Mission: Highest Priority

Evangelization is the Church's highest priority

francis4When people speak of Pope Francis, they often refer to the new pontiff as the "pope of firsts."  Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the cardinal archbishop from Argentina, is the first pontiff in the 2,000-year history of the Roman Catholic Church to be chosen from Latin America, the first Jesuit to be elected, the first to take the name Francis. Judging from statements at the start of his pontificate, he is also the first pope since the early Church to emphasize evangelization—or mission—as the highest priority in the Church.

While every recent pope has noted that all Christians, by virtue of baptism, are called to mission, they have presented evangelization as one of many church works, such as preserving orthodoxy in church teaching, increasing vocations and encouraging Sunday Mass attendance and confessions.  While not denying the importance of these issues,  Pope Francis sees them in the context of mission.  "May the whole of ministry be in a missionary key," he says.

Only 10 days after his election, Pope Francis made that statement in a letter to his brother Argentine bishops who were meeting in a national assembly.  After apologizing, with tongue in cheek, for not attending due to "commitments assumed recently," the Holy Father urged the prelates to follow through on the commitment they had made in 2007 at the Latin American Episcopal Conference (CELAM) in Aparecida, Brazil, which stressed the missionary task of all Catholics.  The pope prompted his brothers to embark enthusiastically on a continent-wide mission.  "We must come out of ourselves," he said, "and grow in boldness."

Boldness, of course, can lead to mistakes, but Pope Francis contends, "A church that does not go out sooner or later gets sick in the vitiated atmosphere francis2of her enclosure."  He describes the malady as, "self-reference, the typical illness of the shut-in church ... a kind of narcissism that leads us to spiritual worldliness and to sophisticated clericalism." Pope Francis says, "I prefer a thousand times an injured church than a sick church."

The pope's insistence on the priority of mission flows from the Second Vatican Council's Decree on the Church's Missionary Activity.  It states, "The pilgrim Church is missionary by her very nature.  For it is from the mission of the Son and the mission of the Holy Spirit that she takes her origin, in accordance with the decree of God the Father.  "Mission then is the mission of God. Jesus, God's missioner, tells his followers, "As the Father sent me, so I send you."  The mission of God, therefore, is—or should be—the Church's highest priority.  Or, as is often stated, the Church does not have a mission; mission has a church.

Pope Francis advocates making "an option for the poor" as an effective way to proclaim God's love in today's world and attract others to the Gospel message.  During his first Holy Week as pontiff, he provided a concrete example by celebrating the Holy Thursday liturgy at Casal del Mormo Juvenile Detention Center in Rome, washing and kissing the feet of 12 incarcerated youths.  This so moved Jesuit Father Michael Kennedy, chaplain of the Sylmar Juvenile Hall in Southern California, that he and his young charges wrote to thank the pope.

francis3"Here the leader of the Roman Catholic Church affirmed the choice to kneel down with people that society has neglected as the place to find God's presence," Father Kennedy said, adding that Pope Francis thus points to where Christians should serve in mission: "Rather than run away from those who are not healthy, we should run toward those who need healing.

The Holy Father emphasizes the Church's social teaching as an integral part of the Gospel message to be proclaimed in mission.  He exhorts government officials, money managers and board members of multinational corporations, whether Christian or not, to carry out their obligation "to do good" by eliminating the causes of poverty.  He notes, "The income of a minority is increasing exponentially and that of the majority is crumbling."

He gave a group of ambassadors to the Holy See a message for their government leaders: "The worship of the golden calf of old has found a new and heartless image in the cult of money and the dictatorship of an economy which is lacking any truly humane goal."  He added, "The pope loves everyone, rich and poor alike, but the pope has the duty, in Christ's name, to remind the rich to help the poor, to respect them, to promote their development.  The pope appeals for disinterested solidarity and for a return to person-centered ethics in the world of finance and economics."

Pope Francis calls all Christians by virtue of their baptism and all people of goodwill by virtue of human solidarity to join in the mission of creating a world of justice and peace.

by Frank Maurovich - Maryknoll Magazine