In his first Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis writes, “I am mission on this earth” [EG 273]. That phrase really stuck with me, partly because I was on my way down to Maracaibo, Venezuela for the 4th Missionary Congress of the Americas (Cam 4) and the 9th Latin American Missionary Congress (Comla 9). In fact, I’ve been thinking about “mission” for quite a while now and much more so, since World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro this past summer.
The theme for WYD Rio was from Matthew 28:19: “Go make disciples of all nations.” That has been my favourite Scripture passage since World Youth Day 2002. In fact, the whole passage from verse 16 to 20 is my favourite. Everything we need to know about our mission is there: Go, baptise, teach, remember…
And then I go to Cam 4/Comla 9 and the motto is “Missionary America, share your faith.” Sharing my faith is what Matthew 28:16-20 is all about. I may be wrong about this, but my impression is that in Canada and the United States our understanding of “share your faith” is a bit different that what it is in Latin America.
How do we share our faith? In Canada, Catholics love an expression that is attributed to St. Francis: “Preach the Gospel at all times and use words if necessary.” We love that because it means we don’t have to use words. Canadians are very reserved and we don’t like to impose our point of view on others. We’ve really been sold on the idea that whatever other people do and believe is fine as long as they keep it to themselves. And so we are content to share our faith by doing acts of charity. We bring school supplies to Haitian refugee children in the Dominican Republic; we go build homes in Mexico; we paint a Church rectory up in the Yukon. That’s what we call mission work. Kids in Catholic High schools all over go on these mission trips, which are good (don’t get me wrong). They do a lot of good and they are meaningful and even spiritual for both the participants and the recipients, but they are not very different than an act of social service. In fact, that’s what they are.
I would question whether they are sharing our faith at all. In fact, in order to do this type of “mission” work we don’t even need to know our faith. How do they fulfill that great commission of Matthew 28? If all we do is feed the hungry and clothe the naked, then who’s proclaiming the good news? Who’s making disciples of all nations? Who is baptising and teaching? Who is the voice crying out in the wilderness (Mt: 3:3; Mk 1:3; Lk 3:4; Jn 1:23)? Who is preparing the way of the Lord? Because that work is not just for priests, nuns, deacons, monks and lay evangelists. It’s for all. Granted, you can’t preach to someone whose stomach is empty, but we also need to give them spiritual food. It’s easier to just collect toiletries and pack them in shoe boxes and shipped them to Honduras, but we must preach the Gospel at all times and use words. We can’t forget the words of St. Paul’s: “Woe to me if I don’t preach the Gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:16).
We may also be satisfied in only doing charitable works because our current pope seems to put a lot of emphasis on service. He finished WYD Rio by telling you people to “go, without fear, to serve” and so we think that mission work, making disciples is done only by serving. But he’s also the same pope who tells us that the doors of the Church need to be open, not so that people can come in, but so that we can go out and find the people who are not coming to Church. I suspect that at some point, we’ll have to use words in order to do that. In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis also speaks at length about the responsibility that each one of us has to evangelise and gives us many suggestions as to how to go about it [EG 110-175].
Add to that the fact that evangelizing is all about helping people have an encounter with Christ. How can I help you encounter someone whom I have not first encountered myself? We proclaim the good news because we have encountered Christ; because we are in love. This is what happened to the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). Their eyes were opened and they recognised Jesus and then immediately, with “hearts burning within” they left on mission. Granted that it is Christ who encounters us and not the other way around, but we cannot do the work of evangelization if we are not in love; if we have not encountered or been encountered first.
I have to admit that because we were working to cover the event, I didn’t have much of a chance to participate in the conferences and small group sessions at the Missionary Congress but in passing, I heard three statements that really stuck with me. The first was Cardinal Filoni, prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples during his homily at the Opening Mass. He said, “If the Church is not missionary, it will stop growing.”
Seems obvious and makes sense. I suppose I knew that already, but I had not really thought about it. Unless you and I share our faith and proclaim the good news, the Church will not grow. And we wonder why some churches are empty. We wonder why there is a lack of vocations. This means we have to use words. It means that we cannot be shy or afraid. We can’t be embarrassed or ashamed. We can’t be ignorant about what we believe. We have to be able to have those conversations when the opportunities arise. We have to have had an experience of Christ ourselves. Arriving in Maracaibo I began speaking with a man at the airport. Turns out that he was a pastor of an evangelical church. Guess what conversation we ended up having? He evangelised me and I hope that I evangelised him and we grew in communion together. But if I didn’t know my Scripture passages and if I didn’t know what the Church teaches about Mary, the Eucharist and about the Papacy, I could not have shared my faith.
The second thing I heard that move me was from a Bishop who was at the Congress representing the Italian Bishop’s Conference. I have to apologise because he was not one of the main speakers and his intervention was not scheduled and I did not catch his name. But I did catch one thing he said: “Had the Church not been missionary, the bible would not have been written.” Again, seems obvious, makes sense and it is something that I already knew, but I had not really thought about it that way. Everything the Church has done, from St. Paul’s letters, to the Gospel writers, to the printing press, to creating beautiful art, has been done because the Church is missionary. We have Mass because the Church is missionary. We baptise and marry people because the Church is missionary. We run Catholic schools because the Church is missionary. Everything we do, including sending school supplies to kids in Peru, we do because we are missionary. And we cannot separate “missionary work” (in the traditional sense) from liturgy and cult. They go hand-in-hand. That’s why we don’t just go; instead the command from Matthew 28 is to “go, baptise, teach and remember”. The Church is missionary and everything we do we should do with one mission: Making disciples of all nations.
The last comment I heard that moved me was from one of the main speakers, Bishop Raul Biord, sdb. He said, “It’s not that the Church has a mission; it’s that the mission has a Church.” If it wasn’t for Matthew 28, and the fact that the apostles took that seriously, we would have no Church. And so, the mission precedes the Church. In a sense, we can also say that Jesus Christ is the mission of the Father. And we can also go back to what Pope Francis said in Evangelii Gaudium: “I am mission.” We are not just missionary; we are mission. The Church is mission; I am mission; we are the mission of the Father. I am reminded of whenever I speak about the universal call to holiness. I usually will say that we are not called to be saints; we are saints. We don’t have to say yes to something we are not; we have to say yes to that which we are created to be. In the same way, being “missional” in what we do is not an option. This is who we are created to be.
Which is why at the end of Mass (missa) we are sent: “Go in peace to proclaim the Gospel with our lives.” In Latin, “Ite, missa est” means, “go, you are dismissed” or “go, you are sent.” But the root of the word, “dismissal” is the same as the word, “mission.” At the end of Mass we are sent on a mission. That’s what “mass” means: mission. And it’s one simple mission: To share our faith. And most of the time we don’t even come close to doing anything remotely related to that. And still God welcomes us back every week with a “well done, good-enough and faithful servant” and there we go again.
How do I share my faith? Every way possible. To whom do I share my faith? To everyone possible. When do I share my faith? All the time. That’s why the main focus of this Missionary Congress was the idea of permanent mission. I can’t say this enough: We are to be “missional” in everything we do. We have one mission: “Make disciples of all nations.” How do we do that? We baptise them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit and teach them everything that Jesus has commanded us. And then we have to remember that Christ is with us until the end of the age. So we are not alone. And it is Christ who makes disciples. We just help.
Simple, eh? So, go make disciples of all nations. Go without fear to serve – but don’t forget to use words.
Visit: OPM French Canada’s youtube channel to watch all the videos that we produced while in Maracaibo, Venezuela, and tune-in this weekend for the SLHour for a special edition recorded at the Missionary Congress.