AN EVANGELIZING OR A MISSIONARY CHURCH?
SCRIPTURE READINGS: [ACTS 12:24-13:5; PS 67:2-3, 5-6,8; JOHN 12:44-50 ]
The mission of the Catholic Archdiocese of Singapore is to build a vibrant, evangelizing and missionary church. Very often, the words, “evangelizing” and “missionary” are used interchangeably, so much so that we fail to understand the nuances of these two words. If we are not clear of the subtle difference or emphasis between these two words, then how can we ever be focused on our mission? Today’s scripture readings give us the opportunity to clarify these two aspects of our mission, namely, the work of evangelization and mission.
When we speak of evangelization, we are speaking about bringing the gospel into the lives of our fellowmen, the community and society we are in. The word “evangelize” means simply to share the Good News, the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, in words and in deeds. In this sense, all baptized Catholics are called to make Jesus present wherever they are. This call to evangelize can take different forms. It could mean just being the face of Jesus in the way we relate and work with others. At times, it calls for articulating the truth for humanity. This was what Jesus did with His people. He came to proclaim to them the truth about God, themselves and about life. He came to offer light and eternal life to His people. Jesus said, “I, the light, have come into the world, so that whoever believes in me need not stay in the dark any more. If anyone hears my words and does not keep them faithfully, it is not I who shall condemn him, since I have come not to condemn the world, but to save the world.”
So evangelization is usually not planned or focused. It is undertaken by an individual Catholic according to the circumstances of his or her life, vocation and charisms. Of course, it could also be undertaken by an organization as well. Whichever the case, one is called simply to be the Good News in person, word and deed, bringing the gospel of Christ and permeating every aspect of culture, whether economic, political, social, family, ecology, medicine and media. It is to bring hope to humanity, helping people to walk in the truth, in the light, in true freedom, justice, compassion and love. Most of all, it is to offer them eternal life, a life with God. The intent is to make the gospel present in the lives of our people. In the work of evangelization, the Good News about Jesus may or may not be proclaimed explicitly.
For this reason, when we speak of evangelization, we often speak of remote, preparatory and explicit mention of the gospel. Most of our social organizations would come under this dimension of evangelization. Through the humanitarian work they do, they hope to make this world a better place to live in, and show their love especially for the poor, the underprivileged, the marginalized, the oppressed and those who are suffering injustices. It is hoped that through implicit evangelization through sharing the Good News of love, some might come to find the Lord. Regardless, since it is truth and love that we are proclaiming, those who reject the truth would simply be denying themselves of the Good News. Jesus said, “He who rejects me and refuses my words has his judge already: the word itself that I have spoken will be his judge on the last day.” In rejecting the Good News which is truth and love, they would have deprived themselves of the gospel and ultimately of Christ.
Hence, initially, the early Jewish Christians were more engaged in the work of evangelization than that of mission. This was because until Barnabas and Saul were sent on mission, they were evangelizing among the Jews most of the time and then extending the Good News to the Gentiles who had an interest in the gospel. We read that when the persecution began in Jerusalem, the Jewish Christians “(who) were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the word. Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah to them.” (Acts 6:4f) Then Luke noted that “those who were scattered because of the persecution that took place over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, and they spoke the word to no one except Jews.” (Acts 11:19)
It was only in today’s first reading that we read of the mission entrusted to Barnabas and Saul. “One day while they were offering worship to the Lord and keeping a fast, the Holy Spirit said, ‘I want Barnabas and Saul set apart for the work to which I have called them.'” This clearly defines for us the distinction between evangelization and mission. When we speak of mission, although it embraces the work of evangelization, it is more focused. The word “mission” means a task to accomplish, an object to be achieved, a goal to be attained. Unlike the call to evangelization, which is to make the Good News present wherever we are and in whatever we do, mission is targeted at some group of people. In this case, it is often targeted at those who do not yet know Christ, especially those who have not yet heard of Him. This was how Barnabas and Saul began their first missionary journey.
Mission again differs from evangelization in the sense that to be in mission means that we are sent. We do not undertake the mission on our own without being sent. In other words, we need to be commissioned. At the end of the gospel of Matthew, he wrote, “Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Mt 28:18-20) Clearly, Barnabas and Paul did not send themselves. They were sent by the Holy Spirit. “So these two, sent on their mission by the Holy Spirit, went down to Seleucia and from there sailed to Cyprus.”
In the gospel, Jesus was also clear that He was sent on a mission by the Father. Jesus said, “Whoever believes in me believes not in me but in the one who sent me, and whoever sees me, sees the one who sent me. For what I have spoken does not come from myself; no, what I was to say, what I had to speak, was commanded by the Father who sent me, and I know that his commands mean eternal life. And therefore, what the Father has told me is what I speak.” Jesus was conscious that He was sent by the Father. He spoke in the name of His Father and acted on His behalf. So, too, when we are sent, we are authorized messengers of the Good News. We are fulfilling our mission with authority.
The authority of mission means we are deputized. This authority comes first and foremost from God Himself through the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit that is the protagonist of the mission. This is made clear in today’s reading. We read that when they were at worship the Holy Spirit instructed them to set Barnabas and Saul apart for the mission. However, whilst it is the Holy Spirit that sends us on mission, this mission must be authenticated by the community explicitly. A mission is not something that we undertake on our own account. We do not send ourselves. The Father sent the Son and the Son together with the Father sends us the Holy Spirit for the work of mission.
This mission is verified by the community, which in our case is represented by the Bishop who, as the head of the Christian community, ordains priests and deacons, appoints leaders, religious or lay to continue the mission of the Church. The Bishop, as the appointed successor of the apostles, is given the mandate to appoint people for the mission. This action is manifested by the laying on of hands. So we read, that it “was that after fasting and prayer they laid their hands on them and sent them off. So these two, sent on their mission by the Holy Spirit, went down to Seleucia and from there sailed to Cyprus.”
This mission, unlike the work of evangelization, is the direct and purposeful proclamation of the gospel. We read that when Barnabas and Saul landed at Salamis, they “proclaimed the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews; John acted as their assistant.” Hence, it is important that we do not forget our primary purpose. Today, we often speak of the Social Mission of the Church, which includes education, reaching out to migrants, the sick, the needy, the physically and mentally challenged, the blind and the deaf, etc. But the mission of the Church would be incomplete if the name of the Lord is not proclaimed. We would be short-changing our listeners because the ultimate goal is not just to offer them a better life on earth but eternal life in heaven by recognizing Jesus as their Saviour and Lord.
The work of mission calls for generosity and the work of formation and discipleship. The local church or any religious congregation must be ready to sacrifice their leaders to go to another country or place where Christ is not yet proclaimed or known. This was what happened to the church at Antioch. We read that “in the church at Antioch the following were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen, who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul.” Barnabas and Saul were giving them good formation to the community. “So it was that for an entire year they met with the church and taught a great many people, and it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called ‘Christians.'” (Acts 12:26) Surely, to set Barnabas and Saul apart for the mission was a loss to the community but a gain for the universal Church. It was a sacrifice for them. We too must be ready to sacrifice our good Catholic leaders from our parishes and diocese for the work of mission abroad in territories where Christ needs to be proclaimed. And even if we cannot go ourselves, we can always support financially, through prayers and providing resources.
Written by The Most Rev William Goh, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore © All Rights Reserved
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- Encounter God through the spirit of prayer and the scripture by reflecting and praying the Word of God daily. The purpose is to bring you to prayer and to a deeper union with the Lord on the level of the heart.
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