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Challenges of mission locally & globally considered

By Sarah Mac Donald - 10 October, 2015

IMU mission talk

“Mission is more urgent today than it ever was” the second in a series of Irish Missionary Union lectures celebrating 50 Years of Ad Gentes was told on Thursday evening.

In her address, ‘The Church is Missionary: The Global Challenge’, Sr Kathleen McGarvey OLA, President of the Irish Missionary Union (IMU) told those who attended the talk in St Paul’s Aran Quay, “I believe that if we look at the world today through the lens of Communion rather than of Church, we will certainly have to conclude that mission is indeed more urgent than it ever was.”

The series of lectures has been organised by the IMU Mission Identity Committee.

The committee was set up last year, Sr Kathleen explained, because of the “evident on-going confusion, lack of clarity, agreement, conviction among missionaries today surrounding ‘mission’ and our specific identity as ‘missionaries’.”

“We can safely say that this confusion has its beginnings in the Vatican II Decree Ad Gentes and particularly in the statement made there that mission is not a function of the Church, nor is it one among other activities or even charisms of the Church, but the Church and hence every baptised member of the Church is missionary by nature,” Sr Kathleen said in her address.

She said that over the last fifty years, much has changed in the understanding and practice of mission as a result of this and of subsequent Church teachings on mission, which reflect social, economic, and political changes in the world, as well as changes in Church demographics.

Discussing paragraph 2 of Ad Gentes, ‘The Church on earth is by its very nature missionary since, according to the plan of the Father, it has its origin in the mission of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’, the OLA provincial focused on five major areas of change that resulted from this and subsequent Church teachings in relation to mission in a global context.

The first change the nun, who until two years ago was missioned in Kaduna in Nigeria, identified was changes in missiology.

She suggested that the first implication this statement has for mission is that we recognise that the Church is not the end of mission.

“Therefore, going to new lands to ‘plant the Church’ and baptise is not the end or the aim of mission. Of course we believe that it is necessary that the Church be present among all peoples so as to be an icon of the Trinity, that is Communion, and hence working to establish a local church is of course an important and necessary path of mission; but it is not the aim or end of mission.”

In the past, many saw mission as being to go out to implant the Church, where the aim was to develop parishes, build schools, form native clergy, set up church structures, and then ‘Once the Church was planted, mission stops!’

IMU talk on mission

“It is said that attitude was common among Irish missionary orders and I have certainly heard many Irish priests and religious say that once a local Church is strong, then the mission is complete and the missionary must move on.”

She highlighted that this notion of mission is one of the most seriously challenged by the teaching that the Church is missionary by nature. “Mission is not about the Church; it is about God who is Trinity, Communion,” she emphasised.

“I believe that if we look at the world today through the lens of Communion rather than of Church, we will certainly have to conclude that mission is indeed more urgent than it ever was. Yes the Church is present in most parts of the world and people have had an opportunity to hear, to one extent or another, the Gospel.”

“But, although we live in a global world, called a global village, yet war, division, fragmentation in the name of religions and ethnicity, individualism, family breakdowns, loneliness, hopelessness…all these thrive. Communion is lacking as never before both here in Ireland and indeed worldwide.”

According to Sr Kathleen, a second implication of the statement, the Church is missionary, is that all churches, everywhere, are missionary.

“Many of our missionary institutes were founded at a time when Europe was considered the place that sent missionaries; Africa or Asia was the place that received them. This age-old distinction between churches that send missionaries and those that receive them is still alive, and to change it is something we seem to find hard to digest and to facilitate.”

She said this presents many great challenges for the church in Ireland today.

“One major one is that we have inherited a paternalistic model of mission, where we go out to save, with our faith or our money. Our notion of mission was based on the premises that the West is best for all the rest: it was from the North to the South, the older Church to where the Church was not present, the economically richer nations to the economically poorer ones.”

“We in Ireland are not at all used to the humility demanded by the fact that we might have something to receive. We see the presence of ‘foreign missionaries’ in Ireland not as a sign of the universality and dynamism of the church but as a sign that we have no vocations of our own!”

A third change introduced by the Ad Gentes statement relates to the missionary vocation.

Up until the Vatican II document, most lay people in the Church understood that the vocation to carry the Gospel to the world as missionaries was reserved for those who were called either to priesthood or to religious life.

“Now we understand that every baptised Christian, whatever their state of life, is to be regarded as a missionary also. This is spelled out in Lumen Gentium,” Sr Kathleen said.

Paying tribute to the role and contribution of lay people who give of their time as missionaries, such as Viatores Christi, Volunteer Mission Movement, Maynooth Missionary Outreach, Columban lay missionaries, volunteers who go with the OLAs she said, “They do great work and offer a wonderful testimony of faith and generosity.”

However, Sr Kathleen said she believed a global challenge nowadays, particularly in Europe, is the lack of vocations to the missionary priesthood and religious life to work alongside these lay missionaries.

“In the past it was too concentrated on priests/religious; today it is becoming too concentrated on lay missionaries. We need mutuality in this regard also and I encourage us to pray for this and to work to promote vocations in all these areas.”

In her presentation, Jane Mellett, a parish pastoral worker in Cherry Orchard parish and the Parish of the Assumption in Ballyfermot in Dublin spoke about the local challenges as one of 26 parish pastoral workers in the diocese.

“Our job description or mission is four key areas of parish mission. The first is educating – providing people of all ages the opportunity to deepen their understanding of faith.”

The second area is animating through existing and new initiatives reaching out to welcome new comers and listening to the hurt, marginalised and those disconnected from the church.

The third key area is praying by enhancing the prayer and worship elements of the parish and the fourth area is relating through building and nurturing relationships within the parish, as well as building community by linking home, school and parish.

“We have for some time regarded Ireland as new mission territory,” the young pastoral worker said.

She said that Ad Gentes 50 years ago gave a clear message that the Church is missionary by its nature but for many in the Irish church it probably did not seem missionary by its nature in terms of local mission as mission was thought of more in terms of developing countries.

“We have to ask ourselves ‘what does it mean today to bring the Gospel to others’,” she challenged and underlined the importance of listening to people and listening to the Spirit alive in people.

“The events in our parish that are the most successful are those that come from the people – from the ground up. Listening is a huge challenge because you are hearing a lot of things you don’t want to hear, she explained.

She recalled the advice of Archbishop Diarmuid Martin some years back when he suggested that the Church in 2020 will be a very different one to the one we encounter today. The Church most learn to focus on what is essential – its role will be different but not irrelevant and its contribution will come from people’s understanding of who Jesus is.

Referring to the Joy of the Gospel, she told her listeners that all evangelisation is based on the Word and that God’s Word Nourishes. (EG174) She reminded people that they might be the only Gospel that people read and that courage was needed in order for people to get out of their sacristies and to embrace the smell of the sheep.

An evangelising community gets involved in the world and deeds of people’s daily lives she said.

Jane Mellett also highlighted the possibilities for parishes to respond to issues like homelessness, the refugee crisis and climate justice and she paid tribute to a parish in Graigcullen in Co Carlow which two years ago started a soup kitchen.

St Claire’s Hospitality in Carlow, she said, was an example of how a local community looked at the needs of the area, prayed, and then took action.

Of young people today she said they were disconnected from the official Church but searching, curious, deeply spiritual and looking for community.

The 110 young people who attended the recent Faith Fest in Clonliffe College participated actively in all the events but it is unlikely you would see them at Mass she said.

As to the Church being in crisis, she recalled Timothy Radcliffe’s writing in which he stated that the Church was born in crisis beginning at a moment of collapse and betrayal. “We have nothing to fear from crisis” she suggested.

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