By Carole Brown
Director of Evangelization and Missionary Discipleship
Many years ago, I served on a team of missionaries in Austria. Once, when I was attending a German class, the volunteer teacher was helping me with basic conversational skills. Naturally, one of the things I needed to learn is how to ask what someone does for a living, and how to tell them what I do. So, when I told the Austrian lady that I was a missionary, she said, “But, what are you doing here? We are already Christian!”
I was discovering that indeed, Austria was a country with deeply Catholic roots. In spite of the impact of secularism, cultural Catholicism was still alive and well. There were still crucifixes hanging on the walls of stores, and even at the bank. Virtually all the historic bridges had a statue of Saint John Nepomuk on them.
Pentecost was even a national holiday – though few took advantage of the opportunity to celebrate the feast day by going to Mass! Like so many Austrians, my German teacher no longer practiced the Catholic faith of her childhood. And, that is why my colleagues and I were there, as missionaries. I soon learned that it was better not to tell people this because of the possibility of insult. Missionary activity, as far as most Austrians were concerned, was something that happened somewhere else, to someone else and would be done by someone else.
What we are learning in the Church throughout the west is that a missionary mentality needs to become the central feature of our understanding of ourselves as Catholics. Catholics of every rank are being asked to go through a mentality shift that will enable us to see our whole life through missionary lenses. In every relationship we have, Jesus asks us to be his ambassador. In our day and age, we must learn the skills and attitudes that enable us to be missionaries in our own friendship circles, neighborhoods and work places.
This past summer, two events of critical importance occurred in the Church in the United States to facilitate this mentality shift. One was the National Convocation of Catholic Leaders in Orlando in which the bishops gathered with the faithful to evaluate our response to “The Joy of the Gospel.” The other was the publication of the USCCB booklet “Living as Missionary Disciples.”
In both instances, a four-pronged “methodology of missionary formation” was proposed: encounter, accompany, community and send.
1. Encounter with Christ: “This encounter must be constantly renewed by personal testimony, the proclamation of the kerygma … and the missionary action of the community. … Only out of the kerygma does the possibility of true Christian initiation occur” (LMD, p.11).
2. Accompany: “To create a culture of encounter and witness, we must live explicit lives of discipleship. We are called not only to believe in the Gospel, but to allow it to take deep root in us in a way that leaves us incapable of silence. ... Of course, being a disciple is a challenge. We cannot live a life of discipleship alone. We need others to model lives of discipleship and accompany us as we grow in the spiritual life and experience of ongoing conversion” (LMD, p. 14-15).
3. Community: “Accepting the first proclamation, which invites us to receive God’s love and to love him in return, with the very love that is his gift, brings forth in our lives and actions a primary and fundamental response: to desire, seek and protect the good of others” (LMD, p. 16).
4. Send: “As they get to know and love the Lord, disciples experience the need to share with others their joy by proclaiming Jesus Christ, not just with words, but also through service to those most in need” (LMD, p. 17).
This methodology is deceivingly simple. Moving in the direction of creating a culture of missionary discipleship that permeates the atmosphere of our parishes will be complex – but not impossible. It will mean prioritizing things we haven’t necessarily prioritized before to create opportunities for adult Catholics to have an experience of discipleship.
It will mean giving explicit witness to our faith; to overcome the tacit “don’t ask-don’t tell” agreement that prevents spiritual conversations from being initiated in the public space. It will mean making counterintuitive decisions at times – like prioritizing the discipleship of adults over children – why? Because a discipled adult can disciple their own kids – and other adults too!
It will mean eliminating some of the busyness of the parish to direct resources and energy into accompanied discipleship initiatives, which are by their nature time consuming and labor intensive. It will mean improved, evangelical (kerygmatic) preaching. It will mean a deepening commitment to pray with the Scriptures. It will mean a renewed devotion to the Holy Spirit, who is the principle agent of evangelization. And, it will mean taking the long view.
There are no microwave solutions. This kind of change requires the commitment of decades –indeed lifetimes. But, we can see this culture shift happening already in the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City wherever such commitments are made.