use technology to spread the Gospel and help build a civilization of love?
3. Community/Parish Life
We do not exist in isolation. As Christians, our work of evangelization will not bear much fruit if we do it alone. Our community, especially our parish, strengthens us and equips us to go outside our church walls in order to evangelize. It is within the parish that we receive the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, which gives us the grace of Christ Himself. In order to be effective as missionary disciples, we are called to have a vibrant sacramental life strengthened by our communities. How does your parish community strengthen you for your mission of discipleship?
Relationships outside of the parish are also crucial to missionary discipleship. As mentioned above, we do not exist in isolation. Do we have a mentor or spiritual guide helping us to grow in our faith life? Do we have relationships or friendships that hold us accountable and push us to become better witnesses of faith? By developing faith-filled relationships and surrounding ourselves with mentors and guides, we ensure that we continue to grow in our role as missionary disciples.
Prayer is crucial not only to a life of missionary discipleship, but to the Christian life overall. Prayer is the foundation for our relationship with God, inviting us to get to know ourselves more deeply through his gaze of love and mercy and helping us to better understand our specific mission in building up the Body of Christ. Prayer can, and should be, both personal and communal. God speaks in the silence of our hearts, as well as through others. Are we carving out time in silence to converse with God and hear the promptings of the Holy Spirit? Do we read Scripture, pray the Rosary, journal, sing hymns, or reflect? By having an active prayer life, we will be better equipped to become fruitful missionary disciples.
The call to missionary discipleship is both daunting and exciting, and we can live it out at any time. As Pope Francis wrote in Evangelii Gaudium, “Being a disciple means being constantly ready to bring the love of Jesus to others, and this can happen unexpectedly and in any place: on the street, in a city square, during work, on a journey.” Above, I’ve listed a few tips to fulfilling our call to become missionary disciples. What would you add to the list?
Editor's note: This post was originally published in November 2017. Since its publication, the Catholic Apostolate Center has expanded its vision and resources for living as missionary disciples. Please see our "Living as Missionary Disciples" resources page and our 2017 e-book Living as Missionary Disciples: a Resource for Evangelization that was produced in collaboration with the USCCB.
“But this I will call to mind; therefore I will hope: The Lord’s acts of mercy are not exhausted, his compassion is not spent; They are renewed each morning—great is your faithfulness!”
Reflecting on the theme for this year’s Mid-Atlantic Congress—"Hope”—I feel as though the idea of hope seems a radical one to even consider today. Every morning, we’re confronted with more bad news: refugees, war, political espionage, starvation, violent crime, and even mass shootings in our own communities. It’s enough to make you throw up your hands and cry out, “Just make it stop!” And that’s exactly why we need hope. With the current state of the world, focusing on the theme of hope is one of the most important things we can do as a community of faith.
We often hear that things are in crisis: the family, the Church, our nation, our whole world. But what we encountered at MAC this year looked nothing like crisis. In fact, it looked very much like hope. In our conversations with participants, the Catholic Apostolate Center staff witnessed a fire that, in charity and love, seeks to transform the world with the good news of the Gospel. And while it’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of being surrounded by passionate and hard-working people, there are ways we can carry that hope and momentum forward into our parishes and communities.
The Catholic Apostolate Center participated in four presentations this year at the Mid-Atlantic Congress. In our presentation discussing Living as Missionary Disciples, the U.S. Bishops’ guide for pastoral planning, we were able to provide basic principles of missionary discipleship and evangelization. We talked about where the Church in the United States is heading with its evangelization and pastoral planning efforts and together brainstormed practical ways to implement these ideas in our own parishes and dioceses. By collaborating with other members of the Church, and helping to form missionary disciples, our work can change the narrative of hopelessness we often see in the world.
The Center also engaged in fruitful conversation about how to equip young adults to enter into the mission the Church calls us to: becoming missionary disciples, or everyday evangelizers. The session highlighted work being done in several archdiocesan and post-collegiate formation programs, such as Apostles on Mission. We also reflected on the importance of fostering a greater sense of vocational discernment among young adults—a theme on which the Church will continue to reflect in the upcoming Synod on Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment.
