Our Mis­sion (Should we choose to accept it)

The word “Mis­sion” or “Mis­sion­ary” is one of those church-y words that calls up imme­di­ate men­tal images. A com­mon word with what seems like an easy def­i­n­i­tion. Our Office of Dis­ci­ple­ship and Mis­sion web­site is “disciplesonmission.com” and there was a very inten­tion­al debate about choos­ing that spe­cif­ic name. What is a mis­sion­ary, and what is the con­nec­tion with being a dis­ci­ple? We can begin at the Gospels for guid­ance.

At the start, Jesus calls his dis­ci­ples. He then spends three years teach­ing them. The Twelve spent more time with him than any­one else did. He explained para­bles to them pri­vate­ly, and had deep­er con­ver­sa­tions about who He was with them. In oth­er words, Jesus dis­ci­pled them through a rela­tion­ship that brought about a trans­for­ma­tion the char­ac­ter of each of them. Then, he sends them on their mis­sion. And what was the mis­sion? In Luke 10, they get a tri­al run, and we learn that they cast­ed out demons and prob­a­bly healed the sick. But in the Great Com­mis­sion in Matthew 28, Jesus tells them to make dis­ci­ples, teach them all that Jesus taught, and bap­tize. It seems that the care of the poor and the sick is a giv­en, an under­stood thing that isn’t even men­tioned here. This dis­tinc­tion is impor­tant.

The Fran­cis­can and Jesuit mis­sion­ar­ies who brought the Catholic faith to the Amer­i­c­as cer­tain­ly did help the poor, sick and needy. But we know from their writ­ings that the rea­son they came was to preach sal­va­tion through the Church that Jesus found­ed. The social con­cerns were sim­ply a nat­ur­al exten­sion of their mis­sion­ary spir­it, and became a vehi­cle for build­ing trust and show­ing love.

Recent­ly, I was part of a con­ver­sa­tion with Bish­op Bak­er, where a nun asked him, “Bish­op, you keep talk­ing about mis­sion; but what do you mean by that word?” Seems like it should be a com­mon-sense answer, but the word gets used in so many ways! Bishop’s answer was inter­est­ing. He explained a sit­u­a­tion where a high school stu­dent gets chal­lenged or ques­tioned about their reli­gion, and is in a posi­tion to share the truth of the Catholic Faith. He explained that his idea of being mis­sion-ready was that each stu­dent would be able to clear­ly and joy­ful­ly answer those ques­tions in a way that leads oth­ers to Christ. Admit­ted­ly, this answer was unex­pect­ed. Bish­op went on to explain that his hope for mis­sion­ary spir­it in this dio­cese would be that each Catholic would be able to give both ver­bal and active evi­dence of Christ liv­ing with­in them. Whether that is through ser­vice, answer­ing ques­tions, Chris­t­ian lifestyle, or friend­ship.

This con­ver­sa­tion brings to mind the patroness of the mis­sions, St Therese of Lisieux. She entered the con­vent at four­teen, and nev­er left. Yet she is the patroness of mis­sion­ar­ies! We see that through prayer, dis­ci­ple­ship, and effec­tive life wit­ness, one can be a mis­sion­ary at home. With this new per­spec­tive, we did a quick inter­view with Martha Maria Morales of the Office of His­pan­ic Min­istries, who recent­ly returned form a mis­sion trip (in the typ­i­cal sense of the term) in Africa, through Catholic Relief Ser­vices.

It is fun­ny that you men­tioned St Therese, because she accom­pa­nied me in Africa.” Martha Maria was read­ing a book about four St. Teresa’s. She explains St. Tere­sa of Avi­la helps you with the inte­ri­or life of prayer.  St. Therese of Lisieux is about the lit­tle acts of love that make you a mis­sion­ary in your own home; like say­ing a Hail Mary for some­one when they both­er you.

St Tere­sa Bene­dic­ta (Edith Stein), was a mis­sion­ary of the mind, answer­ing doubts and ques­tions and bring­ing peace through truth. St Tere­sa of Kolkata, was a mis­sion­ary with dra­mat­ic deeds. Martha Maria explained that she learned in Africa that being a mis­sion­ary is about a full cir­cle of dis­ci­ple­ship, cycling through all four Teresa’s.

Martha Maria explained that pover­ty didn’t shock her in Tan­za­nia. She had seen it before. But it was affirm­ing to see the mon­ey we raise through things like the Rice Bowl in action. She did, how­ev­er, notice a trans­for­ma­tion with­in her­self. She looks at every­thing dif­fer­ent­ly, even water, no longer tak­ing things for grant­ed. A new per­spec­tive has shown her that mis­sion isn’t about going places to fix things that WE think need to be fixed. It’s about prayer­ful­ly putting to use the things that we can do, give, and be to the ser­vice of what oth­ers need. “We might not be builders and painters, but we can give and col­lab­o­rate in the ways that we can. There is a uni­ver­sal­i­ty of the call… to be a mis­sion­ary in my fam­i­ly, by my exam­ple. Not bible thump­ing, but exam­ple,” Matha Maria adds. “God calls us to restore oth­ers dig­ni­ty, not build­ings.”

Return­ing back to the Great Com­mis­sion at the end of the Gospel, we see that “mis­sion” is broad­er than trav­el­ing to a remote place to build shel­ters. It’s about using every­thing at our dis­c­pos­al to com­mu­ni­cate the Love of Christ to every­one, every­where, always.

 

Coordinator of Discipleship & Mission at the Catholic Diocese of Birmingham in Alabama.

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