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Summer 2006

Holiness and Mission

Pope John Paul II once wrote: “The universal call to holiness is closely linked to the universal call to mission. Every member of the faithful is called to holiness and to mission” (Redemptoris Missio—hereafter, RM—90). True holiness is founded upon faith in Jesus Christ and is perfected in the love which comes uniquely from the grace of Jesus Christ. Faith opens our eyes to see “how rich is the glory of the heritage that God offers among His holy people, and how extraordinarily great is the power that He has exercised among His holy people” (Eph 1:18-20). At the same time it helps us recognize the spiritual misery of countless millions who have no notion of the “unfathomable treasure of Christ” (cf. Eph 3:8) and the great dignity to which they are called. A fully developed faith experiences the desire to communicate it to others, as Pope John Paul wrote: “Sharing in the universal mission...is the sign of maturity in faith and of a Christian life that bears fruit. In this way, individual believers extend the reach of their charity and show concern for those both far and near” (RM 77). Faith is a talent that has been entrusted to us; God expects us to also invest it for the benefit of others. That is to say, faith must bear fruits of charity and service. We know that to whom much is given, much is expected. In this sense the Holy Father exhorted the faithful:

The Church’s mission derives not only from the Lord’s mandate but also from the profound demands of God’s life within us. Those who are incorporated in the Catholic Church ought to sense their privilege and for that very reason their greater obligation of bearing witness to the faith and to the Christian life as a service to their brothers and sisters and as a fitting response to God. (RM 11)

What is mission?

The nature of mission is properly understood only in light of its true goal. There are many accidental elements that may commonly be associated with mission, such as leaving one’s homeland for the sake of preaching the Gospel in foreign lands, or helping people on a natural level to live a more dignified way of life. But as Pope John Paul II wrote: “The ultimate purpose of mission is to enable people to share in the communion which exists between the Father and the Son” (RM 23). The mission of Jesus Christ, the eternal Son consisted in uniting men to the Father. He entered into this world for the sake of establishing the Way, the one and only true Gate that leads to God, the Father. The sacred Humanity of Christ, the Church which is His Mystical Body, and the Sacraments which are the instruments of that same sacred Humanity, offer to the world the only possible access to the Father. Every mission within the Church has the same finality and uses the same means. “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other Name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).

The holy angels, who as God’s “missionaries” are “sent forth” to accomplish the will of God in the world, participate in this same mission. The means that they employ in their task of bringing men to share in the divine Life is always the grace of Jesus Christ, the Word Incarnate. “Christ is the center of the angelic world. They are His angels. They belong to Him because they were created through and for Him. ...They belong to Him still more because He has made them messengers of His saving plan: ‘Are they not all ministering spirits sent forth to serve, for the sake of those who are to obtain salvation?’ (Heb 1:14)” (CCC 331).

We must never forget that the goal to which God calls all men is supernatural, and that the only means proportionate to that end are the supernatural means offered by Jesus Christ and His Church. Natural goodness and virtue are not sufficient to obtain that goal. While it is true that the Holy Spirit is working to bring the grace of Jesus Christ to people of every religious tradition, it cannot be overlooked that not only are these traditions in themselves unable to save, they moreover often contain certain elements which constitute an obstacle to salvation insofar as they depend on superstitions or other errors (cf. 1 Cor 10:20-21; Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, Dominus Jesus 21). It is for this reason that the Church teaches that the followers of other religions are objectively speaking in a “gravely deficient situation” in comparison with those who, in the Church, have the fullness of the means of salvation (cf. Dominus Jesus 22). Since Christ is the only Mediator of salvation, charity urges on the Church and all her members in her task of bringing Christ, the Light, to the world. It is this absolutely exclusive mission of Christ that led St. Paul to exclaim: “Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel” (1 Cor 9:16).

