Pope Francis’ Dream of the Missionary Transformation of the Church, The Anchor, December 13, 2013

Fr. Roger J. Landry
Putting Into the Deep
The Anchor
December 13, 2013

Four days before his election nine months ago today, the future Pope Francis addressed his brother Cardinals and told them that the reform that the Church most needed was not the extirpation of various forms of corruption in the Vatican. Rather it was to go from a sick and “worldly Church that lives within herself, of herself and for herself,” to “an evangelizing Church that comes out of herself.”

Using words that would soon become his own job description, he emphasized that the next pope had to be a man who would “help the Church get out of herself and go to those on the outskirts of existence,” who would guide the Church on an exodus from ecclesial introversion and narcissistic self-preservation to bold, joy-filled evangelization.

The Cardinals not only accepted their Argentine colleagues’ challenge to put mission above maintenance, but elected him as the one they believed most capable of bringing about that type of deep missionary reform.

In his new apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”), Pope Francis presents his systematic vision of ecclesial reform and gives a compelling summons to all Catholics to take up their role in this missionary metamorphosis.

He first presents his vision: “I dream of a ‘missionary option,’ that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures, can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation.”

Next he gives the Christological underpinning for that vision: Jesus is the “first and greatest evangelizer” and with his valedictory command, “Go and make disciples of all nations,” he has made us heirs of his own mission. The Church doesn’t just have a mission but is a mission, and therefore missionary outreach Francis stresses, must become “paradigmatic for all the Church’s activity.”

Then he makes that vision personal for each Christian: Just like the Church, none of us has a mission, but each of us is a mission. “I am a mission on this earth; this is the reason why I am here,” Pope Francis asserts each of us should be able to say. To be a disciple at all is to be a missionary disciple. The apostolate is not optional or additional to our faith but essential and constitutive.

“If we have received the love that restores meaning to our lives, how can we fail to share that love with others?,” he asks. “What kind of love would not feel the need to speak of the beloved, to point him out, to make him known?”

We know from personal experience, he states, that “it is not the same thing to have known Jesus as not to have known him, … to walk with him as to walk blindly, … to hear his word as not to know it, … to contemplate him, to worship him, to find our peace in him, as not to. It is not the same thing to try to build the world with his Gospel as to try to do so by our own lights.”  But we have to make that knowledge apostolically consequential and have “a passion for Jesus and …for his people” strong enough to move us from within to share that wisdom with others.

Our consciences should be justly disturbed, he says, that “so many of our brothers and sisters are living without the strength, light and consolation born of friendship with Jesus Christ, without a community of faith to support them, without meaning and a goal in life.”

What’s needed is for all of us throughout the Church to stop living “as if people who have not received the Gospel did not exist.”

The papacy, dioceses and parishes all have to be reformed to advance the mission Christ has entrusted to the Church, Pope Francis writes.

He reserves his most powerful exhortation, however, for the lay faithful, reminding them that baptism has made every one of them “without exception” a missionary disciple. “The new evangelization calls for the personal involvement on the part of each of the baptized,” no matter what their level of instruction in the faith.

On the one hand, he insists, there’s a need for better “formation” of the laity in general and “training” in evangelization in particular, especially at the level of parishes, so that people are equipped to share the faith more confidently and effectively at work, school and in their neighborhoods and social networks. At the same time, he adds, “Anyone who has truly experienced God’s saving love does not need much time or lengthy training to go out and proclaim that love!”

A bigger obstacle, he says, is fear and selfishness. “At a time when we most need a missionary dynamism that will bring salt and light to the world, many lay people fear that they may be asked to undertake some apostolic work and they seek to avoid any responsibility that may take away from their free time,” whether as volunteer catechists, door-to-door evangelizers, or participants in the Church’s institutional charities.

The biggest obstacle, however, is from a defective way of looking at the faith that leads to a lack of joy in living it. Many of us, he contends, live the faith like those who have “just come back from a funeral,” whose lives “seem like Lent without Easter,” because fundamentally we look at the faith as a litany of joyless religious obligations rather than as a drama of divine and human love.

People, however, don’t hear the Gospel from those who are “dejected, discouraged, impatient or anxious,” and seeking to spread their misery, but rather from those “wish to share their joy, point to a horizon of beauty and invite others to a delicious banquet,”— those whose lives, in short, are transfigured by God’s presence and attract people to the Source of their love and joy.

Francis warns us not to give in to the “tomb psychology” and pessimism of the “prophets of doom” who think that the life of faith is on an inexorable decline. Rather, he urges us to rely on the power of the same Holy Spirit who helped Christians in generations before us spread the faith, even during ages of persecution.

Do you realize that if every Catholic in the United States were to try to bring just one Catholic back to Mass over each of the next two years, that by Christmas 2015, two-thirds of Catholics in the United States would be practicing each Sunday?

Francis encourages each of us to set out on this missionary transformation with such achievable goals in mind. “Every person is worthy of our giving,” he affirms. “If I can help at least one person to have a better life, that already justifies the offering of my life!”

That’s the type of missionary reform he’s trying to bring about in each of us.