By Fr. Anthony Kibira MCCJ
Where the Gospel is planted, hearts are transformed
The term “mission” is derived from Latin: “mitto, mittere, misi, missum” meaning “to send”. The transitive Latin verb designates a message intended by the sender. This article intends to explore the foundation for a Christian understanding of mission and indicate some concrete ways through which the Church can bring about a positive impact in the world. Mission, in a Christian sense, is not only possible but also an imperative, if the Church is to give her contribution for a more just and fraternal world.
God’s preferential option
From the biblical perspective, those sent are first called by God who entrusts a message to them. The theological point of departure for mission is, thus, the call/cry of the people as evidenced in Exodus 3:7-8; “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the place of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites.“ God has always had a preferential option for the poor and oppressed. Here is the perennial challenge for all who wish to imitate and present God in the world. It is God who hears the cry of the oppressed and out of compassion comes to liberate them.
This is the beginning of a journey on which God came to form His chosen people. The journey that God makes with humanity, and the whole of creation, can be referred to as a journey of liberation and empowerment. Isaiah testifies to this in the third part of his prophetic writing: “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55, 10-11). God’s word has a transformative power. The goal of God’s intervention is freedom for the oppressed. Whoever understands oneself as a missionary participates in this liberating and empowering mission of God.
Jesus, the Missionary of the Father
Jesus Christ, the Missionary per excellence, understood himself and his mission as that of proclaiming and living the Father’s new vision for the world. He referred to this new vision as God’s Kingdom. In the Gospel according to Luke, Jesus presents His mission-manifesto with the words: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Lk 4, 18-19).
Jesus’ mission is that of proclamation of a message that liberates and transforms. In the encounter with the people of His time, one will always recognize transformation. Those who have experienced transformation are called and sent to contribute to the transformation of others. A good example of transformation is the encounter of Jesus with the woman from Samaria in John 4:1-42. Jesus (the Missionary) begins by asking for a drink from a woman who was looking for water on a daily basis. In the course of the conversation, the woman is helped to go deep into her personal life experiences.
She experiences transformation and at the end becomes a missionary to her own people. The liberation that Jesus lived and died for was liberation from sin in all its manifestations. He descended into the wounds of humanity in order to heal it. The experience of transformation and healing will be made by the disciples of Jesus. A missionary whose wounds are not healed or who has not started the process of healing will wound others instead. Jesus’ being with His disciples can be described as a time for empowerment for their future mission. He formed them in such a way that they were to do what they saw him doing. They were to be his witnesses, not only in Jerusalem but also to the whole world (see Lk24, 47-48). Jesus knew the nature of the landscape into which he was sending his witnesses. He was aware of their weaknesses. He, thus, gave them His power: the Holy Spirit (John 20, 21-22). Jesus’ disciples are to be guided by the Spirit, just as He himself has been guided.
Before the great commissioning of the Apostles in Mt 28, 18-28, Jesus had empowered his friends with authority over whatever jeopardizes life. He sends them out to proclaim a liberating message of God’s Kingdom (Lk 9, 1-2). The Church continues and participates in the mission of Jesus, namely liberation and transformation.
The missionary character of the Church
The Church as a community of missionary disciples (here one has to note that Jesus doesn’t need just fans but disciples), understands her mission as a continuation of the Founder’s mission. The Second Vatican Council, in its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, says that “the Church is in Christ like a sacrament or as a sign and instrument both of a very closely knit union with God and of unity of the whole human race” (Lumen Gentium 1). This speaks clearly about the transitory nature of Church whose mission is to foster communion with God. The Church is in the world but not of the world (see John 17, 15-16). The Church can carry out a mission that impacts lives only when she is in Christ. Rooted in Christ and in the Gospel values, can she dream of adding value to the lives of the peoples.
The main impact that the Church’s mission should effect in the world is to be a witness of a living God who is interested in the liberation of human beings and of the whole of creation. This makes us aware of the many idols in the world that threaten to take the place of God in people’s lives. The world is becoming obsessed with power, prestige and property. These idols have enslaved and disempowered many people. There is danger of people selling their souls and consciences to the dominion of these idols. This is where the proclamation of St. Paul to the Corinthians should be heard afresh: “For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth- as indeed there are many‚ gods‘ and many‚ lords‘ yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.” (1 Cor 8:5-6). If the powers- that-be are never questioned, the end results are the lifeless and oppressive systems and structures.
Those affected are the poor and the voiceless. There is a tendency of the powerful and the rich to become insensitive to the cries of the poor masses. One should not forget that the cries of the impoverished are heard by God who is the sole author of life. God wants to hear these cries, as He has always done throughout history, through the Church. Pope Francis invites us all to go to the margins and peripheries of societies in order to hear these cries.
Many charisms at the service of the same Mission
In the course of the Church’s journey there have been many gifted men and women who understood themselves called to be at the margins of societies with the “nobodies”. Their aim was mainly to carry the light of the Gospel into the dark spots of human society. In fact those who have not known Christ and His Gospel are the real poor of all times. One example among the pioneers to reach Africa, “the dark continent” as it was known during that time was St. Daniel Comboni.
He was burning with love for Africa and this love moved him to give up his life for the regeneration and liberation of Africa. As methodology for his missionary work, Comboni chose to empower the Africans to become protagonists for their own evangelization: “Save Africa with Africa”. He himself was to make common cause with the people to whom he was sent. Comboni teaches his followers that mission is, in the first place, to be with the people and make common cause with them. This, in fact, remains his legacy to all those who feel themselves inspired to participate in the work God started in him.
