In this Extra-ordinary Month of Mission, it is interesting to notice how our understanding of mission has developed over the past fifty years or so. When I was growing up, supporting the missions meant praying for and financially supporting Irish missionaries working abroad. Almost every parish knew of someone who had volunteered for the foreign missions and who was working or had worked abroad. The vast majority of these people were priests and religious. This was the focus for Mission Sunday.
Then there was a shift in our understanding of how everyone is called to mission from their baptism. This change was closely linked to the idea of vocation and the universal call to holiness outlined at Vatican II. All the baptised have a vocation from God and not just priests and religious. Because this is true then all the baptised have a mission and are sent by the Lord with his power as witnesses to the Gospel and to serve his kingdom. This was an idea promoted many years before by Blessed John Henry Newman who will be canonised a saint of the Church this Sunday (13th October). It is the spirituality of Newman’s vocation prayer that he composed to mobile the missionary spirit of all Christians. It is worth reflecting on here, on this special weekend when Newman’s brilliance and holiness are recognised:
“God has created me to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission. I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons.
He has not created me for naught. I shall do good; I shall do His work. I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it if I do but keep His commandments.
Therefore, I will trust Him, whatever I am, I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him, in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him. If I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him. He does nothing in vain. He knows what He is about. He may take away my friends. He may throw me among strangers. He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide my future from me. Still, He knows what He is about.”
St John Paul II took up this theme of mission again in his encyclical on the lay vocation in Christifideles Laici published in 1988. There he taught how all the baptised are called to holiness and how all are called to participate in the mission of the Church entrusted to her by Christ to established his kingdom in all the places, times and circumstances. All Christians are called to carry their faith and values into the arena of their daily lives of work, family and society, using their God given gifts for the benefit of everyone and to build up the Church. In the same document, the Pope also acknowledged the increasing number of lay faithful who have volunteered for the foreign missions and who work generously side by side with priests and religious in parts of the developing world.
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI took up this theme of mission with his first encyclical ‘God is Love’. There he spelled out how the three great tasks of the Church as – to worship God; to proclaim and teach the Gospel; to serve the poor. Regarding this last calling to serve the poor, Pope Benedict insisted that it is not possible for any State to cater for all the charitable needs of its citizens and so there will always be a need for the mission of charity and mercy to which the Church must dedicate itself: ‘Love—caritas—will always prove necessary, even in the most just society. There is no ordering of the State so just that it can eliminate the need for a service of love….This love does not simply offer people material help, but refreshment and care for their souls, something which often is even more necessary than material support’ (28).
Later in his Pontificate, Benedict XVI further developed the teaching of the Church and the mission of the lay faithful. He said: ‘it is necessary to improve pastoral structures in such a way that the co-responsibility of all the members of the People of God in their entirety is gradually promoted…This demands a change in mindset, particularly concerning lay people. They must no longer be viewed as "collaborators" of the clergy but truly recognized as "co-responsible", for the Church's being and action’ (26th May 2009). This means that the laity are co-responsible for the Church’s mission.
From the outset of his papacy, Pope Francis has insisted that the Church must ‘go forth’ to the world with the Gospel of mercy, especially to those on the margins and periphery of society. More than his predecessors, he has invested energy and resources to specific issues like migrants and refugees, victims of human trafficking and climate justice. Time and time again, he reminds us that to be a committed Christian, we must not remain indifferent to these global issues of our time. He insists that the mission of the Church and the mission of every Christian is to tackle these issues and to bring Christ’s salvation to bear on them in concrete and creative ways.
Standing back from these developments in our understanding of mission, we began to notice how our call to mission has expanded and grown over the years. We have moved from thinking our support of the missions as being limited to priests and religious abroad, to realising that we all have a vocation of being co-responsible for the Church’s mission and being aware that the great challenges facing humanity is part of our responsibility too. We are being stretched to think of the whole human family who are our brothers and sisters. Such a shift can seem overwhelming and we could be tempted to say to ourselves ‘so what can I possible do to help?’ But before we can do anything perhaps, the first shift to make is how we think of those that seem far away from us. In the words of St John Paul II, what we need is a spirituality of communion that unites us as part of a global Church that has a global mission: ‘A spirituality of communion also means an ability to think of our brothers and sisters in faith within the profound unity of the Mystical Body, and therefore as "those who are a part of me", (Pope John Paul II, Novo Millennio Ineunte, 43).
Next week we celebrate World Mission Sunday that has its theme this year -‘Together we are Mission’. Each one of us and all of us together are responsible for the Church’s mission to unite all God’s family and bring his saving work to the ends of the earth. Never before have we greater knowledge of the world and the plight of her peoples. With modern communications we are aware that so many in our human family are in need. This Extra-Ordinary Month of Mission is a time to see ourselves as co-responsible for doing all we can together and doing it with great love. Yes, charity begins at home but it doesn’t end there. May our call to mission embrace the entire human family to which we belong.