About Mission

“Mission” means so many different things to different people, usually encompassing a spectrum of thoughts, ideas, and beliefs about what it does, could, and should mean. The two articles below should help give you a taste for our approach to mission.

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Contemporary Ways of Understanding Mission

This is an excerpt of a talk given by Fr. William Nordenbrock, CPPS at the US Catholic Mission Association Conference on October 25, 2001.

A New Model of Mission

A new model of missionary activity seems to be emerging that is based on a post-Vatican II understanding of Church.

There are two characteristics of a Post-Vatican II ecclesiology that are relevant for this presentation. First, in Vatican II ecclesiology we find two prevalent images of Church: the Church as the People of God and the Church as the Body of Christ. And secondly, we no longer think of the Church as having a mission; rather, we think of the Church as being a mission…

In 1997, the USCCB released this document – Called to Global Solidarity: International Challenges for U.S. Parishes. In it we read: “We are members of a universal Church that transcends national boundaries and calls us to live in solidarity and justice with the peoples of the world. We are also citizens of a powerful democracy with enormous influence beyond our borders. As Catholics and Americans we are uniquely called to global solidarity.”

The bishops acknowledge that the call to global solidarity is a great challenge to our parishes. They recognize that “parishes often act as islands of local religious activity rather than as parts of the mystical body of Christ.” (pg. 1) And the challenge is that at the parish level, where the Church lives, we need to integrate more fully the reality of being a universal Church. That it has to go beyond just adding another program to the parish activities; rather the universal nature of the Church has to be integrated into the way the parish prays, educates, serves and acts.

The bishops say: “A parish reaching beyond its own members and beyond national boundaries is truly a ‘catholic’ parish.” When I speak with parishes I tell them: they don’t need to do parish twinning to be faithful. But unless they have some significant focus outside meeting the needs of their parish members; unless there is some significant ministerial activity and commitment to a mission beyond caring for itself and its parish members, it is not a “catholic” parish. As the bishops put it: “A parish’s “catholicity” is illustrated in its willingness to go beyond its own boundaries to extend the Gospel, serve those in need, and work for global justice and peace.” That’s the measure of their “catholicity”. It is not- how spirited is their Sunday worship or how exactly they follow the rubrics? It is not- How strong is the sense of family? It is not measured by the number of participants in parish groups or activities. The measure of parishes’ “catholicity” is their commitment and involvement in mission. When I speak with parishes I like to echo the challenge: “Parishes need to be more Catholic and less parochial.”

I think that in the document [Called to Global Solidarity: International challenge to U. S. Parishes], the bishops reflect an understanding of Church that goes beyond seeing the Church as having a mission, to a belief that the Church is a mission. There is no purpose for the Church beyond the carrying on the mission of Jesus. That is our identity as a people of God; as the body of Christ; a Church of disciples. Every aspect of what we do as a Church has to reflect that understanding, that self-identity. That is a great challenge to most parishes…

For most parishes, for many pastors whose ministry is dominated by parochial administrative concerns, embracing global solidarity requires a huge paradigm shift. We find in the book of Isaiah an image that can help them to make that shift. “Enlarge the site of your tent and let the curtains of your home be stretched out; do not take back; lengthen your ropes and strengthen your stakes.” (Is 54:2)

A truly catholic parish is one that is willing to pitch a bigger tent; to stretch out the fabric of their concern to make room for brothers and sisters that live outside their old boundaries. It doesn’t mean that they discard the many other elements of the parish life that people find spiritually enriching. Rather, for most parishes, a commitment to mission is to expand their self-identity as a parish; to create a little more room in their hearts and consciousness.

If our images of the universal Church are: being the people of God; being the body of Christ; and being a mission, what does that say about the missionary work of the Church?

 Three Important Shifts in Mission

Along with the emergence of a new Vatican II ecclesiology, there has been a shift in missiology– a new model in the Church’s approach to living out the missionary command of Jesus. I’d like to suggest three important shifts in understanding that results in what can be called the humble model of missionary activity.

The first important shift, brought about by a changing ecclesiology, has been that the missionary call is shared by the whole Church and is not just a call given to only a few, usually members of the religious congregations. The missionary task is no longer restricted to men and women religious. Others also find a missionary element in the baptismal call and work as lay missionaries. While not unheard of in previous years, the growth in lay involvement in this ministry is a more recent phenomenon.

