I ask you today, my brothers, to join me in reflecting on our name. We are members of the Congregation of the Mission. Saint Vincent reminds us that people from the earliest times, spontaneously called us “the missionaries” (cf. SV III, 356). The Lord sends us out. Our vocation is not to remain fixed in a single place, to sink permanent roots. Jesus speaks to us as he did to his disciples at the end of Mark’s gospel: “Go! Go into the whole world and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mk 16:15).
Mission is not merely an activity of the Church; it is its very being. Over the course of history the Church has used different images of mission1. If one thinks of the “reign of God” as the New Testament fundamental image describing God’s advent in the world through the person of Jesus, then “mission” is the image used to describe the Church’s role in spreading that reign2. As an image, “mission” has had different resonances in different eras.
Mission as crusade looks at the world as divided between good and evil, true and false. There is an atmosphere of conquest. In the best of times the conquest is primarily spiritual, but sometimes it has been quite mixed up with economic, political, and cultural power.
Mission as teaching focuses on faith as a creed or a body of truths that is to be communicated. There is a stress on knowledge and the use of preaching, teaching, writing, and the media for the communication of revealed truth.
Mission as a call to conversion stresses the need for personal change of heart. Each individual is called to be born again in response to a personal and moral challenge. Conversion is seen as a profound personal experience.
Mission as liberation aims at the transformation of life starting here and now, though it is not limited to the present. It promotes healing, development, and justice, as the reign of God comes to be realized.
Mission as witness focuses on Christian life as a silent but active presence in the midst of a hostile world. The Church lives as a leaven in the diaspora. The minister builds up model communities of service and fellowship.
Mission as inculturation evokes the need for Christianity to become incarnate in a particular culture. The gospel interfaces with local cultural, purifying it and at the same time incorporating its riches, maintaining a unity of meaning within a plurality of expressions.
Mission as dialogue recognizes other religions as positive elements in God’s saving plan. One sees in them the hidden or preparatory activity of the Spirit. The Church in that context is seen as fulfillment, explicitation, or sacramental fullness.
Mission as pilgrimage envisions walking with God and with others in the fulfillment of God’s plan for the universe, where God’s action is mixed up with human imperfection and sinfulness. It envisions the Church as existing for the world, called to animate a movement of peoples toward the realization of God’s reign, which is both historical and eschatological.
Mission as prophecy radicalizes the proclamation of the good news as it confronts the deficiencies of human cultures and oppressive structures. It seeks to transform culture, to be critical of the easy legitimations of religion, and to challenge the oppressive economico-political and sociocultural structures.
All of these images tell us something about mission. They all have their strengths and weaknesses. Each has time-conditioned elements. Each contains an abiding truth. While some (e.g., the image of crusade) are much more time-conditioned than others, we can learn from them all. In fact, each provides abundant material for meditation.
What then does it mean to be a missionary today? This is a crucial question for us, since it touches on our identity. There is no doubt about our calling: we are members of the Congregation of the Mission.
Some Characteristics of Missionaries Today
Let me simply outline for you some characteristics of a missionary today. There are surely many others. I encourage you to supplement the list with your own reflections.
An international perspective, a global world view
Three signs, especially, will witness to global awareness in the Congregation.
A first, concrete sign of this awareness is the ability to respond to urgent needs throughout the world. Do not let provincial ties and provincial needs hold you back. When the needs of the Church are greater elsewhere, go with liberty.
A second sign of an international perspective in the Congregation is solidarity among the provinces. I urge you to cooperate with one another. This is already taking place through national and regional meetings of Visitors, but I especially want to encourage you to cooperate in regard to the formation of candidates and in regard to assistance to poorer provinces. There are some things that we can do much better together than separately. Moreover, those of us who are better off materially can surely be of great assistance to those who have less.
Thirdly, a healthy sign of global awareness in the Congregation will be the presence in the General Curia and on our various commissions of confreres of various races and from all continents. An international Congregation needs ties between the center and the provinces. As the provinces of the “Third Church” continue to grow, good communication with the center will be an utter necessity.
Mobility and spreading of the good news
The Church exists to evangelize, to proclaim that Jesus is Lord. So too does the Congregation. This means that the members of the Congregation will be agile, quick to move when new needs arise. Our love will be expansive, like a fire. We will want to tell others the good news that Jesus is alive and present.
