The Missionary Life

February 10, 2013

“We are not here to convert the Chinese, but to do God’s will.” 1 Written by the Missionary Society of St. Columban co-founder Bishop Edward Galvin, these words were a radical departure from the early 20th century approach to mission and continue to define Columban mission life today. This faithfulness to God’s mission impels us to move beyond our comfort zone and encounter people, cultures, religious and social realities unlike our own. As St. Columban once said, “A life unlike your own can be your teacher.”

In 2012 two significant gatherings occurred in the life of Columbans and the Church. The first was the 13th General Assembly of the Missionary Society of St. Columban. Every six years these Assemblies are key moments in the life of the Society providing a space for prayerful discernment of the Spirit Who speaks to us constantly through the Church and in the changing circumstances of the world.

Held in the United States for the first time in the Society’s 94 year history, Los Angeles, California, with its tremendous cultural diversity and rich mission history, was the backdrop for the delegates from around the world to articulate the Columban vision for the next six years. What emerged was a “Call to Communion,” an invitation to be in relationship, especially with the poor and the unevangelized. Building on our long tradition of solidarity and dialogue, Columbans will continue to seek ways to witness God’s love in the world.

Within days of the Columban General Assembly concluding, the 13th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops opened with the theme, The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith, which lasted from October 7-28, 2012. Aside from the coincidental fact that it was the 13th General Assembly for both Columbans and the Bishops (Ordinary General Assembly), there were other similarities.

The first and perhaps the most important message from both Assemblies was the recognition of the urgency of mission today. From the pre-Synod document, Lineamenta, 3 the preface begins with Jesus’ command to “Go and make disciples of all nations.” (Mt.28:19) It is from this scripture that the entire Synod process of reflection was grounded. Similarly, in Columban constitutions, this same scripture is the first one reads upon opening to the section, “Nature, Purpose, and Spirit of the Society.” Just as it was for early disciples and Christians throughout the ages, this command has inspired many generations of Columbans to witness Christ’s message of love, peace, justice, hope and reconciliation in a broken world.

In a post-Synod article by John Allen, he describes the big take-aways from the synod saying, “In broad strokes the idea is a transition from maintenance to mission – from keeping the machinery of the church in good working order to reviving its missionary energies.” 4 Similarly, Columbans and many Catholic institutions find that we are called to increasingly place our structures at the service of mission versus adapting mission to fulfill the needs of the institutions.

A second commonality between the two gatherings was a focus on the call to conversion, both personal and societal. In this conversion, a turning towards God, we abandon our own initiatives and space is made for us to more fully respond to God’s will. At the 2012 U.S. Regional Assembly, the image of the grain of wheat dying in order to bring forth new life captured the imagination and hearts of Columbans. Through the letting go of one’s own desires, we are created anew in the image of God. In the Synod’s closing message, the Bishops emphasize this call to conversion saying, “In these days voices among the Bishops were raised to recall that the Church must first of all heed the Word before she can evangelize the world. The invitation to evangelize becomes a call to conversion.”

Not coincidentally, during the Synod, Pope Benedict opened the Year of Faith, beginning in October 2012 and continuing till September 2013. This special designation for the cultivation and strengthening of our interior lives becomes a graced moment to drink from the well of renewal.

A third, but no less significant observance, last October during the Synod was the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council. John Allen binds the Synod with Vatican II’s strong call for justice in the world when he says, “In a synod dedicated to relighting the church’s missionary fires, there are two core tests for the authenticity of that effort. The first is contemplation…and the second is a determination to see ‘the face of the poor’.”

The pre-Synod document, Instrumentum Laboris, which was the summary of the Lineamenta, offered numerous references to previous encyclicals, and other Church documents which lift up the Justice, Peace, and Integrity of Creation (JPIC) dimension of the Church’s mission which according to the Synod of Bishops in 1971 is said to be “integral to preaching the Gospel.”

On the eve of the Synod, Columban Superior General, Fr. Kevin O’Neill, on behalf of the Society, submitted to the gathered Bishops, a letter praising their recognition of the significance of justice in the Synod’s documents. He emphasized that from our missionary perspective, the Church cannot afford to weaken its positions on justice by overemphasizing charity. Indeed, some have compared “charity” and “justice” to the two feet we need to walk in the way of Jesus; action for justice and direct service to those in need. Both are needed to fulfill God’s mission. We must remain committed to meeting the immediate spiritual and social needs of the people we encounter, as well as seek lasting structural change.

Finally, what do these Assemblies mean practically? How will Columbans and the Church implement the ideas set forth in their respective gatherings? For Columbans, we affirmed our Justice, Peace, and Integrity of Creation ministry that seeks solidarity with the marginalized and vulnerable. We also affirmed our ministry of Inter-faith Dialogue, particularly among the Chinese and with Muslims. Ministries that invite people to mission such as Vocations, Formation, Lay Mission, Mission Exposure, and Short-term Volunteering will also be ways that we seek to be in communion with the world.

The Synod identified no fewer than 58 Propositions that offer focus for the implementation of the New Evangelization. 7 Below are a few that align with Columban priorities.

• Proposition 15: New Evangelization and Human Rights Proposition
• Proposition 21: Migrants
• Proposition 24: The Social Teaching of the Church
• Proposition 51: Youth and the New Evangelization
• Proposition 52: Ecumenical Dialogue
• Proposition 53: Inter-Religious Dialogue
• Proposition 56: Stewardship of Creation

While it will likely be a year or more from the conclusion of the Synod before the Pope issues his official document, an apostolic exhortation which further outlines direction based on the results of the Synod, these propositions give insight into what the New Evangelization means practically.

The missionary life for Columbans, today, remains rooted in the mandate of Jesus to proclaim the Good News to the ends of the earth in the spirit of our founders. We continue to cross boundaries to meet the spiritual and social challenges of our times. We seek relationships with people, communities, and Creation which are marginalized and vulnerable. Above all, we humbly and earnestly work to do God’s will.

And yet, in many ways the world in which we live mission today is very different from our beginnings in 1918. The urgency for communion, relationship, and unity is ever more pressing in the light of globalization with its apparent instantaneous connection paradoxically in many ways pulls us apart.for communion, relationship, and unity is ever more pressing in the light of globalization with its apparent instantaneous connection paradoxically in many ways pulls us apart. The Columbans share the Church’s call in the New Evangelization, for a world in which the human dignity of all peoples is respected and the care for Creation is integral to our Catholic Christian lives. We recognize that the New Evangelization, which is quite simply “entering into the long path of proclaiming the Gospel,” 8 begins in depths of our own heart through prayer and is made real in our encounters with Christ in the Other. In this way, we see the face of God in our neighbor, the stranger, and all of Creation as we are transformed into the face of God ourselves. The Columbans share the Church’s call in the New Evangelization, for a world in which the human dignity of all peoples is respected and the care for Creation is integral to our Catholic Christian lives. We recognize that the New Evangelization, which is quite simply “entering into the long path of proclaiming the Gospel,” begins in depths of our own heart through prayer and is made real in our encounters with Christ in the Other. In this way, we see the face of God in our neighbor, the stranger, and all of Creation as we are transformed into the face of God ourselves.