Moving Towards a Culture of Mission: Part Three

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 Three of the four part reflection, we examine some the challenges to authentic mission in the parish context.  (Read Part One / Read Part Two) 

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

Part Three: Mission Roadblocks 

In a recent issue of Maryknoll magazine, I read about Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in Nairobi, Kenya (see article).  The article explains that the deaf have traditionally been marginalized in Kenyan society, and that this parish takes great pains to include them.  They do so by reserving the front rows of the 11:30am Sunday Mass for members of the deaf community, offering sign language classes, having a signer at Mass so that people with hearing impairments can participate fully in prayers, hymns, and the sacraments, and even petitioning bishops to allow the deaf to join the priesthood and religious life.  This parish is leading the way in modeling inclusiveness of the deaf in a society which traditionally has not included them fully. 

When we read stories like these, we need to move beyond “feeling good” about them to asking ourselves what sorts of challenges they lay out for us.  Let’s, for instance, try to measure ourselves up against Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish.  Does “radical inclusion” define the parishes to which we belong?  Do we discern who are marginalized in our community?  Do we reach out to them in order to join them as equals?  Do we give up or alter our own ways of worshipping and relating to accommodate their needs?  Do we welcome them as possible leaders?  Do we love them as we love ourselves and our closest friends and family?

We have a tendency to content ourselves in where we are at and ignore the divine call to more.  We say that we are a “multicultural” parish because of the ethnic makeup of our members, even if the parish actually consists of multiple, separate communities under one roof.  While celebrating and embracing diversity, we need to grapple with the question of how we truly become one.  And just as our own families cannot form a closed border to this greater sense of oneness, so, too, our parishes must look beyond themselves to seek oneness with everyone beyond the parish walls, without exception.  One of the biggest challenges to mission is the structure of the parish itself, so that an inward focus tends to overwhelm our energies.  Mass attendance, the annual auction, the choir recital - we spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about how to minister to ourselves and keep the wheels turning. 

And, of course, the parish does not exist for itself.  It exists to form and send us on mission.  Traditionally, we try to respond to this call solely in terms of projects, such as service trips and, increasingly, sister parish relationships.  Both can be wonderful, life-giving endeavors for parishes, but even here we need to be wary of the trappings of limiting our sense of mission to this context.  First, we need to avoid this sense that mission is for the select few (in this case, those with the time and resources to, say, visit a sister parish in Haiti).  If we are all missionary disciples, then a culture of mission will be a culture in which we encourage everyone to participate.  That means helping people discern how God is calling them, not trying to fit people into a box already prescribed by a parish committee.

Even for those that can spend time beyond their borders, we need to keep in mind that mission is a 24/7 activity, not something that we only participate in for a week or two each year.  When we think of a missionary living in another country, we tend to see her mission activity as defined by the specifics of where she goes.  In reality, like all of us, she is called to somewhere outside of her comfort zone, and then responds to that call in whatever moment she finds herself.  The fact that she may have been called to Uganda and that I may be called to the margins of my life in Seattle does not mean I can count myself as any less of a missionary.  It is this dual activity of following God outward and responding as Christ would in every moment that define the missionary disciple.

The “seeking” nature of mission highlighted above also speaks to one of the challenges we often face in missionary programs such as sister parishes.  When our projects take precedence, they can often close the door to where God calls us.  Suddenly, the sister parish becomes just another program in competition for funds, time, and attention.  On a micro-level, our vision for that program becomes a point of contention among members of our committees and community.  At this point, we are nothing like the “evangelizing community” that Pope Francis speaks of, but individual people working to advance our own specific missions.  In God’s mission, the seeking always comes before the acting. 

In Part Four, we will look at some starting points for moving towards a culture of mission.