The Missionary Nature of the Church



As I write this article, we have celebrated the Feast of the Ascension and are anticipating the great Feast of Pentecost.  The days in between Ascension Thursday and Pentecost are an appropriate time to reflect on the Church’s mission to announce the Good News.  During His earthly ministry, Christ proclaimed the good news of salvation. “I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God, because for this purpose I have been sent.” (Lk. 4:43) “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings.” (Lk. 4:18) Jesus was the first evangelizer. He was the message and the bearer of the message.

The Gospel on the Feast of the Ascension told us that although Jesus was returning to His Father, His mission would continue. Jesus sent the Apostles. He commissioned them to continue His work. “Go, therefore and make disciples of all nations baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have  commanded you.” (Mt. 28:19-20)

The Second Vatican Council made it clear that  upon the Church “there rests, by divine mandate, the duty of going out into the whole world and preaching the gospel to every creature” (The Constitution on the Church, #5). In the Decree on the Missionary Activity of the Church we are told “The whole Church is missionary, and the work of evangelization is a basic duty of the People of God” (# 35).  Writing after the Council, Pope Paul VI reiterated this teaching in Evangelization in the Modern World. “We wish to confirm once more that the task of evangelizing all people constitutes the essential mission of the Church.” (#14)

Blessed John Paul II and more recently our Holy Father Benedict XVI have spoken about a “new evangelization.” This does not suggest that the message is new. The message is always Christ and what He proclaimed by word and deed about His Father and our life in God and with each other through the power of the Spirit. It is about conversion and becoming disciples of Christ. But clearly evangelization in our time requires a new ardor and vitality, new methods and expressions.

All the baptized are called to participate in the Church’s mission. The grace of Baptism and Confirmation strengthen us to announce the Good News. The term missionary in this sense applies to all of us. All of us, in our particular situations and according to our vocation, are called to hear the Word of God in faith, be transformed by  its power and  become disciples who proclaim by words and deeds the beauty and truth of the Gospel.

Some people are called to be “missionaries” in a very special sense. In response to divine grace, these individuals consecrate their entire lives to the spread of the Gospel. This may entail leaving their homeland to work among people who have not heard the good news or accepted it in its entirety. It may mean learning a new language, accommodating oneself to new customs and cultures, experiencing the opposition and hostility that the Gospel evokes in some who hear it or the joy that follows when the Gospel is accepted and lived.

I remember, as I am sure some of you do, the stories of the great missionary saints that we heard as children. We learned about St. Patrick and the numerous Irish priests and sisters who left their homeland to bring the Gospel to places where it had not been preached. We heard the stories of brave Jesuit priests who came to Canada and sections of our own New York State to evangelize. And then, of course, there was the life of St. Francis Xavier traveling to the Far East, Boniface going to Germany, Augustine of Canterbury working in England and Mother Cabrini traveling to the U.S. to ensure that immigrants would be formed in the faith.

During the past two weeks I have had the opportunity to meet priests and sisters who have accepted this specific call to be missionaries. Last week I met with Sister Anne Nasimiyu-Wasike, the general superior of the Little Sisters of St. Francis who came from Uganda to visit sisters from her community working in the U.S. The Little Sisters of St. Francis are a relatively new religious congregation founded in 1923. Already however, they number over 700 sisters some of whom minister outside of Africa including five sisters who live and work at St. Anthony’s in Endicott and at St. Thomas Aquinas in Binghamton. I met with Father Michael Bassano, a native of Binghamton, ordained a priest of the Diocese of Syracuse but now a Maryknoll missioner.  He served for 10 years in Chile, then 10 years in Thailand, and now is working in Tanzania. Maryknoll, the popular name of the Catholic Foreign Mission Society of America, was founded in 1911 shortly after the U.S. ceased to be a mission territory in 1908. This year they celebrate their 100th anniversary. Their first missionaries went to China and many suffered heroically for the faith in that land. Today they minister in 34 countries around the world. I also had an opportunity to meet Bishop Maurice Muhatia Makumba, the youthful bishop of Nakuru, Kenya who was here visiting two of his priests Father Cleophas Tuka, who works at St. Margaret’s in Mattydale and Father Paul Machira who ministers at St. Patrick’s and St. Thomas Aquinas in Binghamton.

I find it interesting that our country was evangelized by numerous missionaries who left their homeland to spread the faith in our newly-discovered and developing land. Years later, when our faith, so to speak, grew and matured we sent missionaries to countries and people that had not heard the Gospel. Today, missionaries from those countries are returning to our country and to countries in Western Europe, where faith has weakened and its practice diminished, in order to witness to the Gospel and rekindle its acceptance and practice.

During the month of June, the Holy Father’s mission intention for the Apostleship of Prayer asks us to pray “that the Holy Spirit may bring forth from our communities many missionaries who are ready to be fully consecrated to the spreading of the Kingdom of God.” If the Church is to fulfill its mission it needs men and women who “fully consecrate” themselves to the spread of the Gospel. We pray that some among the faithful will hear and respond to this call.

The Church exists in order to evangelize, to preach and teach and to be the channel of grace that reconciles sinners with God.  We can never be closed in upon ourselves. The life of the Church acquires its full meaning when it evokes admiration and conversion, when it becomes through personal witness the preaching and proclamation of the Good News. While the whole Church receives the mission to evangelize, the work of each individual member is important to the whole.

When Jesus ascended to the Father He promised that He would remain with us always. The Feast of Pentecost reminds us that the unifying and life-giving grace of the Holy Spirit is at work in the Church today. Let us respond to the Spirit’s promptings, listen to the Word of God and be transformed by it so that others might be drawn to hear and embrace it.

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