By Martin, sx
Today, more than ever, doing mission raises a certain number of crucial questions that no responsible missionary can overlook. Here are some of them: first, what does the word mission mean? If in the past centuries it was the glorious activity of baptizing and bringing people to confess Jesus’ divinity even at the cost of their freedom and life, can we still uphold that meaning? If not, what new significance shall we therefore ascribe to it? Second, how to understand our doing mission in the current context of our world bathed in many religions? If we truly believe that God has his own way of saving those who do not partake of our faith, how shall we then view our proclamation and the vast enterprise of evangelization? Third, how to reach out to others in a way that does not betray the spirit of the Gospel and yet attunes with today’s world?
Pondering upon these questions requires an attitude of openness. For they challenge our traditional conceptions of mission. I remember the bitter disappointment of some friends of mine when we were told that God’s salvific plan applies to all, Christians and non-Christians alike. The shock was so harmful that most of them could not resist asking: “If it is so, why are we therefore missionaries?” A gentleman raised his hand and said: “If all are saved, why have I therefore made my vows”? Again, if we have the courage to question ourselves unflinchingly on the meaning of mission, we may get surprised of the outcome of our inquiry!
The Church exists for mission. Moreover, her mission is a continuation of the mission of Christ. As so accurately pointed out by saint Conforti, we cannot share in Christ’s mission by trading a path different from his. We shall therefore return to Christ in order to refresh and revitalize our understanding of mission. Returning to Christ means returning to the Gospel.
If we follow Christ in his public ministry, we may sum up his sayings and deeds with the word befriending. Christ did his mission by befriending people to God. Our common understanding of friendship is far from what is at stake here. We most of the time call friend a person on whom we depend emout it so beautifully by repeatedly stating that Christ was “on the way”. Second, the encounter leads to an exchange. This often happens through a dialogue or a simple loving look. Third, a word of praise falls from the lips of Christ. Christ is neither a severe judge nor a strict lawyer walking around and pronouncing sentences on the life of his contemporaries. Rather, he is a man who sees the goodness that lies in others. That goodness is often concealed to them. Christ brings it out. He tells the Samaritan woman for instance that she is truthful in saying that she does not have a husband. He says to a scribe that he is not far from the kingdom of God for having understood that Loving God and one’s neighbors is greater than offering sacrifices. He honors the sinful woman who anoints him and defends her against his disciples who see in her anointing a waste. He affirms that the tax collector Zacheus is also a son of Abraham to the amazement of the Pharisees who claimed to be the only rightful descendants of the great patriarch. Four, conversion. As people experience this loving kindness of Christ, they are somehow overwhelmed by his affection and conversion follows. It is hard to remain the same when one truly encounters genuine love. Astounded for having been received into Christ’s friendship, Zacheus pays back everything he extolled and even adds something for reparation beyond what was prescribed by the law. Surrounded with Christ’s friendship, the Samaritan woman runs into the city and calls her country mates to meet him. Levi, after having been exposed to this “fascinating” look of Christ leaves his table of tax collector for good. Finally, discipleship. All those who converted followed Christ on his way. They became part of his community and they called others to share their joy of having discovered the Messiah.tionally. But Christ’s friendship was something else. It had a pattern that we may trace by looking closely at some scenes that the Gospel offers us: first, there is an encounter. Christ meets the person to be befriended where he or she is. Christ does not wait. He goes towards. Mark p
Why is it that our doing mission does not often bear fruit? It is perhaps because our strategy is different from that of Christ. Very often, we begin our mission with the question where to go instead of who do we want to meet? Consequently, our focus seems to be not on concrete persons but rather on geographic boundaries. As a result, some missionaries are not able to see the goodness that lies in the people to whom they are sent. They look at people from the pedestal of the Pharisees. They are right and people are wrong. They know and people are ignorant. They are Christ’s faithful and people are pagan. How can such attitude bear fruit? At times, missionaries want to move immediately from step 1 (encounter) to step 5 (discipleship). They fail to see that between the two poles there is a journey that requires kind patience and sensitivity. Another reason why mission is in a critical state is because missionaries themselves are not often at home with their own selves. How can someone befriend others if he or she does not enjoy a mature humanity? Mission suffers from the lack of humanly mature missionaries. The challenge of Nietzsche comes to mind: “I will only believe in the Redeemer when the Christians themselves will look more redeemed.” This can be applied also to missionaries. People will enthusiastically follow Christ when they will see in missionaries men and women totally transformed and humanized by Christ’s friendship.
Befriending is therefore the heart of mission. There is no barrier to friendship as portrayed in the life of Christ. In our current context of multi-religion, the advantage of friendship is that if it fails to make disciples, it does not at least create enemies. Christ’s purpose was not to set people against himself. Those who opposed him and even brought him to his violent death had just paradoxically stressed how deep he was a man of friendship. Among the main reasons of his condemnation by the Sanhedrin, the evangelists recall that Christ was accused of befriending sinners to God.
Every World Mission Sunday, we are reminded of this mandate of Christ: “Go, from all the nations make disciples…” In his letter at the occasion of the World Mission Sunday 2012, Pope Benedict XVI wrote:
“The eagerness to proclaim Christ also urges us to read history so as to perceive the problems, aspirations and hopes of humanity which Christ must heal, purify and fill with his presence. His Message is ever timely, it falls into the very heart of history and can respond to the deepest restlessness of every human being. For this reason all the members of the Church must be aware that “the immense horizons of the Church’s mission and the complexity of today’s situation call for new ways of effectively communicating the Word of God”
These “new ways of effectively communicating the Word of God” should integrate befriending.