“I have chosen you and constituted you that you may go and bear fruit” (Jn. 15:16)
The missionary vocation of the Church and C.M.
Sixty years ago Pope John XXIII opened a new window in the Church from which a new and fresh air entered. These was primarily the missionary air, a rediscovery of its identity and essence. Every year, the month of October, we try to preserve the freshness of that missionary air by praying, reflecting and mainly witnessing our missionary identity. The Popes who succeeded John XXIImo insistently continued that its true identity and essence is found in its missionary nature. In our own small way, we, too, members of the Congregation of the Mission (C.M.), in the month of October receive the missionary call from our Superiors General, and this fact, although we do not adhere to the missions that are proposed to us, we nevertheless have the opportunity to remind ourselves of our identity in the Church and in society: that of being missionaries like and with the whole Church. Not only that, the Vincentian Family, has another vocation: that of being “the missionary conscience or sentinel” in the bosom of the Church since the 17th century.
All Popes have insistently stressed on the missionary vocation of the Church but some in a special way. Immediately after the Second Vatican Council, Paul VI did so solemnly with his encyclical Evangelii Nuntiandi in which he announced what the true identity and essence of the Church is when he said, “To evangelize, in fact, is the grace and vocation proper to the Church, her deepest identity. She exists to evangelize” (cf. EN #14). Obviously, this reflection of Paul VI was in continuity with the magisterium of Vatican II, in Lumen Gentium, but even more explicitly in Ad Gentes, which said: the Church, the people of God on the way, is a missionary Church by its very nature (AG # 2). By its very nature the Church is “missionary.” Pope Francis a few weeks after his election, on March 28, 2013, said this about the missionary identity of the church as the people of God: “…our people like it when the Gospel we preach reaches their daily lives, when it comes down like the oil of Aaron to the edges of reality, when it illuminates the borderline situations, the peripheries where the faithful people are most exposed to the invasion of those who want to plunder their faith. People thank us because they feel that we have prayed with the realities of their everyday lives, their sorrows and joys, their anxieties and hopes.” Pope Francis is convinced that missionary action is the paradigm of every work of the Church (cf. EG # 15). Therefore, wrote the Pope, “we can no longer remain quiet, waiting, inside our churches” but move “from a pastoral ministry of simple conservation to a pastoral ministry that is decidedly missionary” (EG #18).
As we can see, for Pope Francis, the question of the missionary vocation of the People of God, the Church, has become the workhorse and he does well. The whole People of God, none excluded, is called to be “missionary.” A missionary not with a sad and funereal face but a joyful and joyful missionary. Gospel joy (EG #20-24). For Francis, the Church is called to live in a “permanent state of mission” EG #25. Thus, it is not a temporary task but a “permanent and constantly of life” mission following the example of Jesus, the missionary par excellence! So, the People of God, the Church, is most beautiful when she is dirty and bears the smell of her flock on her; she is healthy when she sides with the wounded of history and pitches her tent to be a field hospital; she is glorious when she is poor and humble and bows down to lift the humiliated of history from the dust. It is indeed a true rediscovery of the missionary identity of the Church! Today, as two thousand years ago, as Pope Francis tells us, “her missionary action has become the paradigm of her every work” (cf. EG #15).
THE VINCENTIAN MISSIONARY SPIRIT
St. Vincent, four centuries before Pope Borgoglio, reminded us his sons and daughters that our dignity and identity was in our being “missionaries of Jesus Christ.” Our Constitutions (CM+FdC) were shaped by this spirit. Every article and every page of our Constitutions refers to this spirit from which we were born. Since 1625 and 1633 we have been born as “missionaries” and we live, we will have to live, as true missionaries if we want to honor our vocation and identity. SV, as Pope Francis also says, has told us that we are “missionaries” by virtue of our baptism (cf. EG #120; Mt 28:19). Pope Francis speaks of the Church “always going out” (EG #20-23) SV when returning from some mission said: I had the feeling that the walls of Paris were collapsing on me when I came back from the mission… [St. Vincent considered himself a missionary of the peripheries, where the most abandoned poor are, and not of big cities like Paris]. Yesterday as today, if we want to preserve the missionary spirit we will have to know how to come out of our shell, our “comfort zone.”
