As an altar boy in the 1950s, I remember an African bishop who came to our parish and visited our classrooms. I had never encountered an African American priest, much less an African bishop. He was of commanding stature and seemed like a giant to me. The good bishop had a British accent and spoke with a sophisticated vocabulary.
While the bishop was visiting, I got in trouble with our pastor when I carried a ciborium out to the altar for the Sunday Mass. It was forbidden for a server to touch sacred vessels, and the pastor scolded me. I pleaded my case by saying, “The bishop told me to do it.” Maybe that was why I eventually chose to be a Franciscan.
When I was ordained, years later, my religious superior did not want to send me to work in the foreign missions. But, after several requests, he was convinced by my argument when I said, “If you believe you know the will of God better than I do, then I will never again volunteer for foreign missionary work. But if you think the Spirit of God is in my request, you better allow me go.” I call that my “Francis argument” because of what St. Francis said in his Testament.
After recounting his conversion, serving lepers and how the Lord gave him brothers, Francis wrote, “No one showed me what to do, but the Most High Himself revealed to me that I should live according to the form of the Holy Gospel.” That is why I was sent to the Philippines and worked there for 25 years.
Years ago, the US Catholic bishops established a program to bring an experienced Catholic missionary into every parish in the country. The program was in cooperation with the Pontifical Mission Society. Its purpose was to create a greater mission consciousness in the hearts and minds of all Catholics. To this day, the program leads people to pray for the work of the Church’s missionaries and, second, to help support them and their ministry as they labor in the Lord’s vineyard.
“No money, no mission” is how I like to put it.
I have been doing a number of missionary co-op appeals every summer. What is so interesting to me is that in four of the six parishes I visited, missionary priests from India and Haiti are serving as missionary pastors here in the United States! Mission ministry is no longer a one-way street, but is instead a mutual exchange between churches. My Franciscan province here in Cincinnati is paired with the Franciscan province of St. John the Baptist in Pakistan. Friars from here travel there and friars from Pakistan come here in our assemblies and chapter meetings.
Another example of how international ministry in mission is growing is that Franciscan friars that I taught in the seminary in Manila now work here in the United States. They serve on the Navajo Reservation in Arizona.
When I was a kid, I got the idea that only priests and religious had a mission in life. You know, missionaries were the priests and sisters who went abroad and worked in “mission countries” and learned to eat all sorts of weird stuff like raw fish, insects, etc. Even if my childish ideas were distorted, I felt the call to serve in another country and to learn the ways of other people.
Today, most Catholics know that it is not only priests and religious who are called to be foreign missionaries. More and more lay people are serving in various short and long-term international missionary work. The same is true for domestic mission work, where small communities of Catholics rely on lay pastoral administrators, educators, and others.
Pope Francis reaffirmed that in his 2013 message for World Mission Sunday when he said: “The Church is not a relief organization, an enterprise or an NGO, but a community of people, animated by the Holy Spirit, who have lived and are living the wonder of the encounter with Jesus Christ and want to share this experience of deep joy, the message of salvation that the Lord gave us. It is the Holy Spirit that guides the Church in this path.”
The bottom line is that every baptized person is called to be active in spreading the faith through their lives and witness to the Gospel.