Bishop’s August Reflection: We are Called to be Missionary Disciples

by Bishop Michael G. Duca

During the first few days of July, I attended the Convocation of Catholic Leader in Orlando, FL, where the bishops of the United States, along with lay leaders (over 3,000 participants), gathered to reflect on the mission of the Church in the world today.  This gathering was a response to Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel, and the need for the Church to respond to the challenges it faces in the changing culture and the world.

The process for this convocation began almost eight years ago when the U.S. bishops initiated a process to begin “right brain research” on the reality of the Church today.  We have good statistical information – some encouraging, some troubling – but this information is in percentages and numbers.  The bishops wanted to know how people see the Church from the right side of their brain – that is, what are their concerns, feelings, questions and reasons for their beliefs about the Church?

The research covered traditional areas, such as social justice. Researchers found there was more agreement than expected on social justice issues among the laity, even though there were more public debates among the Church’s leaders and theologians on the topic.

One of the most insightful discoveries was from those interviewed, including believers, fallen away Catholics and agnostics, there was a deep concern and kind of angst that most carry today.  Everyone seems to be hurting, worried, burdened, less hopeful and in need of healing.  There was also a desire to know what it means to be Catholic and the reasons for religious teachings.

In response to these findings, bishops, pastors of parishes and laity have been asking what our response will be and what to bring to the needs and yearnings of the world.

The convocation presentations reminded us of the inspiration of our Holy Father who calls us to a renewed Church where we all understand what it means to be missionary disciples who carry out the mission of Jesus to “go out and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.”

It has become clear that it is not enough to have a strong parish that meets the needs of its parishioners.  The parish life of sacramental nourishment, support of a Christian community and the guidance of pastoral care is essential to deepen our connection to the Body of Christ, but one more step is needed to mature our faith.  Our faith is matured and complete when we realize that we are called to go out from the comfort of our parishes and be missionary disciples.  We are called to evangelize. Pope Francis calls us to be a Church in a constant state of mission.  In our imagination we may think of evangelizers as those priests and sisters who go to foreign non-Christian lands, or we may think of the preaching of the apostles.  What the Gospel calls us to and what Pope Francis reminds us is that to evangelize is an essential element to being a good Catholic.

The effect of this on the Church is that we are called to go out to those in need, not wait for them to come to us.  We are to proclaim the mercy and love of God to all we meet.  Pope Francis describes this call to evangelize by saying that we are to “go out to the peripheries, the edges, to reach out to those who have been left behind and most in need of God’s mercy and love.”

The peripheries certainly include the poor and homeless, but they also include members of our own family who have been pushed out, or the neglected elderly in our own parishes. The marginalized are everyone who needs the mercy and love of God.

In the convocation we reflected on how these changes might look in all areas of Church life, but it was obvious that the Church will be transformed first by the transformation of our own hearts to being “missionary disciples.” That term “missionary disciple” is intentional to describe not just a believer, but a believer who has been filled with the joy of the Gospel and is inspired by the Holy Spirit to reach out to others and be a witness of Christ’s mercy and love.  When this is the motivation of our hearts, our parishes will be transformed.

Missionary disciples will greet new parishioners with love and not judgments like, “they do not belong here.”  Parish organizations will look for ways to reach out to help others outside the parish. One parish in our diocese sent invitation postcards to the neighborhoods in their zip code to let them know they are welcome.  Support Catholic Charities and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul who are already reaching into the peripheries of our neighborhoods in your name.

Our convocation was just a beginning of a conversation that will, I hope, have a lasting effect on the Catholic Church in the United States and throughout the world.  Let’s start the conversation in our parishes now and let each of us reflect on what it means to be a missionary disciple.

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