Moving Towards a Culture of Mission (Full Text)

This article appeared previously in four parts.  Here now is the full text.

Moving Towards a Culture of Mission
By Kevin Foy
Associate Director, Western Region
Maryknoll Mission Education and Promotion
Download (PDF) 

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.   

Part Two - Missionary Transformation: Inside Out 

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. 

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. 

Part Four: Towards a Culture of Mission 

The nature of mission and the challenges to living it described previously set the stage for how we can begin to authentically move towards a culture of mission in our communities.  First and foremost, we need to remember that it’s God’s mission, not my mission.  (It would bring us a long way towards true missionary discipleship if we included that statement in our daily prayers.)  In terms of living out this understanding, there are a few things right off the bat that we can and should strive to incorporate and internalize in our communities:

  1. Make discernment and prayer the foundation of all that we do.  How often to we jump into strategy and action without praying together about what God wants for and from us, and how God wants us to live this out?  (And since our primary guide for how to “do” mission is the life of Jesus, the Gospel is essential to this discernment.)
  2. Let go of control.  We all want things the way that we want them, but mission is about a community of disciples responding to the Holy Spirit.  When we put our own vision and desires on hold in favor of collaboration and discernment, we are opening the door to God’s mission.  This also requires faith that God’s mission will bring us true joy in a way that our own never can.
  3. Put relationships ahead of business.  In any and every sphere, entering into loving relationship with those around us is the primary “business” of mission.  Without agenda, we need to seek Christ in the people in our lives first and foremost.  Whatever good or important work that comes out of this is secondary.  When we gather, we should let this principle guide how we spend our time.
  4. Involve everyone.  Often, we are afraid to authentically involve others in something because joining others as equals means letting go of control (hey, wasn’t that #2?).  Because of this, we may try to limit the contributions of others to financial support or performing tasks that we assign them.  Mission needs to include everyone, and in ways that allows each person to respond to how God is calling him in his life, in his moment, and with his gifts.
  5. Look outward!  This an ongoing process.  In looking outward, you may discern the call to a sister parish relationship.  You may then discern a call for your community to minister with the homeless in your city.  Maybe God is also calling members of your community to build relationships with homebound parishioners.  And on it goes, always outward.

Mission will never be a static endeavor, and a culture of mission will seek to share love in ever more ways and places.  As Father John Sivalon, former superior general of the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers, writes: “[Missionaries] all have this sense that God is with them, that God is guiding them in varied and mysterious ways, and that they absolutely need to listen to that God with the gift of uncertainty, knowing that God is continually calling us to be more than what we are, to know more than what we know, and to do more than what we do.”  

In moving towards a culture of mission, we are trusting God with uncertainty.  And we do so in the faith that love is infinite; the more we share, the more we will find.