Longing to be Sent: What Are We Missing with our Catholic Youth?

In my ministry as a Maryknoll mission educator, I often speak to students at Catholic high schools and universities about the mission of the Church.  Initially, most meet me with a fair amount of skepticism.  To them, missionaries are associated with a long history of oppressing and enslaving indigenous peoples, supposedly in the name of God.  But you might be surprised at how quickly many, if not most, of these young people abandon that skepticism when I begin to share stories of missioners serving around the world.  I share stories of people working with local communities to provide young people with an education, or to develop a sustainable source of drinking water.  Students cannot help but be inspired.

This is not a testament to my own abilities as a speaker - the joy of encountering Christ in the world, of sharing love with God's many children, is infectious.  I simply tell of the same people and experiences that inspire me on a daily basis.  Seeing that awe in young people when they hear these examples of God's mission of love does make me wonder, though, Why is this news to them?  As I said, these are students in Catholic institutions, many of whom have received many years of Catholic formation.  And yet, hearing about the mission of the Jesus being lived today seems to hit them like a breath of fresh air.  They say to me, "I didn't know that the Church does things like this," or, "I needed to hear this right now."

In many ways, I was once in their same position.  I was raised Catholic and went to fine Catholic schools.  And yet, as a younger person, I didn't really feel that the Church was about anything.  It was not until after my undergraduate studies, when I joined a Catholic service-through-teaching program, that my faith really came alive.  Suddenly, I was able to connect what I did in the world with my faith life.  Prayer became more meaningful and intentional, the Mass transformative.  My relationship with God became colored by my relationship with the world, and my relationship with the world became more and more motivated by the relationship that I strove to have with God.

I have seen many studies over the years about the "number of Catholics" in the US.  These studies tend to rely almost exclusively on measures of people being gathered, with little or no focus on people being sent.  We count how many people attend Mass, how many send their kids to Catholic schools, how many are married in the Church or have their children baptized.  These are all central measures of the vibrancy of the Church, but so, too, are others measures.  How many volunteer in local Catholic charities?  How many have spent time working with the poor and vulnerable?  How many have adopted lay ministries that serve others, particularly beyond the parish walls?

We spend a lot of effort counting how many of us are in here praying and breaking bread as Jesus taught us, but not a lot measuring how many of us are out there living as Jesus taught us.  Most local Catholics simply do not see themselves as missionaries, and most of us do not see our church as a church that sends.  But our deepest desire is to be sent by God to serve the world.  We long for God, but just as we cannot fully know God without prayer and contemplation, we also cannot fully know God without transforming that prayer into a relationship with Christ as he is found in our brothers and sisters.

Or, to put it in the concise words of Pope Francis, "The salt that we have received is to be given out, to be given away, to spice things up: otherwise, it becomes bland and useless."  I think we often forget that for the disciples, following Christ was a balance of listening and acting; an experience of both praying with Jesus, and being sent to serve as he served.  And, in being sent, they found great joy.

Kevin Foy is a mission promoter for the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers in the Pacific Northwest.