Pope Francis calls us to be "missionary disciples." In recent messages, he speaks of a "new" evangelization and two notions that to some ears sound opposite: a missionary (someone who is sent away) and disciples (called to accompany, or be with, those who are near). Which is it?
Well, there is an old story about a synagogue in decline. The saddened rabbi decided to send emissaries to a famous monk for advice. After hearing of their distress, the wise monk went off to pray. The next morning when he returned, the monk whispered five words of advice to the waiting group - "The Messiah is among you." And he bid them farewell.
The emissaries were not sure if they fully understood the message, but they were overjoyed at the prospect, and returned to share it with their baffled rabbi, each one wondering who the Messiah might be. Almost imperceptibly, the promise that one in this community was the Messiah, began to change the way they treated one another.
There was a new vitality in the group. Worship there grew in passion and purpose. The congregation began to attract people who wanted to join in their ministries of caring and compassion, which touched people well beyond the community. The secret to their success? Simply a joy for God's presence, which was there all along.
What about us? Are we not the body of Christ? Are we not an Easter people, who know that ALL people belong to God? Any reading of the Gospel reveals that Jesus displayed a divine generosity rooted in this truth. Francis suggests that this hospitality is the hallmark of anyone moved by joy for the Gospel.
Joy for the Gospel is much more than merely right belief and right behavior. It is an act of self-donation to God's merciful plan for all people. Missionary disciples see the church, not as a refuge from the world, but as a campaign headquarters for a mission in the world. On the Sabbath, we pause and prepare for that campaign, which is waged but won or lost off church property. The parish then, is not a building, but a mission field.
A missionary disciple listens to the signs of the times and gives witness to Christian joy and hope at times, and in spaces, that are convenient and comfortable to outsiders and newcomers. They gather to praise God before being sent out, two by two (Lk. 10) and establish small groups, which, by design, receive, welcome and accompany newcomers.
Pope Francis asks Catholic leaders: Do our catechists only address those who come to classes? Do our homilies only echo in the hearts of regular church goers? Does everyone at church see themselves as an ambassador of welcome to newcomers and visitors? Do our youth ministers and campus ministers spend an inordinate amount of their time and energy with those who already belong, believe and behave as we expect? Do we lament that God may have some that churches do not, or that churches may have some that God does not? Or do we find joy in sharing the good news that Jesus promises to us? According to Pope Francis, you qualify as a missionary disciple if you are filled with joy for the Gospel.
Dennis Mahaney serves as director of the Office for Evangelization and Parish Life, Division of Evangelization and Catechesis, for the Diocese of Buffalo.