Sunday, October 20, 2013

Fulfill Your Ministry: A Reflection on World Mission Sunday

During this Year of Faith, the theme of the New Evangelization has largely dominated conversations within the Church. I have been especially struck by how often the themes of mission and evangelization are misunderstood or ignored by many groups And, this isn’t necessarily a Catholic phenomenon; many Protestant communions shy away from the work of “evangelism” because of fear that they will be perceived as proselytizing or as having an out-of-check zeal.

Beyond the fact that today (October 20) is World Mission Sunday, Pope Francis spoke about the apostolic nature of the Church in his most recent General Audience this past Wednesday. When  you also consider that these days the liturgical calendar has placed before us several saints who were missionaries and catechists (including Saint Luke the Evangelist, Blesseds Daudi Okelo and JildoIrwa, Saint Isaac Jogues and the other North American Martyrs, Blessed JohnPaul II, Saint John Capistrano, and Saint Anthony Mary Claret), how could we not dedicate some time to reflecting on our call to be missionaries and teachers of the faith?

When we profess the Creed, we express our belief in a Church that is “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.” The unity and universality of a faith that is based on God’s revelation of God’s self in Jesus are fundamental aspects of the Christian Faith, summarizing the first three “marks” of the Church. When we reflect on the apostolic nature of the Church, we most often think in terms of history, of the Church as founded on the teaching and traditions handed on by the Apostles and Fathers of the Church (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 857). But, how often do we understand our call to be an “apostolic” people as meaning that, like Peter, Paul, and the other Apostles, we, too, are “sent out.” In its decree Apostolicam Actuositatem (On the Apostolate of the Laity), the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council wrote, “The Christian vocation by its nature is also a vocation to the apostolate. No part of the structure of a living body is merely passive but has a share in the functions as well as life of the body: so, too, in the body of Christ, which is the Church, ‘the whole body… in keeping with the proper activity of each part, derives its increase from its own internal development’ (Ephesians 4:16).” Where does this leave us?

It means we have been empowered to help guide and engage our faith communities and to engage our pastors. But, with this privilege comes responsibility—each of us has a specific part to play in the life of the Church and the spread of the Gospel. It’s easy to ignore our individual responsibilities and let the “ministry professionals” do the work of mission and evangelization. For some of us, it might be a fear of saying the wrong thing or even feeling like we don’t know the faith well enough to publicly profess what we believe and who we are as a people of faith. But, we also have to admit, that this takes work and time, two things that can make passivity very appealing.

Another reason that so many of us don’t step forward is because we only want to engage the Church and Christian doctrine and tradition on our own terms. Rather than allowing ourselves to be formed by an active and mutual relationship with the broader Church (both the magisterium and our fellow believers), we opt for what Saint Paul warns of in the Second Letter to Timothy: “For the time will come when people will not tolerate sound doctrine but, following their own desires and insatiable curiosity, will accumulate teachers and will stop listening to the truth.” What is the antidote to this? “Proclaim the word; be persistent whether it is convenient or inconvenient; convince, reprimand, encourage through all patience and teaching… be self-possessed in all circumstances; put up with hardship; perform the work of an evangelist; fulfill your ministry” (4:3-4; 2, 5). In all of this, we can look to the saints (including those named above) for inspiration. If we only choose what is comfortable, we’ll never really be the apostles that we are called to be or living out the covenant made in our baptism and sealed in the sacrament of confirmation. We also show a marked disrespect for the experiences of those countless Christians around the world who continue to suffer heroically simply because of their faithful witness to Christ and what has been handed down to them by the Church.
Saint Paul depicted in a 9th century illumination
ascribed to the Benedictine Abbey of St. Gall in Switzerland

In his Message for Mission Sunday, Pope Francis wrote, “Faith is God’s precious gift… Faith, however, needs to be accepted, it needs our personal response, the courage to entrust ourselves to God, to live God’s love and be grateful for infinite mercy… It is a gift that one cannot keep to oneself, but it is to be shared. If we want to keep it only to ourselves, we will become isolated, sterile and sick Christians. The proclamation of the Gospel is part of being disciples of Christ and it is a constant commitment that animates the whole life of the Church.”

There is so much to celebrate about our Faith, most especially its power to transform us and our world. But, all of this demands an openness on our parts and a willingness to be changed by a God who is not made in our image, but who has created us in and for love: “What made you establish humanity in so great a dignity? Certainly the incalculable love by which you have looked on your creature in yourself! You are taken with love of her; for by love indeed you created her, by love you have given her a being capable of tasting your eternal Good” (Saint Catherine of Siena, Dialogues 4, 13).

A Prayer for World Mission Sunday +
O God, you have willed that your Church be the sacrament
of salvation for all the nations,
so that Christ’s saving work may continue to the end of the ages;
stir up, we pray, the hearts of the faithful
and grant that they may feel a more urgent call
to work for the salvation of every creature,
so that from all the peoples of the earth
one family and one people of your own
may arise and increase.
Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
(taken from the “Mass for the Evangelization of Peoples”
in The Roman Missal)

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