Bruised, Hurting and Dirty: The Missionary Church of Pope Francis

This is a revised draft of a talk given in DCCatholic’s Summer Theology on Tap series on August 16, 2014. Click here to listen to the speech online.

Thank you, Jonathan, for the introduction. First let me say that it’s a joy to be with you tonight. I’m particularly grateful to be here at St. Ignatius Church as we celebrate together our archdiocese’s 75th anniversary. As you might know, St. Ignatius is one of the oldest continually existing Catholic parishes in North America and in the United States. Founded by the great Jesuit missionary, Father Andrew White, in 1641, this parish serves as a great testimony about what it means to be that missionary Church that Jesus longs for us to be: a Church on the margins, a poor Church that is for the poor, a Church that heals wounds and warm hearts, a Church that is always a place of mercy and hope, where everyone is welcomed, loved and forgiven. The fruits of Father White’s ministry are due to his Jesuit charism, expressed so well by an early companion of Ignatius: “We [Jesuits] are not monks. The world is our cloister! The world is our house!”

Today, another Jesuit comes to mind when we think about the idea of a missionary Church: Pope Francis, the Bishop of Rome. Francis tells us that we are to be the Father Andrew Whites of today: missionary disciples of the Lord Jesus. But how can this be? We are men and women of the world, with families, jobs, and responsibilities. We aren’t missionaries.

So why should we heed Francis’ call and be missionary disciples despite our lack of “professional credentials?” Most poignantly, we must do this because our faith isn’t simply a possession to be held, but a gift to be shared. The words missionary and evangelization may have negative connotations for some today. But let me tell you what missionary discipleship is truly about. It’s not about manipulating anyone. It’s not even about converting anyone. At its very core, missionary discipleship is about sharing the Gospel, which literally means “good news.” And our world is in such desperate need of good news.

The pain is real, but this good news can change transform it. What is this news? It’s the impossibly good news that no matter who we are, no matter what we’ve done, or how badly we’ve failed, God never grows tired of loving us. It’s the news that God’s mercy is from age to age. No one is excluded; no one is left behind! We engage in missionary discipleship not because we’re seeking converts, but because we’re loved sinners who are experiencing this reality in some way and want other people to experience this redeeming love and allow it to change their lives. I want to propose tonight that there are three steps to being this missionary disciple: 1) we must have a big heart open to God, open to discerning God’s movement in our life; 2) we must have the courage and the desire to share the joy of the Gospel; and finally 3) we must be willing to become poor for the poor.

To take up Francis’ call to be missionary disciples, we ourselves must first be open to God in our own lives. We encounter the Lord a thousand times a day, if only we could open our eyes to see it. But how can we open ourselves up the experience of this God who walks with us? Pope Francis suggests the first step to seeking and finding God in all things is the act of discernment. Christian discernment means that one takes a step back from life and sees where God is active in it. Ignatius suggests that we can do this by asking three questions each day: where was God today? How did I respond? And where is God leading me tomorrow? Through such discernment, a missionary disciple is able to see the small things of her life within the largest horizons—the horizons of the Kingdom of God. And where is God? The Lord is in any person or any moment that increases those ancient virtues of faith, hope and love in us. God is there when you experience those transcendental values of truth, beauty and goodness. To put it simply, God is present in anything that makes ‘you’ more you.

For me, the act of discernment has uncovered some deep desires hidden deep within me. A little over a year ago, I was in a job in politics that was consuming all of me. Every day, it filled my ego and my pocket, but I slowly, quietly came to realize it wasn’t filling my heart. Every night, I went to bed feeling less and less like me. Every night, I would ask myself those three questions, and in time—through prayer and encounter with my friends—God revealed to me to the way forward: “Christopher, it’s time to leave this job! It’s time to go elsewhere!” At the same time, an opportunity opened up to work at my current organization, Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good. On paper, it was a silly decision for a variety of reasons. But I knew the Lord was calling me there. I knew I believed in its mission. The prophets of doom told me it was a dumb decision. The Lord I encountered in those quiet nights and in the friends who loved me told me to go. And I went. And the prophets of doom were wrong.

Friends, the one who discerns life and has a big heart open to God lives differently! She discovers the truth of Arrupe that “[n]othing is more practical than finding God, than falling in love in a quite absolute, final way. What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything. Fall in love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.”

The second step to being a missionary disciple is sharing the joy of the Gospel. Have you ever had that profound experience where you’re looking into someone else’s eyes and you realized at that moment you were looking at a lover, a friend, or a great colleague for the journey ahead? The experience overwhelms us! What do we do in these great moments? We tell people about it! Perhaps for a time, we even annoy people about it!

Friends, when we encounter the God who never grows tired of loving us, we cannot help but share it. It’s the first kiss in the moonlight. It’s the friendship that sustains itself through distance and years. It’s the colleague who will labor with us well past close of business because we share in the same dreams and in the same mission. Let me be clear: we don’t share the good news of this God who loves us to manipulate anyone. We don’t do this to brag or to make outsiders of those who don’t share in our experiences. And we don’t do this to engage in some impersonal theological inquiry. No! It’s more than that! We’re sharing the story of being in love.

When we live such a life, we will radiate joy. And joy attracts people—all kinds of people. A missionary disciple is willing to engage, encounter, and befriend anyone. And in everyone, they can experience God’s love and learn something more of the grandeur of God and God’s people. And every once in a while, someone who encounters us will notice the joy we have and have a desire to participate in it. Their words will be different, but the basic substance remains: what is that joy you experience? What’s that inside of you?

