Sunday, October 22, 2006

29th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
80th World Mission Day
Portraits of Mission


Readings: Isaiah 53:10-11; Psalm 33:4-5, 18-19, 20, 22; Hebrew 4:14-16; Mark 10:35-45

Sisters and brothers, on this 80th World Mission Day, we may take some time to ask ourselves what mission looks like. What portraits are painted in your minds when you think of mission?

If you’re like me, probably what first comes to mind is the image of a missionary – someone who travels to a distant place and preaches the gospel to the people who live there. I think, for example, of that very charming photograph on page 9 of the latest issue of the Catholic News. It depicts two nuns armed with straw hats, walking stick, camera and big smiles on their faces. One of them is holding up the lower end of her habit as hand-in-hand they wade across an ankle-deep stream. The caption says: not letting rivers stop their mission.

I think also of that great missionary, St. Francis Xavier, one of our patron saints of missions. I imagine him traveling tirelessly from Lisbon to Goa, to Malacca and the Moluccas, then on to Japan and finally dying on the lonely and desolate island of Shan Chuan off the coast of South China. I think of him raising a crucifix in one hand and ringing a bell in the other, preaching and baptizing people in the thousands, all the while dreaming of other places to visit, other peoples to baptize.

Indeed this is the image of a truly great missionary. He traveled far and baptized many. But is it the only possible portrait of mission?

I cannot say yes because I’m reminded of the other patron saint of missions, St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus. She is not usually called great. She preferred to refer to herself as little. Entering the Carmelite convent at age fifteen, she remained there till her death at 24. I think of her praying alone in her cell, often suffering the spiritual dryness that she writes about in her autobiography. I imagine her doing the mundane chores that must have filled much of her life in the convent. Surely, by no stretch of the imagination, could this be considered an image of a missionary. Thérèse neither traveled nor baptized. But could it be a portrait of mission? The Church seems to think so. The little Thérèse is as much a patron of missions as the great Xavier. How might this be so?

We are guided to an answer by the theme chosen for this year’s World Mission Day: charity: soul of the mission. If this is true, if charity is indeed the soul of the mission, then Thérèse is without question a worthy patron. For this is what she writes concerning herself: Charity gave me the key to my vocation…. In the heart of the Church, who is my Mother, I will be love. Thérèse is patron of missions because in her own short life, she allowed God to paint a portrait of true love, a portrait of the soul of the mission.

But what does this mean? Isn’t love one of those words that many use but few truly understand? What does this love, this charity that is the soul of the mission, look like?

Our readings give us some indication. Above all others, the image that best expresses true charity is the image of Christ. And not just any image of Christ, but the image described in our first reading today: the image of Christ the suffering servant. This is the One whom the Lord has been pleased to crush… with suffering. The One by whose sufferings many, including you and I, are saved.

But it is not just any kind of suffering that saves. There are sufferings that are masochistic or manipulative, vain, foolish or pointless. And yet there are also sufferings that are freely embraced for love of another, out of the desire to be close to those who are in pain. Isn’t this what we heard in the second reading? It is not as if we had a high priest who was incapable of feeling our weaknesses with us; but we have one who was tempted in every way that we are, though he is without sin. Christ suffered in order to be with us in our suffering, to feel our weaknesses with us, so that we might be confident… in approaching the throne of grace.

In doing this, Christ models for us what it means to love. He shows us what the soul of mission looks like. It is the portrait of One who is truly great in the sight of God: One who did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

If this is true, then it becomes possible to multiply our portraits of mission beyond that of the heroic missionary preaching and baptizing in a distant land.

We might think, for example, of someone like Latiff Cyrano, the co-pilot of SQ 006, the plane that crashed in Taiwan six years ago. It was reported in yesterday’s Straits Times that he has recovered from the terrifying experience and is now a motivational trainer, devising a training module for other trauma survivors. I want to help, he was quoted as saying, not just by counseling others, but by inspiring them – if I can live through it, so can you.

I’m not sure if Mr. Cyrano is even Christian, but could what he is doing be, in some way, inspired by the love of Christ? Could it be possible that his is a portrait of mission?

Or what about the child who chooses a smaller slice of cake so that her sibling can enjoy the larger one?

What of the single-parent who spends a sleepless night by the bed of a sick toddler and then reports for work in the morning?

What of the high-flying professional who voluntarily takes a pay-cut in order to enter public service, with no ulterior motive, but only to better serve the poor?

What of the heartbroken yet hopeful mother who goes to Mass and says the rosary daily for the conversion of a wayward child?

Don’t these examples also show us what mission can look like?

In his message for this 80th World Mission Day, our pope expresses the hope that this celebration may be a useful opportunity to understand ever better that the witness of love, the soul of the mission, concerns everyone. Not just missionaries, but everyone.

Dear sisters and brothers, what does mission look like in your life? What images of charity, what portraits of Christ, are we painting today?

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