Foundation of Missionary Activity

Because the goal of all mission is to lead men to a communion of life and love with God, Pope John Paul II wrote: “Missionary cooperation is rooted and lived, above all, in personal union with Christ. Only if we are united to him as the branches to the vine (cf. Jn 15:5) can we produce good fruit” (RM 77). We must first of all live in union with Christ through love as living building stones of the Church, and thereby become the “sacrament and sign [that is, an efficacious instrument] of union with God and the unity of all men” (Vatican II, Lumen Gentium 1). It is first and foremost through the witness of a holy life that every Christian participates in the mission of the Church. The contrary is expressed in the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson: “What you are shouts so loudly in my ears I cannot hear what you say.” It is through our love for one another that we can best give the world a convincing proof for the fact that the Father sent the Son into the world (cf. Jn 17:21-23). St. Francis of Assisi once said: “preach the Gospel at all times, but only use words if necessary.”

Having said this, it is necessary to state that the true missionary spirit must extend beyond the boundaries of one’s own homeland and one’s immediate surroundings. It participates in God’s universal will for salvation which is not restricted to one area or a single nation. Pope John Paul II taught the necessity of overcoming the strong temptation to isolation, which fails to see the needs of the universal Church and which gives in to a form of provincialism or exclusiveness (cf. RM 85). Even when one cannot actually leave one’s homeland, it is important to dedicate oneself to the universal spread of the Gospel in whatever way possible. 

Crisis in Missionary Zeal

Recent years have seen a drastic decline in the missionary zeal among many members of the Catholic Church. This decline is not only in the area of vocations to missionary religious communities, but also the general concern of the lay faithful in praying for and supporting the missionary activities of the Church. There are various reasons for this decline in missionary zeal. 

Not the least of these reasons is a false sense of confidence in God’s mercy, which has detrimental effects not only on missionary zeal, but also on one’s one personal striving for sanctity. Many today believe that the obtainment of heaven is certain for all, or at least it requires little more than common goodness of heart. Founded upon the notion that God is so merciful that He would never possibly send anyone to eternal punishment, it is thought that with little or no effort all men will enter into the eternal vision of God regardless of whether or not they are faithful or fervent in their practice of the Christian faith. 

It is true that Jesus Christ has revealed the infinite mercy of God through His preaching and even more through His willingness to suffer and die for our sins. Nevertheless, He at the same time made it clear that the way to eternal salvation is not an easy one, as when He said: “Strive to enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it” (Mt 7:13-14). These words are intended to free us from the paralyzing effects of presumption, to spur us on our own personal path of holiness, and at the same time to encourage us to help others to accept the Way that leads to life. 

Cooperating Actively in the Missions

But how is it that we are called to exercise our missionary zeal for Christ? Pope John Paul II begins by mentioning the importance of prayer: 

Among the forms of sharing, first place goes to spiritual cooperation through prayer, sacrifice and the witness of Christian life. Prayer should accompany the journey of missionaries so that the pro­clamation of the word will be effective through God’s grace. In his Letters, St. Paul often asks the faithful to pray for him so that he might proclaim the Gospel with confidence and conviction. (RM 78)

The principle agent of the whole of the Church’s mission is the Holy Spirit who works through those who preach the Gospel, as well as in those who hear the Gospel preached. But St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that “though the Holy Spirit is the principle of all divine illuminations, nevertheless, God works these graces in men by means of the angels” (Summa Theo. II-II, 172, a. 2). It is helpful to realize that not only does each person enjoy the help of his own Guardian Angel, but also every nation and ethnic group has the help of its own angel. It is of especial efficacy to pray to the angels of the nations to cooperate with them in preparing the hearts of men for the light of Christ. When we think of the nations that are in need of special help in this regard, we must not forget those nations which were once strong in the faith but are presently in desperate need of re-evangelization.  

We can also unite our prayers to the efforts of those dedicated to preaching, so that they may be open to the inspiration of the angels to know the right thing to say or do for the promotion of the Gospel. The Acts of the Apostles tells of how “during the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us” (Acts 16:9). This can easily be understood to be the angel of the people of Macedonia who was asking for help in bringing the people entrusted to his care to Christ. 

