By Andrea Tornielli
The Message of Pope Francis to the Pontifical Mission Societies is a strong text, with concrete indications, that points out the only real source of the Church’s missionary action. He warns against certain pathologies, which he calls by name, which risk distorting the very nature of mission.
Mission, explains Pope Francis, is not the fruit of the application of “secular notions of activism or technical-professional competence,” but is born from the “overflowing joy” that “the Lord gives us,” which is the fruit of the Holy Spirit. This joy, which no one can give on their own initiative, is a grace. Being missionary means reverberating the great and unmerited gift that has been received; that is, reflecting the light of Another, as the moon reflects the light of the sun. “In every human context,” the Pope writes, “witnesses are those who vouch for what someone else has done. In this sense, and only in this sense, can we be witnesses of Christ and His Spirit.” It is that mysterium lunae, the mystery of the moon, so dear to the Fathers of the Church of the first century, which makes clear that the Church lives moment by moment by the grace of Christ. Like the moon, the Church does not shine with her own light; and when she looks too much to herself or trusts in her own abilities, she ends up being self-referential and no longer gives light to anyone. The origin of this message is contained in the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii gaudium, the text that has charted the path of the present pontificate. Pope Francis recalls that the proclamation of the Gospel and the profession of the Christian faith are something entirely different from any kind of political, cultural, psychological, or religious proselytism. The Church grows in the world through attraction, and “If one follows Jesus, happy to be attracted by him, others will take notice. They may even be astonished.”
The message to the POM makes clear the Pope’s intention to curb the tendency to consider mission as something elitist, to be directed and managed from behind a desk, by means of strategies that achieve a certain “awareness” through discussions, appeals, activism, training programs. It is clear, too, from the papal test published today that the Bishop considers this a present risk; and so his words have relevance far beyond the Pontifical Mission Societies to whom they are addressed. To avoid self-absorption, control anxiety, and the delegation of missionary activity to “a superior class of specialists” who see ordinary baptised people as an inert mass to be reanimated and mobilised, Pope Francis recalls some of the distinctive traits of Christian mission: gratitude and gratuitousness; humility; closeness to people’s lives, meeting them where and as they are; and a preference for the little ones and for the poor.