Splendor Veritatis

From Maintenance to Mission

August 16, 2016 - Spirituality & Theology

Take a moment and imagine this scene: You’re a young teenager in the 1940’s. It’s a Sunday morning, and you’re in your Sunday best. You haven’t had breakfast yet, and you’re starving. You pile up into the family car with your parents and siblings and drives off to Church. This is before Vatican II, so the Mass is in Latin and you understand next to nothing. Despite this, you come to Mass week in and week out. Most of your neighbors, friends, and relatives do the same. Everyone who professes their faith in the beliefs outlined by the Catholic Church attend Mass. It’s an important and regular part of their lives.

During this time, Churches were filled regularly, not just on Christmas and Easter. Parishes worked hard to help parishioners grow in their faith. Since much of the American public was Catholic, or at least Christian, the parish’s main goal was to take care of it’s flock. It was primarily concerned with maintaining and sustaining the faith and devotion of the Church community.

Rapidly, this began to change. People began to no longer attend Mass on a regular basis, and the number of people who identified as Catholic (and Christian in general) started to decrease. The question of why this occurred, and continues to occur, has an extraordinarily complicated answer that requires its own article (more like an entire book) to do it justice. For now, it suffices to point out that generally, this trend is most prevalent in New England and Western Europe.

The dynamics of the general population has changed drastically in the past fifty years, especially as Christianity is concerned. The problem lies in the fact that in many circumstances, parishes themselves have not changed to adapt. Generally speaking, parishes and religious organizations on the whole seem stuck in maintenance mode. But this will not suffice. “In this new millennium, business as usual is not enough. We must be a team of missionaries, moving from a maintenance mode to a missionary one,” says Cardinal Sean O’Malley. In this simple assertion, Boston’s Archbishop echoes the words of Pope Francis and his 2013 apostolic exhortation entitled “Evangelii Gaudium”, or “The Joy of the Gospel”.

In this writing, Pope Francis encourages all Christians to remember their basic calling as missionaries, and emphasizes the importance of shifting our focus from maintenance to mission. Francis also asserts that “no one should think that this invitation is not meant for him or her, since ‘no one is excluded from the joy brought by the Lord’ ” (Evangelii Gaudium, 3). Now, it’s simple enough to say that we must be missionaries, but what does this mean? I think that we must consider this on two levels: an individual one and an organizational one.

On an individual level, being a missionary means constantly proclaiming the Gospel in our lives. Saint Francis of Assisi puts it best: “Preach the Gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.” Proclaiming the Good News of Christ can means using words, but in most circumstances, it means living lives of holiness and love. “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn 13:35, ESV). It is through our daily lives, the way we live through our joys and our crosses, that we can share the Risen Lord with everyone we encounter.

When we talk about evangelizing on an organizational level, things become more tricky. We are challenged to go beyond our individual lives of holiness and love. The task of determining how exactly to shift from a maintenance mode to a missionary one is difficult, and Pope Francis “[invites] everyone to be bold and creative in this task of rethinking the goals, structures, style and methods of evangelization” (Evangelii Gaudium, 33). The key, Francis argues, is for us “to abandon the complacent attitude that says: ‘We have always done it this way’ “ (Evangelii Gaudium, 33).

This critical shift to a missionary mode will not happen overnight, but it is important that we work tirelessly to make it happen in all of our organizations, from parishes, to men’s and women’s clubs, to college organizations. But if we put forward our best effort, giving it our entire selves, God will see it the rest of the way.

“Let us try a little harder to take the first step and to become involved. Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. The Lord gets involved and he involves his own, as he kneels to wash their feet. He tells his disciples: ‘You will be blessed if you do this’ (Jn 13:17). An evangelizing community gets involved by word and deed in people’s daily lives; it bridges distances, it is willing to abase itself if necessary, and it embraces human life, touching the suffering flesh of Christ in others. Evangelizers thus take on the ‘smell of the sheep’ and the sheep are willing to hear their voice” (Evangelii Gaudium, 24).