While still relatively few may experience the personal vocation of being a foreign missionary, this shift in understanding underlines the need for all the baptized to be a participant in the mission that is the Church and the importance of all Church institutions, like parishes, to be involved in the mission. As the bishops write: “This is not a work for a few agencies or one parish committee, but for every believer and every community of faith.”

That is the first shift– missionary activity is the responsibility of the whole Church.

A second shift that forms a new missiology is the shift away from believing that the missionary “has God and takes God to the pagans”; to recognizing that Christ is already present in the mission Church and recognizing and supporting the enculturalization of Christianity in a particular local Church…..

Today, the missionary activity is not just about evangelizing, but it also about being willingness to be evangelized. A missionary is challenged not just to ‘be Christ to others’, but to have a heart that is able to recognize the presence of Christ in those to whom he or she was sent and to be willing to allow those that they encounter to be Christ to them.

In the past, much of the missionary apostolate was thought of as a rich Church handing down charity to a poor Church. Consequently, the relationship between the mission sending Church and the recipient Church was viewed as a relationship between superior and an inferior and missionary work would be characterized as being paternalistic or maternalistic. But when missionary work arises out of a Vatican II ecclesiology, then the desired relationship is one where there can be a mutual sharing of gifts within the body of Christ. We seek to recognize, embrace and nurture a relationship with the mission Church as a relationship between equals. That is the second shift.

The final shift that forms a new missiology arises out of global economic awareness. Today, missionary work takes place in a world that has been drawn together by the globalization of markets, communications and transportation. An effect of that globalization is that our economic interdependence has been laid bare and there is a growing realization that often the “haves” of the world, have at the expense of the “have-nots”. As the bishops put it: “Global economic forces empower some and impoverish many.”

We, in the U.S., are among those who benefit from that economic system. This is not an accusation of personal guilt, but a recognition that the economic system is stacked in our favor.

Let me give an example. This past January, I was in Guatemala and visited a coffee finca/plantation that had a processing plant. There in the gift shop, I could buy a pound of their export quality coffee at the inflated tourist price of about three dollars. As I was flying out, in the gift shop at the airport I found the same coffee on sale for about four dollars. I haven’t found it here in the US-but I’d guess that at Starbuck’s I would probably have to pay, maybe six dollars, for that pound of coffee. Now the peasant who picked the coffee beans gets paid three or four cents a pound. By working hard all day, he will earn three to four dollars, which even the government recognizes as being below what is necessary for subsistence.

Now, wouldn’t we all gladly pay an extra four cents for a pound of coffee to double that Guatemalan family’s standard of living? Of course we would. But of course, he wouldn’t receive the extra four cents. That’s the economic system, and while we would not choose to exploit that peasant worker in Guatemala, we have to realize that we benefit from the injustice done to him by the economic system.

With that understanding, giving money to the missions isn’t viewed as giving charity. Rather, I think we have to view it as an act of solidarity to correct an economic imbalance; to address an injustice. That is an important shift in our understanding of our mission activity and is sometime difficult for people to accept. We usually feel good about ourselves when we give charity to others; it shows that we are good people. It can be uncomfortable to realize that we have benefited from an injustice and have to make it right.

Mission as Being in Solidarity

In my talks with parish groups, I sometimes ask those who are parents if they think that they are giving charity when they buy clothes for their children. Of course, they don’t think of that as charity. They’ll say that they are just using their family resources to meet the needs of the family.

Well, when we recognize the mission Church as part of “us”, then our sharing of resources is not going to be viewed as charity, but simply the using of our resources for our needs.

Being in solidarity means that we re-define our understanding of “us” so that it better reflects our theology of the Church as the body of Christ.

These are three shifts in our understanding of mission:

  1. That the whole Church has to be missionary;
  2. That the missionary activity must be relationships between equals, where the presence of God is recognized and the enculturalization of Christianity is encouraged;
  3. And, that the financial component of missionary activity is about justice, not charity brings about a shift in missiology from the heroic model to the humble model.

