Missionaries around the world were excited on October 22, 2017 when Pope Francis called for an Extraordinary Missionary Month in October 2019. The fruit of that month lacks luster, but the seeds are heavy with promise.
Some of us were grieved by the lack of attention given to mission, hoping that the Church would give it more time and energy. Mission always leads to a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. The beauty and power of mission is so often seen in the lives of the saints. Missionaries themselves know they need to expand and deepen their own human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral formation in order to address the hopes and dreams, the griefs and anxieties of every human being. We hoped the people of God would be generous with their spiritual and financial support of mission.
Considerable efforts were made by Mission Directors from around the country to lift-up mission within the local church. There were some wonderful celebrations – remembering the missionary roots of the diocese, sharing the missionary story, promoting all the ways the faithful are engaged in mission. Regrettably, we are not always aware of how our faith stems from the faithful, and often heroic, efforts of missionaries who witness the Gospel in our hometown.
Some learned new things about mission they did not know before, particularly the lives of saints who embodied the missionary spirit. Perhaps the story of Sr. Dorothy Stang, S.N.D de Namur, who taught catechism and justice to the indigenous people of the Amazon, and the stories of many others moved lay people to learn more about these missionaries and the importance of the Amazon for our common home.
There were efforts to deepen and expand the formation of missionaries – a few conferences, some webinars. USCMA focused on reconciliation as an aspect of mission and explored the missionary task of reconciliation among those who suffer from racism in America and the spirituality needed to sustain the mission and ministry of reconciliation.
Roger Schroeder defines mission as “proclaiming, serving, and witnessing to God’s reign of love, salvation and justice.” Sometimes “evangelization” replaces the word mission. Too often, evangelization is understood in very narrow terms – as the verbal proclamation of the Gospel. As Catholics, we know in our bones that words – even very good words expertly crafted and amazingly articulated – are insufficient. Words need integrity that flows from lives lived in service to others purely out of the love of God. As St. Francis is often quoted as saying, “preach always and, if necessary, use words.” Mission is evangelization embodied. Pope Francis said in Joy of the Gospel, “I am a mission.”
Mission is rooted in the very heart of God. Anthony Gittins, a leading missiologist, said “Mission is God’s job description, it is what he does and who he is.” Jesus is the preeminent missionary. He was sent by the Father to bring love, salvation, and justice to the world. Jesus continues this mission – everyday – through those of us who are baptized and sent into the world. The missionary goes beyond themselves, steps outside their comfort zone, crosses some type of border, and risks a personal encounter with another human being in the name of God’s inexhaustible love.
There are wonderful signs of hope that the people of God are beginning to move from maintenance to mission. Parishes around the country are creating partnerships to build bridges and relationships of solidarity with people in other cities, states, and countries. Dioceses are forming partnerships with other dioceses. Catholic high school students are cultivating relationships with other students around the world through video technology and social media.
Bishop Barron, at the recent gathering of the US Bishops, stressed the need for the church to reach out to the growing number of the “disaffiliated;” people who do not affiliate with any religion. Two of his three points speak directly to mission – engage people in the work of justice and create parishes to be “missionary societies.”
What if every parish had a mission commission or team that would organize the missionary activities of the parish? Some parishes have a neighborhood mission to the homeless, regular mission trips to the poor in Appalachia, or a long-standing partnership with a parish in another country. Not all parishes can be completely dedicated to mission, but every parish can, in some way, be a missionary society.
All are called to be missionary disciples, but not all can be missionaries. A missionary is a ministry of the Church – just like a catechist. Most of us have had some type of missionary experience where we reached out beyond ourselves, for the good of another, with only their good, their blessing, as our goal. All of us can come together, share our missionary experiences, and discern where Jesus is sending us.
We are the seeds of the Extraordinary Month of Mission. We who heard Jesus say to us personally, “The Father has sent me, now I send you.”