I pose this question: Could every province of the Congregation of the Mission take on the responsibility for a mission outside its own territory? In addition, could the Congregation become more missionary not just territorially, but in the heart and will of its members, showing great flexibility in moving to wherever the needs of the poor cry out, both within one’s province and outside?
One of the signs that the Congregation is filled with a mobile missionary spirit will be the willingness to relinquish works that are firmly established, and which others can carry on, in order to free confreres for more pressing needs that others are unwilling or unable to meet.
The accent here is on a supple mentality in regard to evangelization. In a time of rapid change, rigidity is an enemy and flexibility an ally. For example, one of the most significant changes that has taken place in the Church since Vatican II is in the role of the laity. Today we are conscious more than ever that lay people have an essential role in announcing the good news3. It is for that reason that our Constitutions call the priests and brothers of the Congregation not only to evangelize the poor as missionaries, but to form others—priests, brothers, sisters, lay men and women—to participate more fully in the evangelization of the poor (C 1). Are we flexible in accepting the important roles of lay men and women in evangelizing? Do we have the suppleness to co-operate harmoniously with them?
A greater pluralism in theological perspective and a greater variety in the plans for local community living also demand a flexible mentality. It is crucial that we have the flexibility to live and work with people of differing theological perspectives. In dialoguing and deciding about our local community plans, moreover, much give-and-take is essential.
Saint Vincent asked, “How can missionaries go throughout the world announcing the Gospel if they know only their own language?” (SV XII, 26-27)
We are an international congregation. We labor in more than seventy countries. Missionary mobility demands that as many of our members as possible be bilingual.
There is always the danger that the ideas, the customs, even the building styles of one world will simply be transported to another. Our great missionaries, like Justin de Jacobis, recognized from the start that this is insufficient. The gospel must take root and blossom within the deepest values of each culture. At the same time, it must transform what is not of God within a culture and what violates the human person.
Karl Rahner points out that the globalization of theology is one of the greatest needs of the Church in the years ahead. He notes that up to the present there has been an unfortunate tendency to “canonize” what was really only a manifestation of the thought patterns of western culture4. Right now, many younger and growing provinces, and particularly those responsible for formation within them, face the difficult challenge of teaching philosophy and theology (so often formulated in a European context), while searching for new categories in an African, Asian or South American setting. Similarly, they search for the appropriate forms of expressing poverty, chastity, obedience, and life-long commitment to the poor within cultures very different not only from Saint Vincent’s, but also from those of the writers of most of the philosophy, theology, and spiritual reading books written up until recent times. In our service to the diocesan clergy, and in the formation of our own candidates, are we finding the means to present a truly inculturated theology and spirituality?
Along these same lines, the place of women in society and the social mores in relating to them vary greatly from North to South and, in both hemispheres, from continent to continent. To talk with a woman on the street may be as “natural” in Los Angeles as it is “scandalous” in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania. The missionary must know the difference.
Listening for calls
A missionary seeks not his own will but the will of Him who sends him. He is ready to respond to the needs of his religious community and God’s people. The calls of God’s people are very important. Our own gifts and talents are too. Most modern religious communities attempt to fit calls to the gifts and talents of their individual members. In this context, it is important for every member of the Congregation to let himself be challenged. We must listen well, especially when we are tempted to seek our own security, to remain where we are. Often, responses to challenging calls draw forth from us resources whose existence we never dreamed of; not only do we serve those who are crying out for help, but we also find ourselves growing in the process.
The Congregation must continue to emphasize, and find creative means for, integral formation on both initial and ongoing levels. Such integral formation has various aspects: human, spiritual, apostolic, Vincentian, biblical, theological, professional. On all levels, the person himself would be seen as the one primarily responsible for his own formation.
I encourage the provinces to be especially attentive to the formation of confreres in the early years after vows or ordination. Bring them together often to share their experiences. Offer them wise mentors. Help them build a deep spiritual foundation, a rootedness in God. It is only in this way that they will be fully alive and persevering in the evangelization of the poor.
