It is no secret that Pope Francis is getting pushback from certain corners of the church these days. The church in the United States has been infected by the same harshness and polarization that inflame our politics. Our faith is challenged by ongoing polemics between Catholics labeled progressive and conservative. The due reverence afforded the papacy as one of the greatest sources of unity and cohesion for a global church is being undermined by a small but vocal chorus of vigilantes led by a small number of cardinals and bishops.
What is the source of the tensions and conflicts we have in the church today? I believe the reason for the uneasiness is the pope’s emphasis on mission. There is a profound difference between a church that is a nest or a niche, in which one can find peace, tranquility and seeming stability, and a church that sees itself as missionary through and through—always going out, reaching out to the margins, as Pope Francis likes to say. Such a church necessarily does not wait for outsiders to come to it; rather, it seeks them out and goes to them. Such a church is not overly concerned with its identity nor with the past. Rather, such a church lives and breathes a “culture of encounter.”
In 2012 CARA researchers Mary Gautier, Paul Perl and Stephen Fichter reported that there was a telling difference between how the two types of priest viewed their vocations. The diocesan priests tended to view their calling as a niche, as a position of status, as a function in a well-established organization. The religious order priests tended to view their calling as a mission, as a going out to engage an often incredulous and unfamiliar world with the Gospel message of Jesus. Francis, our first Jesuit pope, embodies this missionary impulse.
The exercise of ministry as mission involves more than maintaining institutions.
Jesus’ missioning of the 72 disciples in Luke’s Gospel (Lk 10:1-12) reminds us in no uncertain terms that the call to ministry inherent in our baptism is most definitely a mission—one that involves reaching out and engaging others. The church is so much more than its brick and mortar, its doctrines and morality, as important as those are. The exercise of ministry as mission involves more than maintaining institutions—no matter how basic they may be, like the parish, Catholic charities or the Jesuit university where I work.
Ministry as mission means ongoing engagement beyond the comfortable associations of our language, culture, social class, age, gender or sexual orientation. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the number 72 stands for all the nations of the earth and recalls the biblical teaching about the universal, all-inclusive scope of God’s love for humanity. It is to that vast, diverse world that Jesus sent his very first followers and to which he still sends them, sends us, today.
As followers of Jesus, our engagement with others as we find them—people of other religions, races, languages—should be shaped by certain attitudes. The first one is dependence on God and not on our human maneuvering. A second is authenticity and honesty, not strategic planning and the careful attention to metrics that is so much in vogue today. To proclaim the Gospel is first and foremost the communication of anexperience of Christ himself—as St. Paul says, “to know only Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2). To communicate the Gospel is to offer people the opportunity to experience an event in the form of a personal encounter with the living God. It is not, fundamentally, the imposition of doctrines—no matter how true the rules and no matter how righteous.
The most effective way to open others to an experience of the living God in Jesus is by giving a credible witness of God’s love.
To know Christ is to experience something that happens in one’s heart and total being. The surpassing knowledge of God proposed by St. Paul is a relationship with God, friendship with God in God’s very self. Arguments and persuasion by reasoning alone are not enough. While the methods of effective communication and organizational planning can help out efforts to evangelize, accomplishing the mission of the church or of any other Christian organization has to be the result of God’s grace working in the imaginations, wills and most authentic desires of those doing the outreach and in those to whom the outreach is directed.
The most effective way to open others to an experience of the living God in Jesus is by giving a credible witness of God’s love. Unless the agents themselves—and by this I mean all of the baptized—practice what they preach, walk the walk, the outreach is merely cosmetic and the results will be nonexistent or short lived.
Today’s renewal of the church and of our own faith has to begin with the realization that we need to grow in a life of daily prayer that puts us in contact with the living God in Jesus and the Holy Spirit. We are all called and sent in our own way. This depends on our age, particular calling, profession, socio-economic status and so on—but we are called and sent, nevertheless, like the 72 disciples of Luke’s Gospel.
The renewal of the church envisioned by the Second Vatican Council was exciting but also deeply bothersome to many Catholics who had gotten used to a church that was locked in tradition, self-referential and fixed in its thinking. The renewal of Vatican II’s call for change under Pope Francis’ vigorous leadership proposes something else that is exciting but enormously challenging: to choose to follow Christ of the Gospels always requires courage, a willingness to change and risk-taking. That is why by insisting on the need for this kind of faith-filled grit and modeling it for us, Pope Francis is rattling our cages.