On the first Sunday of this Extraordinary Mission Month convoked by Pope Francis, we looked at the first thing he wanted us to reflect on, i.e. the personal encounter with Jesus as the motivation for us to be missionaries. On the second Sunday, the second theme of the Pope was to treasure and imitate the witness of missionary saints and martyrs. I shared with you my own experience in El Salvador in 1989 of the assassination of the Jesuits. Last Sunday, the third Sunday, we had a “welcome interruption” in that Bishop Nolan made a pastoral visit to us and gave a beautiful homily on the need to pray perseveringly.
Returning to the themes offered for our reflection by the Pope, the third is that we each pursue our own missionary formation; the fourth is that we each exercise missionary charity. So, on this last Sunday of October, I want to speak to you about these two things together.
When we speak about missionary formation, the Pope does not just mean that we read magazines about the missions, or listen attentively to the stories which missionaries tell us when they come to the parish to ask for financial help. That’s all certainly good, but the Pope means something much closer to home. He means that I pursue the formation I need for my very own personal mission.
Which begs the question: my mission? Do I have such a thing?
Yes, you do! The very fact that you exist speaks to your mission. The Lord has created each of us as unique because he has a unique mission for each one of us. Our unique identity points to our unique mission. St. John Henry Newman, canonized by Pope Francis only a couple of weeks ago, wrote: “God has created me to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission. I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. He has not created me for naught. I shall do good; I shall do His work.”
So, none of us is surplus. None of us can be told, “blend into the background.” By God’s will and doing, we each have a mission. Let me emphasize, though, that the mission is from God. People often speak of their mission in life but use words like, “I have made it my mission in life to do this or that.” But our real mission is not one we confect for ourselves or one imposed on us by others, however well- meaning. Only God knows our true mission. Only he can reveal it to us. Mission is just another word for destiny or purpose. Our God-given mission is our meaning as persons. It is the key to our own true life. If Christ himself was sent into the world to perform the mission of salvation, we, too, have been sent into the world to participate in a unique way in that mission.
Knowing that we have a mission demands that we seek to know what it is. Broadly speaking, there are at least four major paths in life which point to the mission God has for us.
The most common path, and the most fundamental, is marriage. It is the foundation of humanity and perpetuates humanity. Marriage as intended by God, indeed as commanded by God, is noble and beautiful. It is a mission because it is a vocation, a love-giving and life-giving vocation. It is the bedrock of society and the Church and so it demands fidelity until death. So noble is marriage that Christ took it and made it a sacrament of salvation, the sacrament of his spousal love for humanity gathered in the Church. Today, we have so damaged marriage as a society and reduced its unique power and beauty to something offensive to God. We need to rediscover it as a mission from God!
Another path is that of religious life. Men and women commit themselves to living out alone or in community the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience in imitation of Jesus. They mirror the very lifestyle of Jesus to the world. Again, in our day, these vows are demeaned by the money-grabbing, sex-saturated and arrogant lifestyles we can see around us. Religious life shines a light into this darkness and offers hope to those suffocated by excess.
A third path is that of holy orders, the call and mission to be a deacon, a priest or a bishop. It’s the path along which the Lord has called me for his own kind and inscrutable purposes. He continues to call others to this path today, but his voice is either drowned out or goes unheeded because the attraction of the world is so loud and enticing.
A fourth path is that of the single life outside holy orders or religious life. It’s perhaps more difficult to conceive of as a mission, but if someone has felt called to live in this way the challenge is to try and interpret the will of God in it. Many have given their lives to serve others in this way in manifold sectors of life: missionary work, teaching, medical services, writing, etc.. It is true that many are single because things did not work out as they would have wished: perhaps a relationship that never happened, or one that broke down, etc.. In any case, the concrete situation in which we find ourselves always has written into it an invitation to mission. We need to find it!
How do I know which of these paths to follow? I think we have to listen and reflect on three concentric circles.
The first circle is my own self. As I get older, I begin to know myself, my strengths and weaknesses, my gifts and abilities. I come to the realisation, sometimes the stark realisation, that I am not as bright or witty or open to people as I thought. I learn whether my character is suitable for this or that path of vocation. So, I need first to listen to “who I am” and reflect on how that fits or does not fit with a particular mission.
At the same time, I listen to the broader circle around me: my family, friends, school and social communities. People will reflect back to me what I am like. Someone might even say, “you’d make a great father, husband, priest” or whatever. Others might surprise us by saying, “you’re a great listener”, “you are very sympathetic”, etc.. I should take on board what people feed back to me, not necessarily as Gospel, but as indications of how I come across to people.
