from conservationists to missionaries

An Advent Journey with Pope Francis and Evangelii Gaudium, Part 5

Along these lines the Latin American bishops stated that we “cannot passively and calmly wait in our church buildings”; we need to move “from a pastoral ministry of mere conservation to a decidedly missionary pastoral ministry”. (Evangelii Gaudium, 15.)

The words quoted by Pope Francis come from the Fifth Conference of the Latin American and Caribbean Bishops at Aparecida, Brazil in 2007. I followed the Conference with special interest. The Bishops invited many lay representatives to the first days of the conference, including some members of our Latin American Marianist Lay Communities. They came back with glowing reports.

The final document from Aparecida spoke of the need to be in permanent mission. It spoke of the preferential option of the poor. It spoke about keeping Christ at the center of our lives and all our works. And, it spoke of the need to go out to the periphery to meet the people of God where they are. Does this all sound familiar?

It is not surprising that the words of Francis and those of Aparecida sound one and the same. He was elected by his fellow bishops to chair the committee that drafted the final document. (See the America Magazine article – On the Trail of Aparecida)

The call to go beyond being church conservationists to being missionaries is truly prophetic. Several years ago, I heard a priest preach that the most important place in the world for us is “inside the four walls of this church.” The message was echoed in guilt ridden “ministry drives” that pressured us into signing up for various parish tasks. The focus was on keeping the parish community alive, for the sake of the parish. There was no talk about outreach or acknowledgement that our energies might be better spent outside the church walls.

One parish community that truly “gets it” is Sacred Heart in Camden, New Jersey. I have never been there, but I have good friends who are not only active parishioners, Joanne and Ray are two of Sacred Heart’s best PR persons. The love and energy they have for their parish is contagious. It makes you “want what they have.” Sacred Heart is in the second poorest city in the USA, yet is a thriving beacon of prayer and social action. Check out their list of social ministries.  It will blow your mind! (Good luck with the Toy Store next week, Joanne! 🙂 )

To often, we get bogged down with building, renovating, and maintaining our church buildings. Yet a building does not make a church. We spend our energies on “community building”, but building community for whom? Just for us? We work tirelessly to have beautiful liturgies, but lose sight of the real purpose of our prayer.

Prayer is meant to be the nourishment, the spring-board for missionary action. The Eucharist is not merely an elite gathering of believers on a Sunday morning. It is the Body of Christ and each one of us, as part of that same body,  offering the fullness of ourselves to “go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”