Posted May 27, 2020
The Church that comes into being with the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the gathered disciples is a missionary Church. Impelled by the Holy Spirit, the apostles begin to proclaim the gospel to people ‘from every nation under heaven’. The Acts of the Apostles is an account of the rapid spread of the gospel throughout the Near East and the Mediterranean world in the earliest period of the Church. As such it is also an interpretation of the meaning of Pentecost. Notice how St Luke, the author of Acts, attributes all the key initiatives in this expanding mission to the Holy Spirit, the gift of Pentecost.
Now whereas it is only the apostles who were commissioned to conduct the Church’s mission, it is clear that all members of the Church did what they could to assist them. In the sixteenth chapter of Romans St Paul sends his greetings to many men and women whom he calls his ‘co-workers’, ‘those who labour in the Lord’. And whereas it is true that in 1 Corinthians St Paul asks, rhetorically, ‘Are all members of the Church apostles?’ (answer: No), nevertheless we know that he regarded all members of the Church as potential ‘co-workers’ with himself, and all members of the Church as responsible for proclaiming the gospel to others. The teaching of recent popes also reminds us that we are all ‘missionary disciples’.
When we hear that we all have a ‘missionary vocation’, we may be baffled as to what this means in practice. Does it mean that we should up sticks forthwith and go to some distant missionary territory? Many Christians have done just that, prompted by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and the nudging of God’s providence. One thinks of the many men and women who have done so by joining missionary religious orders. One thinks also of individuals like the Lutheran biblical scholar, philosopher, organist and physician Albert Schweitzer, who in 1913, with his equally adventurous and richly talented wife, set out for what is now Gabon, in Africa, to found and run a hospital for the poor.
Often, however, being a missionary is not a matter of planned action. It is a matter of our standing ready to open our hearts to the people we encounter in our daily lives, being eager to share with them the love we ourselves have experienced. Many people become missionaries not in pursuit of some strategy but in response to circumstances, sacrificing themselves to care for others, as is the case with the very many doctors, nurses and other health-care workers who ‘die daily’ to look after the sick and the dying in the current pandemic. They are missionaries of Christ, whether or not they would wish to be described as such. In their self-giving they preach the love of Christ.
In less harrowing times the missionary spirit may not reveal itself in such heroic forms. It may be simply the desire to help those around us to see something of the attractiveness of Christ. It may be a matter, simply, of allowing God’s goodness in our hearts to encourage goodness in others, and gently to lead them on from goodness to God. An ancient Christian saying goes: ‘The human soul is Christian by nature.’ An essential task of the missionary is to sublimate the goodness in humanity with the quiet grace of Christ. It is for this reason that St Paul urged the Philippians to set their minds on ‘whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely’. Pope Francis, echoing the 2012 Synod of Bishops, spoke of the ‘way of beauty’ as a means of evangelization. By this he meant that what is beautiful and attractive in human culture, in music, architecture and the arts, is an aspect of the beauty and attractiveness of Christ.
The missionary vocation consists in being human among humans with Christ in your heart. Christians of all walks of life (spouses, parents, teachers and pastors come first to mind) are called to be missionaries. Even people who live in humble obscurity are called, like Mary of Bethany, to fill the whole house with the aroma of Christ. Whatever your missionary vocation happens to be, your task is to make it your own. Pentecost speaks to each one of us in our own language; and that’s how we are being addressed today. Here is your chance to hear the message anew and to understand that it is being addressed to you.
Fr Tom Deidun