Most importantly, the third and widest circle is to listen to Almighty God. What I think of myself and what others think of me find their truest measure in what the Lord reveals to me about myself. He has worked through others’ and my own reflections, but only when we go to him in his Word, in prayer and in the sacraments, do we find that deep confidence in discovering our missionary path. We need to ask him! Repeatedly! And to listen to him! Always!
Once we then choose our path under God’s guidance, our missionary formation takes the next step. Once we know what our mission is, we must set ourselves to know our mission. No-one who chooses a profession turns up to clock in without having prepared himself. And once clocked in, he knows he has to keep himself up to date, otherwise he will lose his edge.
Pope Francis invites us to look at four areas as we form ourselves, and are formed, in our mission.
The first is to know what the Word of God says about marriage, religious life, priesthood or the single life. A married Catholic couple should have at least some basic idea of God’s own teaching on marriage. We have become bible-shy in the Catholic Church. That’s not good. The bible is not always easy to approach, I admit, but asking for help in approaching it is easy. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.
The second thing we should have an idea of is the teaching of the Church on marriage, priesthood, etc.. If we open the Catechism, there is a rich recipe of truths about every aspect of marriage and sexuality, the family and social outreach, etc.. A priest who does not know the basic documents of the Church on the priesthood is asking for trouble because he will be prey to his own meagre ideas and those of a society not so friendly towards the priesthood.
The third area of missionary formation is the spiritual. What does a spirituality of the single life look like? What are the contours of a spirituality of marriage and sexuality? Spirituality bespeaks prayerfulness, an interest and proclivity to spend time with the Lord; it demands at times the advice of a spiritual director; it may demand teaming up with other married couples or single people or priests to develop together spiritually, socially and doctrinally.
The fourth area is more of a challenge. Pope Francis speaks of theological formation. In some ways, this is easier for priests and religious, but married couples or prospective married couples have every right to try and understand more profoundly the faith of the Church on marriage.
Missionary formation can be a challenge if we are doing it alone. So, it is good to try and get together with others. I would love this parish to be alive with groups and associations in which people with the same mission, or even profession, come together to pray, to ask how they can better develop and deepen the fulfilment of their mission in the light of prayer, grace, doctrine and all the rest. Such groups don’t have to be formal or even meet on the parish premises. I would love to know that in my parish throughout the week, different people and different groups are seeking and searching together to respond more fully to the mission God has given them. That is light to the world and leaven to the dough!
Finally, there is the most beautiful indication the Pope gives us for this Mission Month, and it is arguably the most difficult: namely, that we each exercise missionary charity.
On one level we did so last Sunday when we had the Missio Scotland collection. But we all know that charity means something much more than that, and much more than being nice to each other as we go about our lives.
Charity is quite simply God. Pope Benedict wrote the famous document, quoting St. John, “Deus Caritas Est”, “God is Love.” Hence, to say that we are living out our mission in charity means that we are doing it in God, in Love. The inner life and power of God the Holy Trinity is charity. Our human hearts surely have a great capacity to give and to love, to sacrifice and to suffer for others. But our hearts are limited. Our love can fail and be fickle. If, however, our hearts are possessed by Charity, God the Holy Trinity itself takes our hearts and empowers them to love with the same love with which Christ died on the Cross and with which the Father raised him from the dead.
We should not shy away from thinking that this is possible in our own lives. Not only is it possible: it is our final destiny! Our mission is the means to that end. God’s purpose is that the whole of humanity will love with the very love of God. That is eternal life. That is heaven. Surely, we cannot shy away from our destiny, our heaven, our eternity, our God? St. Therese of Lisieux was stuck in a little convent in France, but because she understood that divine love was her mission, she became the patroness of the missions, and her love continues to bear fruit on earth to this day, as we saw in Scotland in recent weeks. God made her an example, but she is not intended as an exclusive example! She exemplifies to us what we are called and sent to be, too.
We feed the love of God in us above all through the sacraments. Every sacrament “dips us in God” and so saturates us with God. Without that love and grace, our mission is ineffective.
And so, I invite us all this coming week to reflect: What is my mission, my destiny as desired by God for me? How am I pursuing an ongoing formation or an initial formation of myself in that mission? Am I living and feeding it with the charity of God, the charity that is God?
Let’s all hear again, with new ears, that final exhortation of the priest at the end of Mass: Go! Know yourselves sent! And proclaim the Gospel with your lives!