That is not to say that sacrifice is not required of the missionary–we all can tell contemporary stories of the heroic faith and commitment of missionaries. But it requires humbleness to be in mutual relationship. It requires the humility to recognize and accept the gifts that the mission Church has to give the mission sending Church.

A great gift that the mission Church offers us is their powerful witness of faith. I saw this articulated best in an interview with Bishop Macram Max Gassis, in America magazine. Bishop Gassis was speaking about the reality of the Church in Sudan, where an estimate 2 million people have been killed since 1983. He said:

“We are called a ‘recipient church’, and we are. And the Church in the U.S. says that it is a ‘donor church’. And it is. But aren’t we also a donor church? What about our blood-the blood of our martyrs? What about the suffering of our children? We donate these realities to the universal Church. So I think that we are giving more than we are receiving-because we are giving our lives.” (America, Jan 15-22, 2000)

Perhaps one of the greatest gifts that the mission Church can give us, is that in its witness of faith, they hold up to us a mirror that allows us to examine our own lives of faith. As we come to know brothers and sisters of faith from a culture other than our own, we learn of new ways of understanding the Scriptures; we see new models of being a parish community; we encounter experiences of God’s interaction with God’s people that are different from our own. And in the relationship with the mission Church we can see how our own experiences of faith and Church are bound by our own culture and fail to fully express the richness of the relationship between God and God’s people.

If we approach missionary activity as a mutual sharing within the body of Christ, then in our desire to evangelize, we receive the gift of being evangelized; of having our faith renewed.

Want to know more?

The complete, unedited talk by Fr. William Nordenbock, CCPS, which was titled “Why Parish Twinning,” can be found here in PDF format.
Also see the U.S. Bishops’ document Called to Global Solidarity: International Challenges for U.S. Parishes

Contemporary Ways of Understanding Mission by Fr. William Nordenbrock, CPPS

Spiritual Growth and the Option for the Poor

Rev. Albert Nolan, O.P., is a former provincial of the Dominicans in South Africa. He is author of Jesus Before Christianity (Orbis, 1993). The following speech was given to the Catholic Institute for international Relations, London, on June 29th, 1984.

In our service of the poor, there is a real development that goes through stages in very much the same way as the stages of prayer. For example, some of us know quite a bit about the stages of humility which St. Bernard talks about, or the stages of love and charity that we read about in our spiritual books. Now I am suggesting that in our commitment to the poor there is a parallel spiritual experience that also goes through different stages.

The first stage is characterized by compassion. We have all been moved personally by what we have seen or heard of the sufferings of the poor. That is only a starting point and it needs to develop and grow. Two things help this growth and development of compassion. The first is what we now come to call exposure. The more we are exposed to the sufferings of the poor, the deeper and more lasting does our compassion become. Some agencies these days organize exposure programs and send people off to a Third World country to enable them to see something of the hardships and grinding poverty.

There is nothing to replace the immediate contact with pain and hunger. Seeing people in the cold and rain after their houses have been bulldozed. Or experiencing the intolerable smell in a slum. Or seeing what children look like when they are suffering from malnutrition.

Information is also exposure. We know and we want others to know that more than half the world is poor and that something like 800 million people in the world do not have enough to eat and in one way or another are starving. For many people the only experience of life from the day they are born until the day they die is the experience of being hungry.

All sorts of information can help us become more compassionate, more concerned — providing of course that we allow it to happen. That we don’t put obstacles in the way by becoming more callous, or saying, “It’s not my business,” or “I am in no position to do anything about it.”

We as Christians have a way of allowing our compassion to develop, indeed, we have a way of nourishing this compassionate feeling, because we can see compassion as a virtue. Indeed, we can see it as a divine attribute, so that when I feel compassionate I am sharing God’s compassion, I am sharing what God feels about the world today. Also, my Christianity, my faith, enables me to deepen my compassion by seeing the face of Christ in those who are suffering, remembering that whatever we do to the least of his brothers and sisters we do to him.

All these things help, and this developing compassion leads on to action, action of two kinds that we may to some extent be involved in. The first of these is what we generally call relief work, the collecting and the distributing of food, of money, of blankets, of clothes, etc.