Our Congregation, since its birth in 1625 with nuances added by the 1992 General Assembly, is an outgoing Congregation. It conceives itself always on the road, precisely in missionary outgoing, seeking the most abandoned poor (C. #1) in history. It is a congregation that claims to travel the ways of the world to reach the poor in the geographical and existential peripheries of wounded, oppressed, abandoned, homeless humanity… and claims to pitch its tent among them. In certain parts of the world, Chad and many others, where the shade of Babau (huge, centuries-old trees) serve as classrooms, C.M. members become teachers in these classrooms that are not there in utmost humility and poverty. Getting out of one’s comfort zone, requires sacrifice, mortification and readiness for deprivation. The missionary spirit requires, among other things, this sacrifice and denial of self to follow the missionary par excellence, Jesus. If the Church is called to be “a mobile hospital and outpatient clinic,” as Pope Francis would say, all the more reason for the Congregation of the Mission along with the entire FV. A family capable of speaking to the hearts of the men and women of our time by walking their paths; using new and creative methods (Const. #12) because, SV tells us, true love is always creative.
THE METHOD OF EVANGELIZATION!
The question of method is crucial. What do we take with us when we go out on mission? What method do we use? What is the goal to be achieved? We know very well that in some of our missions the presence of Christians is zero or almost zero. Our missions like in Tunisia and Turkey, Istanbul come to mind. What is the point of “being missionaries in these places?” What is to be done and what are we to sell since we cannot sell the words of the classical catechism? Proselytizing is also a crime to the point that we can close our missions immediately. So what to do? Already this question assumes mission “is a doing,” which is why it is wrong. True mission, even before “doing” is “being.” If we see the method of Jesus and the early Church, they did not hustle for mass conversion. They did not proselytize from Judaism, our elder brothers. The spread of Christianity in the early centuries, as Cardinal Ratzinger stated in 1989, was through the believer’s life witness, precisely: “the conversion of the ancient world to Christianity was not the result of a planned activity by the Church, but the fruit of a realization of faith made visible in the lives of Christians and in the community of the Church. It was the actual invitation from experience to experience, which constituted the missionary force of the early Church.” Even John Paul II, in his Apostolic Letter Novo Millennio Ineunte, Jan. 6, 2001, wrote: We are certainly not seduced by the naive prospect that, in the face of the great challenges of our time, there can be a magic formula. No, not a formula will save us, but a Person, and the certainty it instills in us: I am with you! The method of our evangelization in missions, cannot but be through the witness of a consistent life lived consistently. Proselytizing is not a good method. Witnessing makes Christianity lived with dignity and honor noble and attracts much more as Mahtema Gandhi would say.
Paraphrasing Pope Francis, we can say that the Congregation of the Mission is “a congregation always going out.” Ours, like the whole Church, is trying to live out its missionary vocation, in fidelity and betrayal, in the many ups and downs of universal and particular history. It is a congregation that, since 1625, has wanted to be poor and of the poor, that is, “the place of gratuitous mercy, where all can feel welcomed, loved, forgiven and encouraged to live according to the good life of the Gospel” (EG, no. 114). The sons and daughters of SV know that true love is in deeds and not in words, actual love (SV). To reveal this infinite love of His, God had no other means but to choose the poor and poverty. The choice of poverty, in fact, manifests the gratuitousness of God’s salvation, who, “though he was rich, became poor that we might become rich through his poverty” (cf. 2 Cor. 8:9). Love for the poor makes the invisible God visible. And we are servants of this love with the utmost respect for the poor: “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve” (Mark 10:45). Pope Francis, referring to the humble service of the Church said it this way, “to me the image that comes is that of the nurse, the nurse in a hospital: she heals wounds one by one, but with her own hands. God gets involved, he gets involved in our miseries, he approaches our wounds and heals them with his hands, and to have hands he became man” (Pope Francis, in My Door is Always Open, Rizzoli 2013). His easy and direct language is very interesting. The conversion we speak of to precisely to this simplicity of life and language, living our true identity: to be missionaries of the Father in the footsteps of the son. It takes the change of mind and heart.
We are “missionaries” by vocation and choice. Yes, we are Vincentians, daughters and daughters of St. Vincent. But what does that mean? Does missionalism distinguish us? Do the Church and the world recognize us as “missionaries”? Are we the sentinels and missionary consciousness in our Church? Or have we closed in on ourselves and begun to say: everything has changed! Society has evolved; it is not like it used to be when we were born in the 17th century! Are we passively undergoing social evolution? Is today’s society and its lifestyle not giving space for our missions? Then what to do? Do we close in on ourselves? Closing in and raising the walls in search of the comfort zone, ministries that give us security and stability is an all too human reaction. Pope Francis, for that matter even our superiors general have been doing this since 1992, have been asking us to go out on mission: “you go out into the streets and go to the crossroads, call everyone you find, no one excluded” (Mt. 22:9). This was also the dream of our founder, St. Vincent. Our going out on mission, having the missionary spirit, for SV and Pope Francis, is nothing other than to be close to the poor and needy of history!