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.