Mission to day: the Francis effect


The annual celebration of Mission Sunday in the Catholic Church takes place on 20th October.  An experienced worker in the field of international development reflects on the shifting focus of the church’s understanding of mission.

In the statement issued by Pope Francis for World Mission Day, he asks us all, since ‘every baptised man and woman is a mission’, to ‘revive [our] missionary awareness and commitment’, not just for a day but for the whole month of October.  The Pope insists that we are born to new life through mission which is not ‘a product for sale – we do not practise proselytism – but a treasure to be given, communicated and proclaimed: that is the meaning of mission’.  Our sharing in this divine life means we try to discern the world through the eyes and heart of God who urges us to exercise charity to those on the margins of society and to go to the ‘ends of the earth’ to minister to those in need.

The task of those in mission is: to accompany, to build relationships that give life, to recognise the dignity and intrinsic worth of all human beings, no matter who they or what faith they belong to, to question the ‘rampant secularism’ of today’s world which becomes an obstacle to ‘authentic human fraternity’, and to witness to an openness towards everyone without limits, driven by the love shown to us in the Gospel.  That love urges us to show mercy at all times.  Mission is part of our identity as Christians, and is undertaken as gift, sacrifice and gratuitousness.

Long gone are the days of a mission which equated sending consecrated men and women out to the ‘missionary lands’ to convert people from their own faiths to ours.  Our priests, sisters and lay missionaries often used pre-evangelisation techniques such as building schools and clinics, to show the ‘natives’ how kind we were and what converting to our faith could provide.  That has been replaced, as Fr Donal Dorr, an Irish Kiltegan Father well known in Scotland, wrote, with dialogue which ‘conveys the impression that mission is not just a matter of doing things for people… [but] first of all a matter of being with people, of listening and sharing with them’.[1]  He prefigured Pope Francis’s insistence that dialogue is the answer to ‘all the wars, all the strife, all the unsolved problems over which we clash’.

This shift in the focus of mission has several sources.  The first is the Second Vatican Council whose understanding of the Church in Lumen Gentium (the Dogmatic Constitution of the Church) has moved from the pre-conciliar ‘perfect society’ facing an idolatrous world to the journey of the people of God throughout history, engaging with, not condemning, the modern world.

This is bolstered by the conciliar document, Ad gentes (the Decree on the Church’s Missionary Activity), which declares that the church on earth, now equated with the people of God, is by its very nature missionary.  It stresses the indigenisation of local churches whose task is to preach the Gospel and, if that is not politically possible, then to bear witness to the ‘love and kindness of Christ’.  Its work is firstly to witness to the faith of Christ, and Christian charity is to be offered to all, with no racial, religious or social discrimination, seeking ‘neither gain nor gratitude’.

The second source of the shift in focus is the nature of the world after the Council.  The advent of an economic globalisation benefited the rich, former colonial or neo-colonial powers more than the former colonies.  They had become politically independent but remained largely dependent on the whims of the neoliberal West in matters of trade, and their people remained largely poor.  Neoliberalism brought with it the atomisation of society and the birth of the mass consumer, a kind of ‘Tesco ergo sum’.  Those who were poor were thus excluded from society, human beings whom Pope Francis calls today ‘gli scartati’ – those who are thrown away like pieces of rubbish in an ‘economy which kills’.  The missionary thus became someone who advocated for the poor, tried to protect them from land grabbers and exploiters, and who often paid for that activism with their lives.

A third shift in the focus on mission is the omnipresence of violence and conflict in ‘missionary territories’.  Missionaries became not only collateral damage but targets for standing up to protect the land and its people (Sister Dorothy Stang SND in the Amazon); for preaching justice and liberation theology (Ignacio Ellacuría SJ and his confrères at the University of Central America in San Salvador) and for caring for peoplewith HIV/AIDS (Annalena Tonelli, an Italian laywoman who invited people living with HIV/AIDS to a the TB hospital she ran in Somalia).  Missionaries and aid agencies like Caritas Internationalis worked together to produce manuals for peace-building and reconciliation practice after the genocide in Africa’s most Catholic country, Rwanda.  These are now cross-cutting issues for many missionary congregations and Caritas members.

In 1981, SEDOS (Service of Documentation and Study on Global Mission), based in Rome, held a seminar to discern the new tasks of mission in the post-modern world.  They were named as proclamation, interreligious dialogue, inculturation and the liberation of the poor. These, in conjunction with the humanitarian, development, social, pastoral and spiritual work, remain the mainstays of missionary activity today.

Over the years, working for SCIAF and Caritas Internationalis, I have met, made lifelong friendships with, and worked alongside many missionaries, consecrated and lay.  I am full of admiration for their work and want to highlight two.

Sr Maura O’Donoghue, a doctor and Medical Missionary of Mary, spent 35 years in Africa.  I met her at Kitovu Hospital run by the sisters in the Masaka area of Uganda, one of the worst affected by the HIV/AIDS crisis.  She and her colleagues were the first medics in the world to introduce home-based care for those living with AIDS rather than keeping them in an overcrowded hospital.  Since at that time, having AIDS was a death sentence, there was a great deal of stigma around it – and myths such as you could contract it through touching the person or breathing the same air.  The sisters were well known to the community and trusted by them, and so gradually the prejudice lessened and the patients returned home to die in peace among their family members.  Maura, who looked like your favourite, grey-haired granny, cajoled and harangued many bishops throughout the world to mobilise the Church to work with, and for, people with HIV/AIDS.  She died in 2015 but is remembered as a tenacious saint by many.

In Ranong in southern Thailand, I met by chance with an international grouping of Marist Fathers (New Zealanders and Filipinos).  They were educating the children of illegal Burmese migrants who had fled the poverty and violence of Burma for work in charcoal and fish factories in Ranong.  It was not just formal education but the building up of confidence in the children who had been treated like detritus most of their lives.  Burmese schoolgirls had to disguise themselves as Thai so as not to be abducted on their way to school, as a number had been manhandled into black vans and ended up in brothels in Bangkok and Phuket.

The priests had to try to persuade the factory owners to be more generous with the salaries, and we worked together to ensure that the Australian Catholic University programme to offer tertiary education to Burmese refugees, which I coordinated at the time, was extended to migrants.  After their ACU diploma, a number went on to do full degrees at Thai universities and now have good jobs contributing to the welfare of their own people instead of toiling away in a fish or charcoal factory where conditions lowered the mortality rate of workers.

At the end of the message of Pope Francis for World Mission Day, he asks the faithful to donate to the Pontifical Mission Societies to carry on the wonderful work modern missionaries carry out on behalf of those at the margins.  They also contribute to the local churches to enable them to carry out one of the three central tenets of Catholicism – diakonia -service or ministry to the poor.  Missio is the Scottish member of the Pontifical Mission Society, and, with SCIAF, is the only other official Catholic agency doing this kind of work.  By being generous on the day of the collection, we are in solidarity with those abandoned by the world but not by the Church which, Pope Francis says, ‘must be a place of mercy freely given, where everyone can feel welcomed, loved, forgiven, and encouraged live the good life of the Gospel’.

Duncan MacLaren is a former Executive Director of SCIAF and Secretary General of Caritas Internationalis, the global confederation of Catholic aid and development agencies.

[1] Donal Dorr, Mission in Today’s World, (Dublin: St Columba Press, 2000) 16.

Feb/Mar 2020

In June 2019 Open House held a conference exploring possible new directions for the Catholic Church in Scotland. See conference papers.

Open House also held a conference on the role of lay people in the governance of the Catholic Church in November 2013. See conference papers.