In Scripture, Peter tells us that we must give a clear account of the hope that is within us. I’m not sure what you should say but I’d like to offer a humble piece of advice about how to say it. The three transcendental attributes of God are truth, goodness and beauty. So how do we propose God to others? I think we must lead with the beautiful. Let me give you an example: A few years ago, one of my best friends was considering becoming Catholic. I gave her what I personally believed to be the greatest writing ever on Christian love—Benedict XVI’s Deus Caritas Est. I never convinced her to read it. But on Easter Sunday 2013, Pope Francis embraced a young American child with cerebral palsy, Dominc Godreau. In a subsequent interview on FOX News, Dominic’s father said that this encounter between Dominic and Francis showed the whole world how to love each other. It didn’t take an encyclical, it didn’t take a book, it took a human person, a human encounter to show the world how to love. My friend saw in this encounter1 the totality of what Benedict XVI had communicated in Deus Caritas Est. She realized that God is love, not through reading a book, but rather, through the beauty of human encounter. Much to my dismay, FOX News had done a much better job at showing this Gospel love than I did.

The one who shares the joy of the Gospel, the joy of knowing Jesus lives differently! A missionary disciple remembers the wisdom of Maya Angelou: people will forget what you said, people will even forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel. She doesn’t even have to utter the word God or Jesus to attract people to the beauty, the goodness and the truth of God and God’s unending love for us.

The final step of being a missionary disciple is to become poor for the poor. Francis says it this way: “If the whole Church takes up this missionary impulse, she has to go forth to everyone without exception. But to whom should she go first? When we read the Gospel we find a clear indication: not so much our friends and neighbors, but above all the poor and sick, those who are usually despised and overlooked, ‘those who cannot repay you’ (Luke 14:14)” A missionary disciple can never be blind to the sufferings all around us and to the brokenness that is present in our own hearts.

We mustn’t be naïve: the pain is everywhere. We are constantly bombarded with the sufferings of modern society by a media that seems to present it to us with a perverse enjoyment. The suffering plays out on our television screens, in our communities, in our homes and most especially in our lives and in our own hearts. Yet too often we aren’t moved by it. As Pope Francis lamented last summer, we are society that has forgotten how to weep. Perhaps we’ve forgotten how to weep because the cross of violence and pain that most afflicts us today is often hidden. It’s the pain caused by the invisible violence of a government that again and again fails to serve its people, of an immigration system that denies millions of aspiring Americans their dignity, of schools without books and homes without heat in the winter. It’s the violence that afflicts the poor, the unborn and the gay and lesbian communities and that poisons relationships between communities and nations, that allows for a slow decay of culture and makes us indifferent to others’ suffering. A missionary disciple doesn’t hide from these realities. She engages in the grittiness of life. The era of the “voice for the voiceless” is dead. Everyone has a voice. And we must encounter it.

A few years ago, I did extensive work in prison ministry. The arrogance with which I approached the work was appalling. I came there imagining that I was there in the person of Jesus Christ ministering to others. It created a false divide and fueled an ego-driven service. A prisoner that I had encountered for several months sensed my pride and called me out on it. He said, “Christopher, why do you visit me in prison?” I gave some vague response about “responsibility and service and blah, blah and blah.” He interrupted me and said: “that’s not right at all. You visit me because Jesus Christ said he was me. Jesus said that he was the prisoner you visit. Christopher, you aren’t Jesus. I am.” He didn’t need an advanced degree in theology to communicate the truth of the Gospel: friends, when we encounter the excluded, we not only see God in each other, but we see one another other through the eyes of God. We see who God sees: children redeemed in love and in freedom. Friends, the one who is poor for the poor lives differently! She knows that this road of poverty is uncomfortable, but it isn’t sterile. By encountering the Jesus hidden in the suffering of others, we can change, turn around and be converted.

If you feel the spirit as I do tonight, if you feel that this a mission that you too would like be a part of, then I encourage you to take heart from those who have been there before us: “When the saints are dead we see their glory and burn little candles at their feet. But while they live, they are usually thought to be eccentric, ridiculous and even positively hypocritical. To their families, they are generally a nuisance, and they seldom appear to make a difference.” But when the years move on and we look back, we often find that it is not the social reformer, or the economist or even the leaders of the Church who have done tremendous things for the human race, but the silly saints in their rags and tatters with their empty pockets and their impossible dreams. It is the saints who made universities, hospitals and schools, the saints who fought against slavery, who saved children abandoned by their parents, who went and tended lepers and fed the poor.

Our faith in God and in Jesus Christ isn’t just for us, but also for the transformation of our families, our communities, our Church, our country and the entire world. The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead gives us a chance to reimagine and reconstruct human life and society once again. It allows us to become collaborators in God’s great dreams for a world where everyone is welcomed, loved and forgiven and where every man, woman and child experiences the salvation that Christ won for us in his death and resurrection. Jesus Christ is risen from the dead! This is our faith, and this is the faith of the Church. Two millennia later, and it is still good news indeed. And when we have a big heart open to God, a desire to share the joy of his Gospel and become poor for his poor, we will discover that our faith is real, substantial and that it will make of the blessed, but broken world something all more blessed still. And that—my friends—is the joy of the Gospel!