During October there is particular focus on the missionary activity of the Church. The month is marked by the feasts of great saints, from the ‘Little Flower’ of Lisieux, the cloistered young Therese, who is patron of missions despite having never left her monastery (October 1), St Francis of Assisi, with his 13th century forays into north Africa (October 4), St John of Brebeuf and his Jesuit companions in Canada (October 19), and St Anthony Mary Claret and his exploits in Cuba (October 24), to mention just a few from across the world. October reminds the Church of something that is crucial to its identity: the Church is fully its own when it repeats the explosion of Pentecost.
The past weeks and months of soul-searching in the Church in view of the massive scandals of sexual abuse and their cover-ups might easily lead to a sense of despondency and lack of hope among us priests and laity, and the many looking in at the Church’s seeming implosion. This is essentially the picture of the cenacle on Pentecost eve: a group of disciples, huddled in fear, bewildered, wondering what on earth had hit them after the death of Jesus.
The Church comes into its own when the Spirit is allowed to breathe new life amid the ashes of destruction, turning the embers of dying fires into zeal. The temptation in such moments like the present moment in the life of the Church is to turn inwards: a collective self-pity and wallowing which paralyses and brings only death. Similarly a coping strategy of nostalgia, of buttressing a church whose language no one speaks any more, is also bound to fail: because it is based on the fear of loss, not on hope in God’s promise of steadfastness. Even self-congratulatory initiatives of grandeur and pomp tend to sound disconnected in increasingly barren aisles.
A coping strategy of nostalgia, of buttressing a church whose language no one speaks any more, is bound to fail
Without in any way diminishing the need for the Church to urgently and fully immerse itself into the darkness of the present moment, and find the right strategies to attack the evil of abuse of power from within, the invitation of Pentecost remains: Go forth! Speaking to youths a few years ago Pope Francis urged them to do just this: Siempre adelante! Keep moving forward!
I believe that this is a synonym for the Christian vocation. For the life of every missionary disciple bears the imprint of his or her vocation. The voice of the Lord invites his disciples to leave the safety of their homeland and to begin the ‘holy journey’ towards the promised land of encounter with Him and with our brothers and sisters. Vocation is an invitation to go forth from ourselves, to rejoice in our relationship with the Lord, and to journey along the ways that He opens up before us.
This past year, I have been blessed to visit a few of our MSSP missions around the world, particularly in Cuba and Peru. Meeting churches that are saplings of the Spirit, nurtured by the love of missionaries who dedicate their lives so fully to the joy of the Gospel, has been a beautiful reminder of how often the only way to grow as Church is to look forward, outward, rather than pathologically inward; to reach out with an enthusiasm born of the gift of the Spirit.
The celebrations of Mission Sunday in a few weeks’ time becomes not just a celebration of diversity in the Church, but a deep affirmation of its first and most important mandate: “Go into all the world and preach the Good News to everyone.” (Mk16:15)
Fr Frankie Cini is regional superior of the Missionary Society of St Paul (MSSP) in Malta.
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