The second action that leads immediately from our compassion is a simplification of our lifestyle, trying to do without luxuries, trying to save money to give to the poor, doing without unnecessary material goods and so forth. There’s nothing extraordinary about that; it’s part of a long Christian tradition: compassion, almsgiving, voluntary poverty.

My point is that this is the first stage. And what seems to be extremely important is that we go on from there.

Structural Change
Now the second stage begins with the gradual discovery that poverty is a structural problem. That is, poverty in the world today is not simply misfortune, bad luck, inevitable, due to laziness or ignorance, or just lack of development.

Poverty, in the world today, is the direct result of political and economic policies. In other words, the poverty that we have in the world today is not accidental, it has been created. It has been, I almost want to say, manufactured by particular policies and systems. In other words, poverty in the world today is a matter of justice and injustice, and the poor people of the world are people who are suffering a terrible injustice. They are the oppressed and the poor of the world. Certainly the greed of the rich is the reason why there are the sufferings of the poor, but what I am trying to say is that it is a structural problem. We are all involved in this; we’re victims, we’re pawns, whatever you like, but we’re all part of it.

This characterizes what I am calling the second stage of our spiritual development. It immediately leads to indignation or, more bluntly, anger. It leads to anger against the rich, against politicians, against governments for their lack of compassion, for their policies that cause poverty and suffering. Now anger is something that we as Christians are not very comfortable with. It makes us feel a little guilty when we discover that we are angry. But there is a more important sense in which anger is the other side of the coin of compassion. If we cannot be angry then we cannot really be compassionate either. If my heart goes out to the people who are suffering, then I must be angry with those who make them suffer.

For us Christians, there can be a crisis at this stage. What about forgiveness, or loving one’s enemies? But anger doesn’t mean hatred. I can be angry with a person whom I love; a mother can be angry with a child because the child nearly burned the house down. And mustn’t we be angry with the child because of love and concern, to show the child the seriousness of our love and concern? So sometimes I must be angry. Sometimes I must share God’s anger. The Bible is full of God’s anger, which we tend to find embarrassing at times, rather than helpful to our spiritual lives.

My suggestion that we need to share God’s anger means not hatred, but rather, as we say so often, not a hatred of the sinner but a hatred of sin. The more we all understand the structural problem as a structural problem, the more we are able to forgive the individuals involved. It is not a question of hating or blaming or being angry with individuals as such, but of tremendous indignation against a system that creates so much suffering and so much poverty.

The more we have that anger, the closer we are to God. And if we cannot have that anger about any system or any policy that creates suffering, we don’t feel about it as God feels about it and our compassion is wishy-washy.

During this second stage, our actions will be somewhat different, or we may add to what we were doing before. Because as soon as we realize that the problem of the poverty in the world is a structural problem, a political problem, then we want to work for social change.

Relief work deals with the symptoms rather than the causes. Relief work is somewhat like curative medicine, and the work for social change is somewhat like preventive medicine. We want to change the structures, the systems that create the poverty, not only to relieve people when they are suffering from that poverty. Both are necessary but at this stage you begin to recognize the need for social change. For some people, it leads to paralysis, while others become very active. A struggle goes on with a person at this stage.

We come now to the third stage which develops with the discovery that the poor must and will save themselves, and that they don’t really need you or me. Spiritually, it’s the stage where one comes to grips with humility in one’s service to the poor.

Before we reach this stage, we are inclined to think that we can, or must, solve the problems of the poor. We, aid agency people, conscientized middle-class people, the Church maybe, and leaders, have got to solve all these problems. Governments or people who are educated must solve the problems of the poor. We see the poor as what we often call the needy; we must go out and rescue them because they are helpless. There may even be some idea of getting them to cooperate with us. There may be some idea of teaching them to help themselves. But it’s always we who are going to teach them to help themselves. There is a tendency to treat the poor as poor, helpless creatures.

Now I am suggesting that at this third stage the shock comes, perhaps gradually, as we begin to realize that the poor know better than we do what to do and how to do it. They are perfectly capable of solving structural problems, or political problems. In fact they are more capable of doing it than you and I are. It is a gradual discovery that social change can only come from the poor, from the working class, from the Third World. Basically, I must learn from them: I must learn from the wisdom of the poor. They know better than I what is needed and they, and only they, can in fact, save me.

