By Fr Isaac Muzenda
The theme for this year’s World Mission Day was based on Acts 1:8, “You shall be my witnesses.” The Holy Father’s message for the day reflects on aspects of this missionary journey in the life of every Christian. This reflection will explore three of these aspects: the call, the sending out, the equipping by the holy Spirit.
Called to Witness
The first aspect we focus on is that, every Christian is called “to bear witness to Christ” as Pope Francis presents it. The Lord Jesus, during the Last Supper, makes it clear to his disciples that they are his choice, not the other way round, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last” (Jn 15:16). This Christian calling, is a participation in the missionary mandate of Christ, and is the work of the Church today. Pope Francis stresses this point saying; “Christ was the first to be sent, as a ‘missionary’ of the Father (Jn 20:21), and as such, he is the Father’s ‘faithful witness’ (Rev 1:5). In a similar way, every Christian is called to be a missionary disciple and to witness to Christ.” This mission is not our own, but we are part of a larger story: that of God who goes out of himself, a God on mission. We do not act out this missionary work on our own, but in collaboration with others. It is never an individual endeavor, and we all have a special part to play.
Our story adds to the greater story of the rest of the Body of Christ, the missionary Church. What we are called to, as the Holy Father points out, is to be “witnesses”, and he states that, “the true witness is the ‘martyr’, the one who gives his or her life for Christ, reciprocating the gift that he has made to us of himself.” To witness entails an encounter with the mystery in question, seeing it as being worth leaving everything for the sake of the Kingdom of God. The martyrs were convinced that to die was better than denying their love and knowledge of Christ. The God who chose us, calls us to a life of encounter and love, that we may come to know he who has revealed himself to us. We are not being dragged into a situation where we are meant to be puppets, but into a relationship with Love and Existence itself. This witnessing is what Pope St. Paul VI made very clear to be embraced by all who have accepted the call to Christian life, “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses” (Evangelii Nuntiandi, 41). Our calling is to Christian life in union with God, founded in love.
Sent to Evangelise
The second aspect is that of being sent out. After such an encounter, we are called to be relevant missionary disciples, equipped and geared up for “a mission of universal evangelisation.” The aspect of the Church being sent out to “the ends of the earth” does not entail that we too should leave our homes and go far and wide. Yes, there are those who have accepted the vocation that entails such a move, as priests and religious, and others who have volunteered for such. Yet, the Church, by its universality, is everywhere. By our presence wherever we may be, we have the responsibility of bringing the Church to the ends of the earth. Pope Francis calls for a consciousness of the problems of our time, and our geo-political and economic situations. All Christians are people in time and in certain space, present to the situations around them. The Second Vatican Council already made it clear, “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts” (Gaudium et spes, 1).
Christians, as the Holy Father notes, are not sent to proselytise, “but to proclaim.” The challenge of the Christian is to be relevant, and to be a source of comfort, strength, peace, love and even reintegration of people around them. Family life, schools, work places, parishes, religious houses, presbyteries, and even the shops, villages, towns, taxis, buses – all of these are to be places of evangelisation, by the very lives lived by the Christian in their time. The cries of widows, orphans, abused men and women, slaves, the poor, prisoners, the elderly and sick, neglected and avoided, and such, have meaning and call for the touch and words of every Christian. Pope Francis says, “Christ’s Church will continue to “go forth” towards new geographical, social and existential horizons, towards “borderline” places and human situations, in order to bear witness to Christ and his love to men and women of every people, culture and social status.”
Gift of the Holy Spirit
The third aspect is the reality that God equips and guides those he commissions. Pope Francis notes that “When the risen Christ commissioned the disciples to be his witnesses, he also promised them the grace needed for this great responsibility: ‘You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses’ (Acts 1:8).” The Holy Spirit plays a great part in the missionary and sacramental life of the Church and its members. The descent of the Holy Spirit, saw the preaching of the Apostles and baptism of new members on the day of Pentecost, and has always been present in the work of the Church. The Holy Spirit prepares hearts for the encounter with God, and it is by that same Spirit that we can come to know God. The Holy Father pointed this out saying, “Just as ‘no one can say, Jesus is Lord, except by the Holy Spirit’ (1 Cor 12:3), so no Christian is able to bear full and genuine witness to Christ the Lord without the Spirit’s inspiration and assistance.”
What we have come to know, experience and are sent out to proclaim, are all a result of the presence and work of the Holy Spirit in us. It is thus important to note one particular sentence in this section, “The same Spirit who guides the universal Church also inspires ordinary men and women for extraordinary missions.” Just as the work of the Church to date, is a result of the work of men and women, young and old, who have contributed to it over the centuries, we too have a role proper to us in this age and setting. We are sent to our own times, and situations, to families, parishes, nations, cultures, economies and circumstances. The Spirit thus inspires in us a response proper to our time. The Synod on Synodality bears a relevant response to this. The Church, as Pope Francis notes, ought to be “a completely missionary Church, and a new era of missionary activity among Christian communities” and we it is important that all, “Christ’s missionary disciples are called to recognise the essential importance of the Spirit’s work, to dwell in his presence daily and to receive his unfailing strength and guidance.”
Holy Mother Church is missionary by nature, and its members partake in the mission of Christ. Every Christian is thus on mission: chosen, commissioned and gifted to be witnesses in their time. The call to witness entails a relationship with the Lord whom we are called to proclaim. It is not a call to proselytise, but proclamation, and in doing so, to be relevant in the world and circumstances we are living in. May we pray for a deepened missionary discipleship in our lives, in our Church and in the world that we live in. Let promote a Synodal Church that is journeying together, crossing boundaries and bringing Christ to all.