'Christ chose every one of us to be His disciples by going into the world and living the Good News. That means He made us all missionaries. The people to whom we are asked to bring the joy of the Gospel may not look much different from us, but, like our brothers and sisters in the foreign missions, they may be hungry and thirsty and in need of a healing message in many different ways.'
Imagining everyday life in "the missions" probably evokes heart-wrenching scenes like malnourished children with soulful eyes posed at entries to humble shacks, barefoot women bearing heavy loads along muddy roads -- and clerics in white cassocks and sandals.
Though not without some foundation, these are caricatures. They tend to reinforce stereotypes of the mission Church as confined to remote regions, far away from cell towers and shopping malls, and very different from us.
Narratives related by visiting missionaries, however, while unsettling at times, can help us feel closer to their people. These people are, after all, our brothers and sisters in the same Christ whose cross unites us in mutual love, prayer and support.
I say "mutual" because "the missions" and we actually sustain and support one another.
It is a fundamental Gospel teaching that giving of our time, talent and treasure -- our love, prayer and support -- is essential if we want to enter the kingdom of God. We can only give, of course, what we have, and not everyone has the same gifts.
While it is true that many of the mission churches lie in poorer countries that rely on support from people with greater material resources, in recent years it has become clear how the missions support us in countries like the United States.
Consider how many clergy and religious in our own country come from areas historically considered mission territory. In a very personal way, the missions have now come to us!
Yet, there is another even more powerful way that the missions have moved closer to home: the mission next door!
We all notice that many of our churches are not filled on weekends to the capacity for which they were designed. Many of them were built to accommodate four or five times their typical Sunday occupancy today.
Where are the missing parishioners? Many parishes in the northeast, where demographics may have shifted, maintain Mass schedules no different from when their church was completed, even if that was 50 or 100 years ago.
The issue, however, is not always a matter of diminishing Catholic populations. Though some surveys have branded the northeast (and parts of the northwest) as spiritually arid by comparison with the south and southwest, this conclusion is often based on the criteria by which "spirituality" is gauged.
The measures applied by such surveys typically include Bible-reading, church attendance, tithing and other quantifiable factors.
We are familiar with the phenomenon of the "nones:" persons who do not identify with any particular church or denomination. The vast majority of such persons say they are "spiritual but not religious."
Many of them have Catholic backgrounds, and their distancing from formal religion practice does not represent a hard and clear break. They are right around the block - or maybe even next door. The missions are now right here!
Christ chose every one of us to be His disciples by going into the world and living the Good News. That means He made us all missionaries. The people to whom we are asked to bring the joy of the Gospel may not look much different from us, but, like our brothers and sisters in the foreign missions, they may be hungry and thirsty and in need of a healing message in many different ways.
They may or may not be disposed to a personal invitation to join you at a Sunday Mass or community event sponsored by your parish. They might say "no" -- but, with persistence, that could change. Try offering to do some act of kindness -- and don't be afraid to say, "Well, this is what good Christians do!"
Telling another person that God loves them is good, and true, but it is much more convincing when we can show them that love in specific ways. Nothing beats good example. The consistent respect with which we talk, comport ourselves and speak about other people will do more to attract others to Christ than a barrage of Scripture quotes and religious pamphlets.
The so-called "new evangelization" that no doubt you have heard about is a theme that all the Holy Fathers in recent decades having been speaking about. What it means, basically, is doing what good Christians have always done: bringing Christ to others one person at a time.
To do that, each of us needs to make a personal commitment to the Lord to accept the task He is giving us to be His disciple. It means, every day, asking ourselves: "What have I done today to spread the joy of the Gospel? What have I done to lead others to Jesus?"
Remember the saying attributed to of St. Francis of Assisi: "Preach always. Use words if necessary."
St. Francis -- who was not a priest, by the way (they did not want to ordain him, I've heard!) -- knew well that you do not have to be a theology scholar or a member of the clergy to bring Christ's presence to people. St. Francis attracted others to Christ by kindness and the gentle persuasion of his example.
St. Francis remains one of the most popular and effective saints of all time! Will you be another St. Francis?