Do We HAVE to Use the Word 'Mission'?

A lot of Catholics have trouble with the word "mission." When they hear of a "missionary Church," they think of colonialism, oppression, forced conversion, cultural degradation, and a host of other negative perceptions arising out of past (and sometimes present) injustices committed supposedly in the name of God. Given this cultural understanding, it is not surprising that in our ministry in mission education we often receive some version of the following feedback: "This all sounds great...but do we HAVE to use the word 'mission'?"

At a recent talk by a Maryknoll priest, this struggle was brought up in a way that I had not considered before. He used a PowerPoint presentation to show images that he found when he searched the Internet for the word, "Jihad." As you might expect, he found pictures closely associated with war and terrorism. But then, he gave us the following definition of jihad: "To abandon ego in order to submit to the will of God." This is a notion quite different from not only the images he found, but from how most non-Muslims in the West understand the word, an understanding that can cause a lot of turmoil among Muslims. My wife, for instance, has a friend whose first name is Jihad, and we have been given dirty looks when simply discussing her in public.

So, the question becomes, do we abandon a central, beautiful principle of our faith because it has been subverted by others? I cannot pretend to answer that question for the word "jihad," but we in the Catholic faith need to grapple with this question when it comes to the word "mission." For me, it is essential, and the best way that I can demonstrate this is to consider the words that people often suggest as substitutes, words like "service," "social ministry," and "charity."

The problem with these terms is that while mission may involve all, taken alone or even together they do not express the depth and breadth of mission. Not even close. Whereas mission defines who we are as people made in the image and likeness of God, these terms are often taken as add-ons. They do not put God at the center, and when we view mission in this light, it creates a barrier to continued conversion. It becomes a thing that I do, maybe an offshoot of my faith but not central to it. "I do mission on Wednesdays when I volunteer at the soup kitchen." While serving at the soup kitchen would, of course, be part of living the mission, the call to cross borders and find Christ in others permeates our life, not only that couple of hours one afternoon a week.

Another problem with these terms is that they frame mission as merely an act of giving, not one of experiencing and receiving. When we talk about participating in God's mission, we are talking about sharing and receiving God's love, seeking it in those places that others do not think to look, and finding joy with brothers and sisters we didn't know we had. By framing mission as merely a giving of time or money is to ignore the seeking, gratitude, and need for relationship that define and fulfill us.

In acknowledging the abuses of the word mission, we grapple with the dangers of letting anything but God drive the mission. But to reclaim mission is to strive to live up to its challenge: to abandon our own desires, our need for control, the divisions that we cling to, and walk towards the Reign of God, a Kingdom of love without exceptions, true peace, justice, and one human community.