The SMA Provincial Leader, Fr Michael McCabe, preached on the third evening of the Novena of Prayer in Honour of Our Lady. The Novena will conclude with the SMA Annual National Pilgrimage to Knock on Saturday, 23 May 2015.
Fr McCabe took as his theme: Mission Today. The following is an edited version of his homily.
Today’s Gospel reminds us of the missionary mandate of the Risen Christ before his Ascension into Heaven to go forth and proclaim the Good News to all creation.
Mission, as Pope Francis has reminded us is the concern of each and every baptised member of the Church.
The Church, he says, is a missionary community of Christ’s disciples that goes forth to bring the Good News of Christ to others, especially those most in need. If the Church ever ceased to be missionary, it would no longer be the Church of Christ but merely a sodality, a group of like-minded people who simply enjoy each other’s company. Emil Brunner (the great Protestant theologian) expressed memorably when he said: “The Church exists by mission just as fire exists by burning”.
The Special Vocation of Missionaries
However, when we speak of mission, we need to distinguish beween mission in the general sense, and mission in a quite specific sense. Mission, in the general sense, means witnessing to Christ and the Gospel wherever one is. This is something which all the baptised are called to do. But there is also, within the Church, a quite specific mission to the nations, to those who have not heard about Christ, those belonging to other cultures and religions. This specific mission is based on command of the Risen Christ to proclaim the Gospel to all peoples.
In New Testament times St Paul is the most striking example of this special missionary vocation. He was chosen by God to bring the Good News of Christ to the pagan world and this calling led him on a journey from Damascus to Rome. The SMA is an international missionary society founded 159 years ago by Melchior de Marion Brésillac, a French Bishop to bring the Gospel to the peoples of Africa. Our Founder placed the Society under the protection of Our Lady. It is therefore fitting that we pray to Mary to help us be faithful to this mission in the circumstances of our time.
We sometimes hear it said nowadays that, since all nations have heard about Christ, there is no longer any need for the special vocation of missionaries. This is not true. Pope John Paul II, in his great Encyclical Letter on Mission, The Mission of the Redeemer, said that the mission to the nations was still in its infancy as there were still many people in the world who had never heard about Christ. The Church still needs full-time missionaries who are prepared to leave their homelands to share their Christian faith with those who do not know Christ.
The Pope also called on missionaries to ‘read the signs of the times’ and respond to the new challenges in mission today. He highlighted some these challenges: reaching out to refugees and displaced persons, to those living in megacities; entering the world and culture of young people, the world of the mass media, bringing reconcialiation and healing into places of conflict and violence, safegurding the created world. It is not enough, Pope John Paul stated, for today’s missionaries to stick to doing ‘the same old thing in the same old way’. He urged missionary groups like SMA and OLA not to be discouraged but revive the grace of their founding charism and undertake ‘new and bold endeavours’ so as to make God’s reign of justice, peace, truth and love a reality in our world.
Since I became an SMA member in 1965 many changes have taken place in the understanding and practice of mission. It is no longer a mission from North to South (or from West to East), from supposedly Christian lands to ‘pagan’ lands and it is certainly no longer a one-way process (if it ever really was). Mission today is as much about receiving as about giving, and it is lived out in situations marked by a religious and cultural plurality that the missionary must respect. The missionaries of the 21st century represent that marked shift in the global axis of the Church from Europe and America to Africa and Asia which is one of the ‘signs of the times’.
While the missionary thrust of the Church is evidently on the wane in the the Northern hemisphere, the younger Churches of Africa, Asia and South America are now vibrant missionary churches. Indeed the vast majority of missionaries today are coming from these Churches. My own missionary family (the Society of African Missions) is a good example of this trend. Today, close to 80% of our vocations come from Africa. In a decade or two the SMA will be predominantly African and will be living and working in international and intercultural communities. Practically all international missionary societies and congregations are experiencing the same trend. Another significant trend – one of the fruits of the Second Vatican Council – is the increasingly active involvement of lay men and women in mission, either as associates or volunteers. This is surely one of hopeful ‘signs of the times’, helping to keep alive the missionary spirit of the Churches in Europe.
We rightly call Mary our Missionary Mother to help us continue the mission of her Son – to be his faithful and fruitful witnesses especially to the peoples of Africa so that God’s Kingdom may come, and his will be done on earth as in heaven.