We discover that the poor are God’s chosen instruments and not me. The poor themselves are the people that God wants to use and is going to use in Christ to save all of us from the crazy madness of the world in which so many people can be starving in the midst of so much wealth. This can become an experience of God acting and of God’s presence in the poor, not merely as an object of compassion, not merely seeing the face of Christ in their sufferings, but discovering in the poor, God saving me, God saving us, God acting and speaking to us today.

The hazard in this third stage is romanticism — romanticizing the poor, the working class, the Third World. We can get ourselves into a position where, if somebody is poor and says something, then it is infallibly true. Or, if somebody comes from the Third World, we must all listen simply because they come from the Third World. And if they do something, it must be right. That’s romanticism, and it’s nonsense. On the other hand, it is a kind of romantic nonsense that somehow we all seem to need at one stage.

As long as we recognize what we’re doing, I don’t think it is necessarily very bad. But it can become a problem at the end of this third stage. We are likely to reach a crisis, a crisis of disillusionment and disappointment because the people of the Third World, or the poor have not lived up to the heroic picture we had of them. We have misunderstood the structural problem. It doesn’t mean to say that poor people in themselves and by themselves are any different as human beings from anyone else. They have their problems, like anyone else.

That brings us to the fourth and last stage. That stage centers around the experience of real solidarity with the poor and the oppressed. And I think the real beginning of this stage of our spiritual development is the disappointment and disillusionment that we experience when we discover that the poor are not what we romantically thought they were. I am not saying that we do not have a great deal to learn from the poor. I maintain that. I am not saying that the poor are not going to save themselves and us. I maintain that. I am not saying that they are not God’s chosen instruments. They are.

All of that remains true, but they are human beings. They make mistakes, are sometimes selfish, sometimes lacking in commitment and dedication, sometimes waste money, are sometimes irresponsible. They are sometimes influenced by the middle class and have middle-class aspirations, and sometimes believe the propaganda and perhaps don’t have the right political line. Maybe they are not all that politicized. Nevertheless, I can and must learn from them.

Only the poor and the oppressed can really bring social change. It is simply a matter of moving from romanticism about the poor to honest and genuine realism, because that’s the only way that we can move into this fourth stage.

Real solidarity begins when it is no longer a matter of we and they. Even when we romanticize the poor, make tremendous heroes of them, put them on a pedestal, we continue to alienate them from ourselves — there is a huge gap between us and them. Real solidarity begins when we discover that we all have faults and weaknesses. They may be different faults and weaknesses according to our different social backgrounds and conditions and we may have very different roles to play, but we all have chosen to be on the same side against oppression.

Whether we’re black or white, whether we were brought up in a middle class or working class, we can be on the same side against oppression, well aware of our differences. We can work together and struggle together against our common enemy, the unjust policies and systems, without ever treating one another as inferior or superior, but having a mutual respect for one another while recognizing the limits of our own social conditioning.

This experience, and it is an experience of solidarity with God’s own cause of justice, can become spiritually an experience of solidarity with God in Jesus Christ. It is a way of coming to terms with ourselves in relationship to other people, with our illusions, our feelings of superiority, with our guilt, our romanticism, which then opens us up to God, to others, to God’s cause of justice and freedom. This is a very high ideal and it would be an illusion to imagine that we could reach it without a long personal struggle that will take us through several stages — dark nights, crisis, struggles, shocks, and challenges.

The four stages I have described then are not rigid so that you have to go through exactly one stage after another. It does get mixed up. But I have presented this model in the hope that our attitude towards the poor may always remain open to further development.

The one really bad thing that can happen to any of us is that we get stuck somewhere along the way. We are then no longer able to appreciate others who have gone farther. Because we don’t realize that it’s a process, we also don’t appreciate and understand those who are still beginning.

We need to understand that we and the church are all going through a process, a spiritual development, a growth and a struggle. We’re in it together and we need to help and support one another in this process. Let us help it, encourage it, and struggle within ourselves, because today it is the only way we are going to come closer to God and be saved.

Spiritual Growth and the Option for the Poor by Fr. Albert Nolan, OP