The primary work of mission is evangelization. Daniel Comboni must have said that “where the Gospel is planted, it transforms hearts.” Where this liberating message is announced, there starts a journey that leads to transformation. The Gospel initiates a radical change of hearts so that the visible signs of change in society and in the Church herself may not be just cosmetic in nature but truly essential. If this happens, the prophetic word of Isaiah may apply: “These people worship with lip-service. Their hearts are far from me.” (Is 29, 13). The impact of mission will be seen in those whose hearts have been won over to God. These will be in turn the witnesses that the world is in need of.
Missionaries have made positive impact to the lives of those entrusted to them. It has always be the gospel impetus that has moved to carry out their mandate. Through their many initiatives, they have been able to transform peoples’ lives. Through the many schools that have been founded, many young people have been empowered to be defenders of their rights and protagonists of their own future. They have been equipped to be compassionate and competent builders of society.
The many mission-hospitals especially in rural areas are still carrying out the mission of caring for the sick especially those who afford the exorbitant costs of treatment in other facilities. The many development initiatives are to be seen in the Church’s endeavor to offer a holistic evangelization. The Gospel has the power to penetrate structures so that they become more life-giving. The young people, through the skills and values they gain, are equipped to be witnesses where they are. It is true that mission creates new life-possibilities for the poor. This can be seen in the many charitable works that go to name of the Church’s activity.
However, the greatest and most essential impact of mission is the primacy of faith. Yes. Charity is important, but still more important is the faith in a God who opens up new horizons of life. We should not forget that there are very many other organizations that are offering charity. At times charity can create dependency. Instead, faith proposed, embraced and lived, nourishes the hope of those who have been counted as hopeless. The work of missionaries can be regarded as testimony to the hope that flows over to the others (see 1 Pet 3, 15). It is interesting to note that it doesn’t depend on how long one has been in touch with faith in order to be a witness to the truth of the Gospel. The two martyrs of Paimol are a vivid example and a challenge at the same time.
Mission produces martyrs
Daudi Okello and Jildo Irwa were two young catechists, who after being instructed in faith, carried out their assignment faithfully and spread the Gospel by words and deeds. The seed of faith that was sown in them was enough empowerment for them to be missionaries themselves. The missionaries (in this case the Comboni Missionaries of the Heart of Jesus) can contemplate the fruits of their work, for born in the heart of the Good Shepherd; they were able to reach the hearts of those who were to become missionaries themselves. It is again interesting to note that two young men were sent as missionaries to places outside their ethnic clan. There, they lived and presented the integrity of the Gospel which protects personal dignity and promotes peace among the people. We remember them as true blood-witnesses of Christ.
I find the martyrdom of the two catechists of Paimol to be a direct challenge to all especially the youths. Young people are called to assume their place in the evangelizing mission of the Church. They not only need accompaniment from adult Christians, but also empowerment to be missionaries in their world. The forthcoming synod of the youths will be an opportunity to rediscover the potential of the youths in the Church’s mission. The youth are looking for models and not celebrities. The former will encourage them to embrace and live their faith; the latter instead inflate their wild desires for quick-fix answers to life.
All are called to be missionaries
The mission of Christ is a mission entrusted to all irrespective of the office they hold in the Church. It is very clear that missionary congregations and societies, with their respective charisms should be at the front line of mission, but missionary work shouldn’t be delegated to them alone. The Church is, by nature, missionary. Every Christian, by virtue of baptism, is called to be a missionary disciple and witness to the truth of the Gospel. Christians should never be absent in the situations where people are struggling in their search for meaning in life and for justice.
The Second Vatican Council, in the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, encourages the Church to be present in order “to share the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted…” (Gaudium et Spes 1). We are all called to give our contribution to a just and caring society. The martyrs of Uganda, among whom some were catechists, invite us to appreciate the witness given by the many catechists in our missions. They need our support and encouragement in order to carry out mission (sometimes on our behalf) joyfully. The consecrated people in their turn will have to assume their prophetic mission in both Church and society, for their consecration is meant to be a reminder that the human heart belongs entirely to God. The faith that we profess should urge us to make ourselves to gifts of faith (fidei donum) in order to stand with the dioceses/areas with a scarcity of priests and other pastoral agents.
As missionary disciples, we ought to be aware of the source that nourishes us: Christ. In this way we are able to feed a world awaiting justice, peace and love. It is the Gospel that can transform hearts and transformed hearts will transform structures of society. Fr. Richard Rohr OFM once said “If you want to work for peace, first be peace yourself!” The success of the Church’s mission will depend on our witness to the radicality of the Gospel manifested not by the eloquence of words but the eloquence of a form of life characterized first by continuous conversion. We are to manifest a readiness to be transformed by the Gospel. Pope Francis, while meeting the leaders of the Middle East in Bari (July 2018) explained the impact of the Gospel as follows: “The Gospel moves us to a daily conversion to the plans of God in order to find in Him security and consolation and to announce Him to all.”
Secondly in our mission as Church, we are called to witness to the true and living God. Anything else will turn out to be idols which will either enslave or produce false if not fake persons.
Thirdly, we are called to lead a life according to the logic of the Cross. This will help us embrace God’s true wisdom and avoid “domesticating” the Gospel in order to make it superficially appeasing. In this way the “eternal newness” that Pope Francis proposes in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium 11-13, becomes a reality. The impact of the Gospel on us will be the impact of our mission in the world.
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