By Carole Brown
Director of Evangelization and Missionary Discipleship
The late Protestant preacher, Charles Spurgeon, once confronted his congregation with this provocative contention: “Every Christian,” he said, “is either a missionary or an imposter.”
Naturally, such a statement offends our Catholic sensibilities. The word “missionary” arouses the image of someone trekking off into the jungle to tell the lost tribes about Jesus.
Or, closer to home, the eager young co-ed who is ready to hit campus as a FOCUS missionary. Of course, most of us never end up doing anything like that. But, even setting aside the fact that Spurgeon was a protestant, how does he dare suggest that not doing that makes one an imposter?
In fact, it is not only Charles Spurgeon who has been so daring. All of the popes of recent memory have said strikingly similar things. Most recently, Pope Francis has challenged us to consider ourselves “missionary disciples.” The mission field, as it turns out, is much closer than it seems – sometimes it’s the person in the pew next to us. Sometimes it is my office, my gym, my classmates or the social gatherings I frequent.
Being a missionary disciple is an art that is learned in relationship with Jesus himself. One who meets him in the pages of the Gospel, and places himself in the scene, can easily understand why the natural impulse of those who encountered him was to go get their dear friends, their relatives, the people who needed a breakthrough or a miracle to happen, and bring them to Jesus.
The Gospel is full of stories of the crowds who followed Jesus. The missionary impulse today arises from the very same source. To know Jesus is to want others to know him. When this natural inclination does not manifest, then we could say (perhaps more gently than Spurgeon) that we don’t know Jesus well enough; or even, in some cases, at all. If this is the case, we are, in fact, “mission territory” ourselves.
On this point, we must not equivocate. It is nothing short of a tragedy to be a Catholic who does not know Jesus Christ. Pope Francis wrote compellingly on this point in “Joy of the Gospel:”
“(Our) conviction has to be sustained by our own constantly renewed experience of savoring Christ’s friendship and his message. It is impossible to persevere in a fervent evangelization unless we are convinced from personal experience that it is not the same thing to have known Jesus as not to have known him, not the same thing to walk with him as to walk blindly, not the same thing to hear his word as not to know it, and not the same thing to contemplate him, to worship him, to find our peace in him, as not to. It is not the same thing to try to build the world with his Gospel as to try to do so by our own lights. We know well that with Jesus life becomes richer and that with him it is easier to find meaning in everything. This is why we evangelize. A true missionary, who never ceases to be a disciple, knows that Jesus walks with him, speaks to him, breathes with him, works with him. He senses Jesus alive with him in the midst of the missionary enterprise. Unless we see him present at the heart of our missionary commitment, our enthusiasm soon wanes and we are no longer sure of what it is that we are handing on. We lack vigor and passion. A person who is not convinced, enthusiastic, certain, and in love, will convince nobody.” (Joy of the Gospel, 266)
It is not the same, and we mustn’t treat this issue as if it were of no import. Measuring ourselves against the Holy Father’s description – consistent with the teaching of Saint John Paul II, and Pope Benedict XVI – where does that leave you? Are you a missionary? Or mission territory?
There is no shame in admitting the latter. I dream of the day when such a person could walk into the parish and say, “I want to know Jesus,” and hear the reply, “You’ve come to the right place.”