How Can I Call Myself a Missionary?

Fr. Bob McCahill is one of those people that disorients our sense of discipleship.  Ordained a Maryknoll priest fifty years ago, he spent his first eleven years in the Philippines.  While there, he would hear year after year reports of tragedy from Bangladesh - floods, famines, war.  He felt God calling him to live and serve among the poor of that predominantly Muslim country.  And he answered that call.  For the past thirty-nine years he has lived as a missioner there, moving to a new town every three years, seeking out those most in need.  He lives among the people in huts that he builds himself; he serves without an agenda, seeking merely to love and heal the outcast as Jesus did.

During the past week, Fr. Bob has been visiting us in Seattle, and I have had the privilege of spending some time with him.  He calls these trips - about six weeks every three years - his "vacation," but in fact fills them with presentations on the people with whom he lives.  As he told me, his visits to the US are "all about mission."  This is what I mean about disorienting.  Pope Francis says that, "Every Christian is a missionary to the extent that he or she has encountered the love of God in Christ Jesus" (Evangelii Gaudium).  I certainly count myself as a missionary along these lines.  Still, the example of someone like Fr. Bob can throw our identities as missionary disciples into disarray.  We ask ourselves, "How can I call myself a missionary with a witness like him in the world?"

In our work in mission education, we often use Fr. Bob as an example of mission today.  Those we accompany on their own mission journeys grapple with the same questions.  Holding ourselves up to the great saints of our day can definitely further us in our discernment: Is it simply that we are all called to do what Fr. Bob is doing, but lack the faith?  Spending time with Fr. Bob this week, though, helped me begin to grasp a much a deeper understanding of what his example means for us.  Hearing him speak about his love for the people of Bangladesh and hearing how the healing ministry of Jesus guides his own ministry, I realized that he is more responsive to the person that God calls him to be than perhaps anyone I have ever met.  He abides in God's love, which guides him in a deeply personalized commissioning to missionary discipleship.

Recently, I heard the missiologist Anthony Gittens, CSSp, speak on the notion that there is no such thing as a "generic disciple."  That is to say, every missionary disciple will face a distinct call based on her or his gifts, faults, and role in God's love for creation.  He used as an example the story of the Rich Man, whom Jesus tells with love to "go sell what you have and give to the poor" (Mark 10:21).  He makes the point that, in that occurrence, the man is seeking to grow more responsive to God's call.  Jesus, he argues, is pointing him to the things in his life and at that moment that are preventing him from experiencing the joy of discipleship.  I think we need to consider the witness of someone like Bob McCahill in this light.  He has a call and path specific to God's love for him and the world.

The temptation for us, of course, is to distance ourselves too much from how Fr. Bob responds.  We cannot simply say, "Well, that's not for me."  Missionary discipleship is not about choosing a path or lifestyle, but choosing to respond to God.  We need to put ourselves in the place of the Rich Man.  We see Jesus on the road.  We run up to him and ask him, "How do I follow you more authentically?"  He looks at us, and loves us, and says, "You are lacking in one thing..."  How does that sentence end for you, in this moment?  What keeps you from going where you are called?  What is preventing you from entering into and sharing in the awesome love of God?

Kevin Foy is Associate Director for Maryknoll Mission Education in the Western United States