I am a product of Catholic schools. The only time in my life that I did not spend in Catholic school was three weeks in the spring of 1986, my senior year in college. I was student teaching at Wallkill Valley Regional High School in Hamburg, NJ, two Algebra I classes, one Geometry, one AP Calculus under the supervision of the math department head. The student teaching experience was supposed to run 9 weeks. I lasted just 3. Needless to say, I did not qualify for a New Jersey teacher’s certificate, and I came away convinced I would never make it in the world as a public school teacher.
And it was in Catholic school that I first encountered the concept of missionary work in the church. I had heard stories of women and men who heard and answered God’s invitation to proclaim the Gospel in a foreign land, and leaving behind family and fortune, chose to live among and serve people in need. The idea of missionary work appealed to many of my school friends, some even expressing a desire to one day become missionaries and live and work among the great unwashed, feeding the hungry, binding their wounds, teaching their children, proclaiming the gospel, and carrying the cross of poverty alongside them in some third world country across a vast expanse of desert or ocean. I have to admit I never warmed up to the idea. I never considered myself missionary material to begin with. Plus, I was not keen on leaving home and family behind. It has since occurred me that all the missionaries I have met growing up in the Philippines were of foreign origin, European or American mostly (and they looked just like you), and the poor they served in some third world country mostly looked just like me. I think it’s ironic that one day I would become a priest, that I would leave behind family and fortune, travel across a great ocean to serve a people and proclaim the gospel in a foreign land called America. I still don’t consider myself a missionary, but I detect a knowing smirk on God’s face. Wink, wink.
Upon further reflection, it has also occurred to me that the stories of missionary work are usually told from the viewpoint of the missionary, what they believed the Holy Spirit was sending them to do, the loves and lives they left behind, the sacrifices and rejection they endured, the frustrations and struggles of their daily work, and the meager successes they reaped. In my lifetime, I have seen both sides of the missionary experience. I am convinced the depth of the missionary’s compassion and outreach is determined in great measure by their willingness to embrace the cross and to embrace the journey of those they serve. It is the foundation of the missionary spirit.
Jesus Christ is the kind of missionary we must all strive to imitate. He left behind the glory and grandeur of heaven. The eternal Son of God wore an image like our own, sinful, broken, weak, human. He lived and worked among people like you and me, experienced our daily hardships, shouldered our daily burdens. He sought no honors nor recognition. He never put himself above those he came to serve. But his concern for our welfare and his dedication to the Father’s will was total and unselfish. It is Jesus we look to for inspiration. And we, the baptized, are called in turn to participate in Jesus’ great missionary endeavor which he has since entrusted to the church. We would be wise to pay attention to the lessons he taught.
But to limit the scope of the church’s missionary work to the task of proclaiming theology to unwashed, uneducated, uncivilized and unbelieving savages is to miss the great missionary opportunity within our reach. I submit we already live in a foreign land, among a foreign people. To our own families, schools, places of work, our own neighborhoods and communities, even our own country, we are bearers of the gospel message. We are sent to announce Jesus Christ right here, right now, and we don’t even need a passport.
Take for starters the necessary bond between teenagers and their parents, between students and their teachers, between laborers and their employers, between citizens and their civic leaders, between parishioners and their pastors. Those on one side often consider it a great challenge to reach out to the other side. Each side is frequently convinced the other speaks a strange language and live on a strange planet. The gap between them is real. It is the missionary’s task to bridge that gap, by reaching across the divide and sharing the other’s journey, their burdens and their aspirations, their failures and their successes. The gospel message will be heard only when that gap is bridged, and a genuine connection is established.
Do we make a sincere effort to understand where people on the other side are coming from, what inspires them, what deflates them? Do we attempt to listen to their ideas, to speak their language and see the world from their perspective, if only to acknowledge their unique reality and guide our outreach? Do we sow the seed of God’s saving Word with conviction and enthusiasm, but without first preparing the hearts of those who will hear that Word? Do we consider patient dialogue and careful planning a waste of time and energy? “The harvest is abundant but laborers are few,” Jesus tells us. “Ask the master of the harvest to send out more laborers.” But we must not forget that we have already been sent to help bring in the harvest. We are not spectators in God’s plan of salvation, we are participants. So it is always helpful to know exactly what we are harvesting, what weather conditions we are up against, to know our own physical strength, our mental readiness, to examine our motives, to map out a strategy, and to focus on a successful outcome.
Quite often, we do not think twice about giving up on the stubborn and the closed-minded. The gospel speaks with a sense of urgency. “If they do not receive you,” the 72 disciples are instructed, “shake their dust off your feet.” It seems they had little time to waste. They were, after all, sent ahead to the people Jesus had every intention to visit. The major difference is that we are not only bearers of God’s message. We are also bearers of God to those to whom we are sent. There is no one else for them to look. We are, as I heard someone say, the only Bible some of them will ever read. Our sense of urgency comes from Jesus’ directive, “The harvest is abundant but laborers are few.” We cannot allow the harvest to go to waste. Each of us is sent to bring in a portion of it in whatever capacity we are called to affect another’s life for good, as a student, a teacher, a teenager, a parent, a citizen, a leader, a parishioner, a pastor. What are we waiting for? We are all missionaries. Each of us, by virtue of our baptism, has been sent into the world. With our words and our lives, let us go, and proclaim the good news!
Rolo B. Castillo © 2013