Moving Towards a Culture of Mission: Part One

Cultivating a true Culture of Mission in our Catholic parishes and communities is in many ways the essential challenge of our Church today.  In Part One of the four part reflection, we examine what this really means.

By Kevin Foy
Associate Director, Western Region
Maryknoll Mission Education and Promotion

Part One - A Culture of Bridging Distances

One of the challenges in mission is dispelling the notion that missionaries are those chosen few sent out to do wonderful things in the world, while the rest of us stay home.  In the past, this mantle was reserved almost solely for the women and men religious of missionary societies and orders (like Maryknoll).  Today, we tend also to include lay people who go out into the world, and even may have “mission projects” in our parish, such as a sister parish relationship.  While these are welcome developments, one of the essential challenges today is to move beyond the “special” person/project view of mission to embrace mission as the defining characteristic and purpose of our Church.  Put more simply, we need to move towards a culture of mission.

To talk about a culture of mission, we need at least a baseline understanding of what “mission” means in the Catholic context.  In plainest terms, we are talking about God’s mission of love, which we are called to bring into the world.  The question of how we do this can and should be complex and challenging.  For our purposes here, though, it is most important to know simply that the “how” is rooted in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ.  When Jesus sat at the table with outcasts, when he conversed with the Samaritan woman at the well, when he called upon his disciples to share what little bread and fish they had with the community around them, he was showing us how to evangelize - how to share and receive God’s love.  This is at the heart of what it means to be a disciple of Christ.

We do this, of course, in community.  Discipleship is defined through relationship, both with God and one another.  The question we must always ask ourselves is whether our community is one of missionary disciples; whether our Church is God’s Missionary Church.  Pope Francis offers us beautiful, challenging language around what such a Church might look like: “An evangelizing community,” he says, “gets involved by word and deed in people’s daily lives; it bridges distances, it is willing to abase itself if necessary, and it embraces human life, touching the suffering flesh of Christ in others” (Evangelii Gaudium, 24).  This speaks to the very reason that God’s mission has a Church.

Every community has margins to reach, distances to bridge.  One of the programs that we offer in Maryknoll, in collaboration with the Columban Fathers, is an immersion to the border towns of El Paso, Texas, and Juarez, Mexico.  Participants spend time on either side of the border, experiencing the realities of people and how the Church is walking with them.  The seeming arbitrariness of the border fence, and the impact that it has on people’s lives, provides a powerful example of how we as a human race are a divided people.  Still, even in communities where no literal border fences exist, strong divisions do - economic divisions, racial/ethnic divisions, divisions of privilege and prejudice.  When we talk about “evangelizing communities,” we are really talking about communities that seek to unify a divided world in love and justice, as Jesus did and Christians (though admittedly not always) have been seeking to do ever since Jesus began showing us the way.

The challenge is not only that our Catholic parishes and Western culture tend be too inwardly focused, but also that we see this activity of bridging distances as relegated to specific times, places, and people.  For instance, we send our youth on a two-week mission trip to Tijuana and check off “mission” from our yearly tasklist.  While there is real value in crossing physical borders on these short-term experiences, we need to build on these experiences to move towards an integrated missionary discipleship in our Catholic communities.

In Part Two, we will explore how missionary transformation occurs in individuals and communities.