Regarding our schools, the Center had the opportunity to reflect on the complexities of the role of principals as Lay Ecclesial Ministers. Acting as part-administrator, teacher, janitor, crying shoulder, cheerleader, and lunch monitor, a principal is also a school’s connection to the local parish and diocese. They take on a complex role in today’s world and, from the discussion in our session, are eager to renew their commitment to helping form the next generation of missionary disciples.
Finally, the Center unpacked the idea of collaboration from the beginning as it can apply to pastoral planning. With so many new (rather, renewed) ideas being proposed by Pope Francis and the bishops, wrapping one’s head around the various buzz words, new terminology, or different pastoral methodologies can seem overwhelming. Our conversation touched on co-responsibility, missionary discipleship, and entering into pastoral planning with a spirit of discernment and collaboration. It was encouraging to see pastoral leaders rising to the challenge of being co-responsible missionary disciples ready to share the hope of Jesus Christ.
At MAC this year, we experienced hope: hope in the Lord, hope that will not disappoint, and hope that sends us forth. We saw the excitement and fire that comes from hope, which will be taken home to our parishes, schools, and dioceses to transform the world. We thank all who engaged in conversation with us at MAC and challenge you to proclaim the hope of the Gospel to the world.
To listen to our presentations from this year’s Mid-Atlantic Congress, please click here.
"Don't look for big things. Just do small things with great love."
Many of us are familiar with these words from Mother Teresa, a reminder that we will be measured against the depth of our love, not the number of great deeds we’ve done. It’s also become a personal mantra whenever I think about the idea of missionary discipleship.
“We become missionary disciples when we take our encounter with Jesus Christ out into the world,” the United States Bishops stated in their document Living as Missionary Disciples. They continue, “As a Church, we are called to be missionary disciples who know and live the faith and confidently share the Gospel.”
My part-time work with the Catholic Apostolate Center keeps me plugged into the ministry world, but whenever I step out of the “Catholic bubble,” evangelization gets difficult fast. It’s easy to talk about missionary discipleship in theoretical terms among engaged Catholics. The call to actually be a missionary disciple, however, becomes a challenge when I’m the only engaged Catholic in the room.
During my day job as a civil engineer, I encounter coworkers and clients from all kinds of backgrounds. The opportunity to evangelize is enormous, but where do I start? If we’re all called, by virtue of our baptism, to “go make disciples of all nations,” then aren’t I supposed to be evangelizing everyone I meet? How am I supposed to do that without making people think I’m a kooky religious fanatic? Being Catholic is at the core of who I am—but, to many, that does sound kind of kooky!
So how do I do this missionary discipleship thing? How do I evangelize without going too deep too fast? I once heard someone compare evangelization to trying to teach particle physics: You don’t just start with the Higgs boson and expect people to get it. You start with the basics. The same goes for the mission of evangelizing the world. Start with the basics. Or, as Mother Teresa said, “Just do small things with great love.”
I don’t have to pass out copies of Magnificat or start a lunchtime Bible study in order to be a missionary disciple. All it takes is planting a seed here and there: keeping an icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help on my desk, silently offering a prayer before lunch (when I don’t forget!), even simply treating my coworkers with kindness and respect. All of these small things add up when done with great love. People notice and they wonder: “Why?”
I vividly remember an encounter I once had in a Chick-fil-A. The cashier, friendly as they always are, randomly asked what church I went to. I told him, wondering aloud what made him ask. Without missing a beat, he said, “Because your light shines.” Ironically, I was in the midst of a rough patch and had taken the semester off of school. In spite of my own trials, all it took was treating the guy like a person in order to elicit that response.
We’re so tempted to think that big accomplishments and programs are all that command people’s attention, but it’s really the opposite. The big stuff fades from our memories faster than a sensational Internet meme or viral cat video. But the little things people do, the kindness and love with which we regard one another, that’s what’s remembered. And that’s what opens people’s hearts to God.
Missionary discipleship isn’t rocket science, or even particle physics. It’s about doing small things with great love.
Question for Reflection: What are some small things you can do to spread the love of God wherever you go?
For more information on how you can be a Missionary Disciple, visit the Catholic Apostolate Center’s resource page here.
Click here to read Living as Missionary Disciples: A Resource for Evangelization.