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Get Out of the Sacristy... & Into Foreign Unbaptized Lands

"Get Out of the Sacristy... and Into Foreign, Unbaptized Lands"
- Fr. Isaiah Mary Molano, O.P.

As a longtime fan of Bishop Robert Barron's great work of evangelization, naturally, the Word on Fire Show is one of my favorite podcasts for its interesting and relevant topics of discussion that often challenge and illumine a deeper understanding of our Catholic faith.

Yet, in a recent episode of this excellent podcast, I found myself wanting to engage in a deeper dialogue with the Bishop, especially about how he had portrayed the work of evangelization and missionary work in the Church. What he had said speaks to a greater misunderstanding regarding the work of evangelization domestically (that is, within the United States) and its relationship with missionary work internationally.  

In the recent episode entitled “WOF 139: Get Out of the Sacristy,” (http://wordonfireshow.com/episode139/) Bishop Barron spoke of the need for evangelization and mission in our Church.  For most of the episode, he would discuss the need for the lay faithful to be “missionaries from where they are” in their particular state in life. He spoke of the power that the lay faithful have to be “missionaries” in their fields of work and study.  

Yet, the Bishop wasn’t speaking about Missionary Work--he was talking about the need for Evangelization.  

As a Church leader, and as one of the eminent evangelists of our time, it is important that Bishop Barron make a distinction between these two terms, Mission and Evangelization. In fact when his host would speak about the work of evangelization, he would seemingly disregard his host’s proper use of the term, in preference to mission.  

I argue that all Missionaries are Evangelists, but only a precious few Evangelists are Missionaries.  For example, a missionary who serves in Asia was teaching a class and she asked, “Please raise your hand if you know who Jesus Christ is.”  Of the forty in the classroom, only two raised their hands.  This is the great disadvantage that Missionaries have that Evangelists take for granted--Missionaries, by their very calling, evangelize in places, cultures, and societies who have never been exposed to Jesus or the Church.  

In the Church in the United States today, there are many Catholic lay organizations who call themselves ‘missionaries’.  But if we examine their work, they are not doing traditional mission work--they are doing the work of the new evangelization.  They are not leaving father and mother and land for the sake of the kingdom.  Their land and mother and father are doing just fine.  They are doing works of the new evangelization in their own society and culture--namely, the United States--that has been traditionally Christian.  Surely, in some cases, they have an inaccurate depiction of Christ or the Church in their minds, but there underlies a presupposition in their minds of the words “Jesus” or “Church”.  They are evangelizing from “where they are.”

It seems that lay Catholic groups in America who use the term “missionary” imprecisely do not understand the breadth and depth of said title.  Perhaps it is because “missionary” evokes adventure and  unpredictability. For some, they think the term “missionary” is chic.  But if you found yourself alone in the middle of Thailand by yourself, with no money, no access to your luggage, no cell phone coverage, and not a word of the Thai languages (personal experience!), the word chic does not come to mind.  

A necessary and critical distinction is not being made.  I do not disagree with the Bishop’s principle--indeed, “should not they all be prophets!” as Moses exclaimed.  Yet too often, within the Church in the United States, we witness the true vocation of the missionary slipping from the American Church's consciousness.

So what is “Mission”?  As defined by the Decree on the Missionary Activity of the Church, Ad Gentes, “‘Missions’ is the term usually given to those particular undertakings by which the heralds of the Gospel, sent out by the Church and going forth into the whole world, carry out the task of preaching the Gospel and planting the Church among peoples or groups who do not yet believe in Christ.”  By extension, a Missionary is defined as a Christian who works to spread the Gospel in a culture--that is not his or her own--who does not know Christ. 

However, when Bishop Barron and many others speak of “missionaries” or “mission”, they oftentimes do not speak of the above definition, but rather, of the work of evangelists.  Or, to use Sherry Weddell’s term, intentional disciples: those Christians who take up fully their baptismal calling to evangelize and witness to their faith in Jesus Christ from where they are.  
All Missionaries are Evangelists; yet only a precious few Evangelists are Missionaries.  Missionaries are evangelists who have a very special calling to spread the gospel in a second culture, evangelists are those who have a calling to spread the Gospel from “where they are”.  

If we, as a Church, disregard the distinction, we undercut the very nature of the Church.  The Church, by her nature, is missionary. To conflate the terms “Missionary” and ‘Evangelist” is to take Catholics off the hook of mission work altogether. If mission work is sharing your faith with your neighbor “from where you are”, then what of the Great Commandment--to go out to the nations?  Why did St Francis Xavier leave Spain for Asia?  St Junipero Serra for California?  Mother Cabrini from Italy for the United States?  Why did the illustrious St Paul leave for Rome?  To conflate the two terms undercuts the entire nature of the Church. 

The Church, by her nature, is missionary.  As Jesus Christ was sent from His Celestial abode to our shores, so are Christians called to leave their homes and venture to foreign lands to offer the goodness of the Father.  

Missionaries have and still do exist within our Church today, and it seemed that Episode 139 presupposed that they do not.  Like with priests, sisters, and lay faithful, there are some missionaries that are impressive, and others that are not so.  A great majority of missionaries currently serving the Church serve at the pleasure of the Great Commission to extremes, offering great sacrifices with their lives to follow God's calling into foreign lands and unknown territories for the sake of the Gospel and the love of God's people.  And from the incredible witness of these men and women, the Church militant is challenged, encouraged, and edified. 

I hope that Bishop Barron and the Church in the United States as a whole meet these zealous and ardent missionaries, who are also evangelists.  Perhaps he can engage in a dialogue with some missionary groups, ours included.  And in so doing, promote not only the work of the New Evangelization, but promote too the work of initial evangelization in foreign lands.  

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Fr. Isaiah Mary Molano, O.P., is a priest of the Western Dominican Province.  Stationed at St Dominic’s Catholic Church in San Francisco, he is also the Spiritual Director and Executive Vice President of the St. Francis Xavier Lay Missionary Society, an apostolate that recruits, trains, and sends Catholic laity to be missionaries in various parts of Asia.  He can be reached at frisaiah@laymissionary.org, www.laymissionary.org