Within the Catholic Church, October is celebrated as “Mission Month.” This year, October 23 marks the 96th commemoration of World Mission Sunday. Although this commemoration is traditionally dedicated to the work of the pontifical mission societies, Pope Francis has continually reminded us that the call to mission is there for each baptized person, that our faith is always missionary. Maryknoll Lay Missioners — and the entire Maryknoll community — have embraced that vision for decades.
In this year’s Message for World Mission Day, the Holy Father reflects on the theme of “You shall be my witnesses” (Acts 1:8). The idea of “witness” often seems like a loaded or confusing term, especially as it is interpreted differently across faith circles. Yet, in his thoughtful reflection, Pope Francis explains that we are “sent by Jesus to the world not only to carry out, but also and above all to live the mission [of love] entrusted to [us]; not only to bear witness, but also and above all to be witnesses of Christ.” Moreover, this witness through mission is not merely carried out individually, but is expressed “in communion with the ecclesial community” as we are sent to proclaim (not proselytize) to “all the ends of the earth.”
This beautiful letter led me to consider the many witnesses of Christ’s love in my life. One in particular came to mind perhaps because she passed away earlier this year — a very close family friend, an adopted “aunt” to my siblings and me. I’ve spent some time reflecting on her life, especially with my mom. Our grief turned to awe as we remembered the way she gathered people, maintained a ministry of reuniting and connecting people, telephoned people and listened to their stories as her mobility grew difficult, and so generously gave of her time, talent and treasure to numerous causes. As I remember my Aunt Ron, it’s fitting that I am thinking about what it means to be called to follow Christ in mission, for my aunt did that so profoundly in her unique, selfless way.
Some of us, like Aunt Ron, hear and follow a call to a particular ministry or role, even one that may not be seen by others or be defined by a job title. We know these individuals in our families, parishes, communities and work places. We see this commitment in the likes of Zechariah, Miriam, Ruth, Martha and Mary and others.
Others of us, when saying “yes!” to God’s call, find themselves led to places of radical change, uncertainty, lifestyle and even danger. In our faith stories, the living witness of Abram and Sarai, Moses, Esther, Jeremiah, Peter, Paul, the communion of saints, the Catholic Worker and countless others, including Maryknoll missioners, are a profound reminder that God sometimes wants us out of our comfort zones. And yes, because of these witnesses, we, too can find a way to say “Yes!” when this call to love seems too radical or turns our lives upside down.
More often than not, the call to embrace God’s mission comes right where we are, to bear witness with the gifts God has given us. Jesus says, “Follow me” (Matt. 4:19), and the trick is figuring out “Where?” or “How?” Unfortunately, that is not always clear. Moreover, it does not necessarily mean a lifetime gig or require us to uproot ourselves. The call to “follow me” and “be a witness” involves a lifetime of listening, paying attention, and opening our hearts to adjusting our path. No matter where we are on our journey, we are indeed called by God into a mission that requires listening, discernment, celebration, course adjustment, sharing stories and communion, and bearing witness.
You “can milk cows to the glory of God,” claimed Martin Luther! All we do, whether for pay or for love, can be done for God’s mission. Our special call, our unique gift, and our forging ahead together in community, as church, is the “Yes!” we say to God’s question: “Will you accept this mission of love?” Can you dream it along with me? Can you describe it? Can you build it? Can you bear this?” When we do say “Yes!”, we are not boasting, but praying for the Spirit’s strength and guidance to do what we can, and for grace to allow our gifts to become a witness of God’s love.
Pope Francis humbly shares this prayer at the end of his World Mission Day message:
Dear brothers and sisters, I continue to dream of a completely missionary Church, and a new era of missionary activity among Christian communities. I repeat Moses’ great desire for the people of God on their journey: “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets!” (Num 11:29).
Indeed, would that all of us in the Church were what we already are by virtue of baptism: prophets, witnesses, missionaries of the Lord, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to the ends of the earth! Mary, Queen of the Missions, pray for us!
During this Month of Mission, may we listen deeply for the ways God is calling each of us to bear witness, to be a witness. Let us hold each other in prayer. Be assured of our prayers of gratitude for the many ways you join in communion with us and inspire, encourage, strengthen and help all of us in Maryknoll Lay Missioners to say — however unique, imperfect and wonderful — “Yes!”