Creativity in defining missionary work
Saint Vincent tells us: “Love is inventive to the point of infinity” (SV XI, 146). Over the years, I have admired many confreres for their inventiveness. Because they live in daily contact with the poor they are among the first to know their real needs. It will not be I, who am sitting behind a desk or visiting the provinces. It will not be sociologists or economists, who study the needs of the poor by examining the data they receive. The confreres who are front-line workers will know ahead of us, because the poor will tell them directly. I want to encourage all our missionaries to be inventive in the service of the needs that you discover. Pose the question individually and as a local community: What is this poor person asking of me concretely? What is the deepest need of the person listening to my homily? What is the refugee in a camp in Africa asking? What is the sick person in his or her home crying out for? What is the AIDS patient’s acutest pain? Then be creative in ministering to their needs.
For a variety of reasons, particularly the shortage of vocations, in some countries our service in seminaries has been significantly reduced. An important challenge that lies before us as Vincentians is to find other creative means of assisting in the formation of the diocesan clergy in those circumstances.
Expertise in the social teaching of the Church
Pope John Paul H writes very forcefully in Centesimus Annus: The ‘new evangelization,’ which the modem world urgently needs and which I have emphasized many times, must include among its essential elements a proclamation of the Church’s social doctrine” (#5). The Church has been proclaiming this doctrine in a rather clear way now for more than one hundred years. Are Catholics really well evangelized in this regard? Is this social doctrine part of their explicit consciousness? I ask all Vincentians to become “experts” in teaching this social doctrine. As followers of Christ, the Evangelizer of the Poor, we must proclaim this aspect of the reign of God by our words and by our works. We must hold up before others the Church’s rich teaching, its vision of a kingdom of justice, its denunciation of unjust social structures, its proclamation that the poor must, in every era, occupy a central place in the consciousness of Christians. In our formation work, with both clergy and laity, we must present this social teaching with both clarity and urgency.
Our mission will be truly prophetic today if we preach and teach the Church’s social doctrine clearly. And like many prophets, we may perhaps suffer as we do so.
Being a man of God
Witness speaks more eloquently than words. Our lives inevitably say much more than our sermons.
For Vincent de Paul, there is only one driving force: the person of Jesus Christ. “Jesus Christ is the rule of the Mission” (SV XII, 130)5, he tells the members of the Congregation of the Mission, the center of their life and activity. “Remember, Father,” he writes to Monsieur Portail, one of the original members of the Congregation, “that we live in Jesus Christ by the death of Jesus Christ, and that we ought to die in Jesus Christ by the life of Jesus Christ, and that our life ought to be hidden in Jesus Christ and full of Jesus Christ, and that in order to die like Jesus Christ it is necessary to live like Jesus Christ” (SV I, 295).
Vincent warns his followers that they will find true freedom only when Christ takes hold of them. He writes to Antoine Durand, the newly appointed superior of the seminary at Agde: “It is therefore essential for you, Father, to empty yourself in order to put on Jesus Christ” (SV XI, 343-44).
We fulfill our mission only if we follow Christ as the Evangelizer of the Poor and put on his spirit (C 1), if, as our Constitutions put it, we are holy.
Today, as in every era, the Church needs saints. It needs missionaries who are simple, humble, gentle, self-sacrificing, and filled with effective love. It needs preachers who radiate God’s presence. The great missionary is not so much a man whose words are beautiful as a man whose life is striking.
Let me state it very clearly: the missionary today must be holy. Unless he is a man of God, he will not be genuinely effective, nor is he likely to persevere.
It is not the loss of numbers that the Congregation must fear (in fact, our numbers are reasonably stable). It is not the loss of institutions. What we must really fear is the loss of fire in our hearts. What burns in the heart of the true missionary is a deep yearning, a longing to follow Christ as the Evangelizer of the Poor. The genuinely holy missionary presences Christ’s love. Others sense it in him. He could not hide it even if he wanted to.
To be a missionary–that is our calling. Breathe deeply, my brothers, of the missionary spirit that Saint Vincent inspired in the Congregation. Let it fill your minds and hearts. Then, go. “Go into the whole world and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mk 16:15).
- For much of the analysis of images of mission, I am deeply indebted to M. Amaladoss, “Religious in Mission,” a conference given at the International Congress of the Union of Superiors General, Rome, November 22-27, 1993.
- S. Schneiders. The Revelarory Trxr (San Francisco: Harper, 1991) 32.
- Chrissifideles Laici, 7.
- Cf. Citation in W. Buhlrnarm, The Church of the Future (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1986) 193
- Cf. also XI, 53: “Let us walk with assurance on the royal road on which Jesus Christ will be our guide and leader.”