A Potent Paradigm for a Tepid Church
By Joseph Summers
It is difficult to create a powerful and effective blog post about something I am very passionate about in the limited time I have! There is nothing I can write that can stir a Church over a billion members strong to wholeheartedly embrace her “greatest and holiest duty” (AG, 29) that hasn’t already been said or written more eloquently. In fact, the problem is not that it hasn’t been written or said, it is that it hasn’t been heard or received, and it certainly hasn’t been believed! As I sit at my keyboard and punch away at the letters, I dearly hope they will miraculously convalesce into a potent dart of truth to penetrate the disinterested and indifferent hearts of readers caught up in lives too busy for so great and holy a duty.
Strong words, I know, but necessary and, in most cases, true. It’s not that we’re “bad people,” its just that we are wearing our faith upside down. As Christians, even Catholics possessed of the “fullness of truth,” we have lost sight of our identity. This fact is continually impressed in my heart, evidenced, at times in my own life, by the value we place on things without deep and lasting significance; a reality enshrined by our priorities which lack priority.
What am I talking about? Missions of course! Jesus came to save people! He came to free us from sin and set us right with God so that we might share in His divine life, FOREVER. What could matter more? It was to accomplish this mighty work that Christ was incarnate of the Virgin, suffered, died, and was buried, and then rose again on the third day! He then spent nearly 6 weeks, confirming His presence, power and authority, before ascending into heaven! But not before laying out His game plan for His Church, a Church He carefully, and personally, chose, formed, shaped, ordained, endowed, and prepared. It is in His ascension, that the LORD reveals the purpose of our ecclesial existence, our incorporation into His Body is an incorporation into His mission of Salvation!
Here we hear, from the lips of the LORD of History and Savior of the Universe, His mandate of supreme importance: “Go into into the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to all creation!” (Mk 16: 15). This Great Commission, when paired with the Power of God’s Spirit unleashed on the Church at Pentecost, is potent and effective! So much so, that when taken seriously by the Apostles, and the whole Church for that matter, the then known world was transformed by the witness of their lives and the proclamation of the Gospel message! So incredible was the missionary effectiveness of the early Church that by the advent of Augustine in the mid 4th century, he believed the whole world to have heard the Good News! You see, missions, for the earliest adherents of our faith, was not something peripheral, but something intrinsic: “the mission ad gentes,….was in fact considered the normal outcome of Christian living” MR, 27. “Evangelizing is in fact the grace and vocation proper to the Church, her deepest identity. She exists in order to evangelize, that is to say, in order to preach and teach” EN, 14 (emphasis added).
How is it then that today, while the number of believers is on the rise, they are outpaced by the number of those untouched by the Gospel message? I believe Pope Francis’ World Mission Sunday address get’s to the heart of the matter: “This missionary aspect is not merely a programmatic dimension in Christian life, but it is also a paradigmatic dimension that affects all aspects of Christian life.” Missions is not a program among other programs that we can get to when we get to it! Missions is Christian Life! “The pilgrim Church is missionary by her very nature!” (AG, 2)
The problem that faces Catholics today is that we are looking at the world with the wrong paradigm, our outlook is broken. And while I don’t mean the teaching Magisterium of the Church, which has spoken, and continues to speak, a great deal on the importance and centrality of missions, I do mean ordinary Catholics, laity, priests and even bishops. We need to return to the missionary paradigm of the Apostles who journeyed to both the heart and the distant corners of the Roman Empire, Asia, Africa and Europe, in order to fulfill a mandate they had been entrusted. It was the missionary Church that won the ancient world to Christ and issued in the Patristic era of Ambrose, Augustine and the like! This mandate retains all of its urgency today! We must commit all of our energies and resources to fulfill its demands.
Please name for me the missionaries from your parish (be they lay, religious or clergy) who have left the comforts of home for the perils of foreign mission? From your diocese? Why can’t you? Every community of believers ought to be activating authentic disciples burning with love for Jesus and yearning with zeal for souls on distant shores! Every parish should be praying for these missionary members (priests, religious and lay people, families and children) by name, and supporting them with sacrificial giving! What if each diocese in America had centers of missionary formation and training, and more, a measurable passion for the Great Commission!
In a world where Christians are the wealthiest religion on earth (not that missionary success is guaranteed by financial ability, it’s not, but it sure would help if these resources were expended by the baptized with an aim at giving God pleasure), and every remote corner of the globe is only 36 hours away by jet, could you imagine (please do!) what would happen if we lived as though the Great Commission was addressed to us! Our Church would be the Church to reach every town and village where Christ Himself intends to go! What if God’s vision for world evangelization was our own!
But when a Church, missionary by her very nature, fails to send out missionaries to reach the nearly 5,000,000,000 people, who wait in darkness and danger of hell, with the Gospel that can save, something is terribly awry. When we literally prefer to update comfortable pews for even more comfortable pews, while the poor in far off places (and not so far off places of our own cities and towns) suffer the cold of spiritual darkness and frigid nights, we behave as though our Gospel has no meaning and our Christ no power. When we are too busy for the Great Commission, we are too busy, or busy with the wrong things!
Let us pray that this World Mission Sunday, God might release us, His Church, from timid pursuits and small ideals; let us beg Him for a paradigm that creates a universal community of believers who long to see the lost saved, the poor fed, and His Kingdom come!
By Joseph Summers, Director of Family Missions Company