Moving Towards a Culture of Mission: Part Two

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 Two of the four part reflection, we explore how missionary transformation occurs in individuals and communities. (Read Part One)

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

Part Two - Missionary Transformation: Inside Out (and Outside In!) 

The notion that short-term mission or “border-crossing” experiences need to translate into holistic missionary discipleship really hit home for me while I was in Bolivia last summer.  My ministry in Maryknoll involves leading such encounters for US Catholics, but when I went to Bolivia it was my first such trip since my son had been born.  I became distinctly aware of the fact that my family was allowing me to leave them for a time to grow closer to Christ, and that I was called to let that encounter transform how I relate to everyone back home.  More than just sharing pictures and stories from my trip, I needed to bring what I experienced of God’s love home with me.  

Even with this new understanding - that mission involves both the “there” and the “here” - we need to dive deeper into our view of where mission happens.  If we think of our individual realities as ever-expanding rings, then the family would be the nucleus of our lives as disciples.  Recognizing that many of us may not have a positive experience of family in the traditional sense (spouses, parents, siblings, etc.), we can think of family as that core group of people whom any of us hold close.  This is where mission begins.  We are talking about God’s mission of love, and family is where we first learn love, and share and receive it most deeply and consistently.  It is our source, the fountain from which we drink and bring life into the larger world.  

The missionary transformation of the Church depends on truly valuing, cultivating, and supporting love as the defining characteristic of the family.  This may sound like a no-brainer, but when we think about all of the strains that exist on families in our culture - financial concerns, work schedules, academic and extracurricular pressures for students, the business and busyness that seem to envelop our lives - we see how love can often take a back seat.  This is not to mention those more extreme pressures that might exist, such as family members dealing with addiction, situations of abuse, and failing romantic relationships.  When we look out our priorities as individuals and as a culture, and at the priorities of our parishes, we need to ask ourselves: Are we placing a primary emphasis on love in the family?  (As Catholics, we may be tempted to respond that, through Church teaching, we place an emphasis on the family.  I would argue that this is a much different, more abstract question than the cultural shift for which I am advocating.) 

Our call to share God’s love extends beyond the family, of course, to the community around us.  This is the second circle of our lives as missionary disciples.  We are talking here about the relationships in our lives that occur naturally, from those with coworkers and neighbors, to the strangers we meet in our day-to-day lives.  Put simply, our challenge is to truly see Christ in the person before us.  This means putting people, and our affection for them, first.  Many of us struggle to see Christ not only in the stranger in need, but in those people in our lives that may frustrate, confuse, or even aggravate us.  To truly form a culture of mission, we need to strive towards God’s mission of love in these relationships.  In the parish context, this culture of mission is vital to living out the call and purpose of the parish itself: to be a community of disciples that forms, supports, and challenges its members in living God’s mission.

The third sphere is the most broad, and the one that we most readily associate with “mission.”  It is the sphere of the margins - all of those places that we need to intentionally seek out in order to ever encounter.  We know, of course, that Jesus sought the people on the margins, and that in them we, too, find Christ.  Still, the relationship between our encounter with people on the margins and with our families and immediate communities cannot be overstated.  In seeking the margins, we are seeking to share love.  The love that we share is the very love that we experience in our families and communities.  But we also need to remember that we seek the margins to receive love.  We may be the center of our own worlds, but we are on the margins of someone else’s, and the love we experience in relationship with them should also be returned as a gift to our families and communities.  In this way, love begets love.

It is not a matter, then, of focusing on one sphere (i.e.: family) and later moving outward.  Instead, it is a culture of seeking and sharing love everywhere.  Often, we will find a unique experience of love in one context that will call us to a greater love in others.  I had this experience on that trip to Bolivia that I mentioned earlier.  I realized in Bolivia that I was experiencing a culture of total presence.  The way that it was explained to me was that if I am on my way to a meeting in Bolivia, and a neighbor comes to the door, I need to invite that neighbor in for coffee.  I might be an hour and a half late to my meeting, but the most important person is the person in front of me.  This has informed the value I place on presence in my family, in my workplace, and in my entire life.  It is a small example of how learning something of God’s love on the margins has helped me to be a missionary disciple in every context. 

In Part Three, we will examine some the challenges to authentic mission in the parish context.