Saturday, October 17, 2009

Called to be missionaries


“Whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant…The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve.” Today in the Church we celebrate World Mission Sunday. The U.S. Bishop’s describe this Sunday this way, “By Baptism, all Catholics are called to participate in the mission of the Church, called to share their faith as missionaries. World Mission Sunday gathers support for the pastoral and evangelizing programs in Africa, Asia, the Pacific Islands, and remote regions of Latin America.”

Now, I certainly would not consider myself to be a Missionary in the typical sense of the word, but I have had my mission experiences and I’d like to share that with you a little bit today. Our own Franciscan Province of the Immaculate Conception has been sending missionaries primarily to the Central American nations of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, where they serve in a variety of ministries for more than 60 years. Our missionaries work in parish churches, have established hospitals, schools, orphanages, homes for the elderly and the destitute. The majority of the work is among the many, many poor and destitute people of these regions. The work of the missionary is to spread the Gospel as Jesus asked us to; and to meet the needs of the people. As Jesus told us in the parable of the sheep and the goats in Chapter 25 of Matthew’s Gospel, “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.” This is the heart of missionary activity.

As I said, I’m not your typical missionary who goes to mission territory and remains there for 20 or 30 years. My full-time ministries have been mostly in parish work in New Hampshire and Connecticut, and of course now, my work is as Vocation Director. However, back in 1995, while still a seminarian, I was sent to a place called Sonsonate, along the Pacific coast of El Salvador, for a summer-long missionary experience. This was soon after the Civil War in that country, which spanned most of the 1980s and early 90s, ended left the country in disarray, destruction and tremendous poverty. In Sonsonate, we run an outreach center called Agape. At Agape we operate a large church, a medical clinic, a senior citizen home, a home for unwed mothers, a training facility that teaches industrial skills to otherwise unskilled workers in the hopes that they can better their standard of living.

During part of my time there, we were assigned to the Mobile Medical Unit. This was a group made up of a doctor, a nurse, and a priest, and we visited mostly remote mountain villages. Our group would visit these places and tend to the medical and spiritual needs of the people there. The people in these villages are largely farmers, tending to coffee or sugar crops for very small wages. A village would receive one of these visits only every one to two months and so these visits would be critical – the medical staff would meet with virtually every member of the community to deal with everything from regular check-ups and pre-natal care to sudden illnesses and injury. At the end of a day of medical visits, everyone would again gather to pray the Rosary and celebrate the Mass. Throughout the day, we would meet with people, pray with them, catechize, share their concerns. Although the people we worked with lived in extreme poverty, the placed a strong value on family and on faith. This was a powerful experience for me personally and spiritually, and one in which I continue to feel a deep and abiding connection.

You see, just because I spent some time in Central America more than 10 years ago, and now live in downtown Boston, I still feel like a missionary. Missionary work isn’t only something that someone else does far away. Rather, the call to be missionaries is a common call to every Christian. We may not all find ourselves in far off lands like El Salvador or Ecuador, Africa or Asia, but we can all participate in the task of spreading the Gospel and reaching out to the needy. And that is what this World Mission Sunday is all about. It calls us to be aware of the work of missionaries to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ the world over, but it also calls us to recognize that we too are called to be missionaries even from our homes right here in Boston.

My friends, the Church that we all belong to is essentially missionary. And that includes all of us. We may all have different roles, but we all have full membership in the Church. The Vatican Council wanted to make that point when it described the Church as “the people of God.” Pope John Paul II wanted to make that point a number of years ago when he said, “There is no such thing as an ordinary person in the Church. Every Christian is an extraordinary work of God’s grace.” St. Peter wanted to make that point when he wrote, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people set apart.” It isn’t a question of people and the Church; it is a question of people in the Church, of the Church and for the Church. “Go, therefore, make disciples of all the nations,” Jesus says to us at the end of Matthew’s Gospel. Bonded in Baptism, commissioned in Confirmation, individually challenged by the will of God and Christ’s command, we have a common responsibility to embrace the faith and share it with all humanity. Simply, because we are members of the Church, we must be missionary!

Cardinal John Henry Newman wrote a powerful prayer that captures the missionary spirit of every Christian. He wrote, “Lord, you have created me to do you some definite service; you have committed some work to me which you have not committed to another. I have my mission from you. Somehow I am necessary for your purposes, as necessary in my place as an Archangel in his. If, indeed, I fail, you can raise another. Yet I have a part in this great work. I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. You have not created me for naught. I shall do good; I shall do your work. I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, if I do but your commandments and serve you in my calling. Therefore, I will trust you.”

On this World Mission Sunday, let us all pledge do three things: First, let us embrace our own call to be missionary and spread the Gospel to the corners of the earth; second, let us pray deeply for all those who risk life and comfort to be missionaries in the most difficult places of the world; and third, let us pray for the people they minister to that the Christian community may meet their needs in the name and faith of Jesus Christ.

“Whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant…The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve.”

May the Lord give you peace.

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