In speaking of the means of cooperating with the missions, Pope John Paul II further adds: 

Prayer needs to be accompanied by sacrifice. The redemptive value of suffering, accepted and offered to God with love, derives from the sacrifice of Christ Himself, who calls the members of his Mystical Body to share in His sufferings, to com­plete them in their own flesh (cf. Col 1:24). The sacrifice of missionaries should be shared and accompanied by the sacrifices of all the faithful. (RM 78)

Among the motives for declaring St. Therese of Lisieux co-patroness of the mission, Pope Pius XI mentioned her custom of assisting the missionaries “by voluntary and prescribed corporal penances, but, above all, by offering to her Divine Spouse the dreadful sufferings resulting from the disease with which she was afflicted” (Rerum Ecclesiae 17). It has pleased God to reveal the enduring value of this faith and generosity of St. Therese by blessing her mission such that it continues to let fall a shower of roses upon all nations on earth. The ardor with which one desires to share the truth with others, coupled with the supernatural awareness of the value of sufferings united with Christ’s sacrifice, leads the faithful to generosity in making sacrifices for missionaries.

In addition to the spiritual help that can be given to the missions, Pope John Paul II mentions the importance of helping materially:

The material and financial needs of the missions are many: not only to set up the Church with minimal structures (chapels, schools for catechists and seminarians, housing), but also to support works of charity, education and human promotion (a vast field of action especially in poor countries). (RM 81)

It once happened that a missionary, returning from Japan to Rome had a lay-over in Moscow. At that time Moscow was communist. There was only one church in which he could offer Mass. When he finished his thanksgiving after Mass, an old Russian woman touched him on the shoulder and said to him in French: “I heard that you are going to Rome. I ask a great favor of you. Please give this package to the Holy Father, whom I love very much.” She did not want him to open the package, but considering the strict boarder controls, he insisted on knowing what was in the package. Upon opening it, he saw that it was full of money, a fortune.

He looked at the woman: she was poor, with threadbare clothes and in extreme necessity. And so he said to her: “You need this money for yourself!” She responded in tears: “If you do not take this to the Holy Father, I ask that you kill me. For this has given meaning to my life. For years I have scrimped and saved, not buying certain things, but with great joy. For I thought: I am a daughter of the Church, I am a daughter of the Holy Father. I have felt separated physically from communion with my Mother the Church, but at least this money will help the work of the missions. I lived so many years with the joy of thinking on this moment. Every renunciation was a joy. Please bring this money to the Pope. If not, take my life.” 

These words remind us of the words of the Old Testament when Rachel said to her husband Jacob: “Give me children, or I shall die!” (Gen 30:1). The ardent desire to be fruitful, especially on the spiritual level, is part of the maturity of the faith.

Called to be Missionaries

Our obligation to cooperate in the mission of Christ is not fulfilled, however, by prayer, sacrifice and financial donations. Christians are called not only to help the missionaries. Rather, we ourselves must be missionaries. Christian holiness demands the love and courage to share our faith with those around us. Our conversations must reveal that the truths of our faith are at the center of our hearts and foremost in our thoughts. It is true that we need discernment to know when and how to speak in order to be effective witnesses. But most of all, we need faith in the power of God’s grace to reach the hearts of even those who seem to be adverse to the Gospel. We must learn to see that beyond the tough exterior, there often lies a deep despair that frequently rules the hearts of those who do not know Christ. Words spoken in love and patience plant seeds which may take years to germinate and then to blossom. Perseverance and consistency in our witness to Jesus Christ is the best gift that we can offer to our co-workers, our peers, our friends, acquaintances and family members. Christian families in particular have a special mission within the Church of bringing the Gospel to its own members, and to other families (cf. JPII, Familiaris Consortio 49-64). Even with regard to those who already have the faith, we have the mission to help them advance in ever greater love and dedication to God and His Church.

We ask Mary, the Mother and model of all missionaries, to help us to exercise with the holy angels and with ever greater zeal the missionary mandate we have received from Jesus Christ. We pray that, if need be, we may have the courage to bear persecution with patient endurance for the sake of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus, content to know that we can help every man and woman on earth to come to know Him and be saved.

Fr. Basil Nortz, ORC