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Holy Father expresses solidarity with Pontifical Mission Societies

Gerard Gough

POPE Francis once again underlined how much the mission is at the heart of the life and identity of the Church as he delivered a message to the Pontifical Mission Societies.

The Holy Father (above) decided to address the PMS worldwide on the Solemnity of the Ascension at the Archbasilica of St John Lateran as the current Covid-19 pandemic meant that he couldn’t meet with PMS National Directors at the annual general assembly that was due to take place this month.

Holy Spirit

He began by describing the feast as the perfect opportunity to reflect on ‘the journey and mission belonging to each one of us and the entire Church,’ before going on to explain how the Holy Spirit must always drive us forward in this regard.

“Receiving the joy of the Spirit is a grace,” the Pope said. “Moreover, it is the only force that enables us to preach the Gospel and to confess our faith in the Lord. Faith means bearing witness to the joy that the Lord gives to us. A joy such as this cannot be the result of our own efforts.

“Jesus told His disciples that He would send them the Spirit, the Comforter, prior to His departure. In this way, He also entrusted the apostolic work of the Church to the Spirit for all time, until His return. The mystery of the Ascension, together with the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost, indelibly marks the mission of the Church: it is the work of the Holy Spirit and not the consequence of our ideas and projects.

“If we recognise that the Holy Spirit ignites and preserves the faith in our hearts, everything changes. Indeed, the Spirit enkindles and enlivens the Church’s mission.”

Features of mission

After stressing the importance of witness and realising that our faith truly is a gift from God, Pope Francis spoke about what he considers ‘features of mission,’ which he had previously made mention of in his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium.

Attractiveness,” he said. “The mystery of the Redemption entered into and continues to work in the world through an attraction that can draw the hearts of men and women because it is and appears more alluring than the seductions which appeal to the selfishness that is a result of sin.

Gratitude and Gratuitousness. The joy of proclaiming the Gospel always shines brightly against the backdrop of a grateful memory. The Apostles never forgot the moment that Jesus touched their hearts.

Humility. Since truth and faith, happiness and salvation are not our own possessions, a goal achieved by our own merits, then the Gospel of Christ can be proclaimed only with humility. One can never think of serving the Church’s mission by employing arrogance as individuals and through bureaucracies, with the pride of one who misunderstands even the gift of the sacraments and the most authentic words of the Christian faith, seeing them as merited rewards. One cannot be humble out of good manners or the desire to appear attractive.

To facilitate, not to complicate. Another authentic feature of missionary work is its imitation of the patience of Jesus, who always showed mercy to others as they continued to grow. A small step forward in the midst of great human limitations can be more pleasing before God than the great strides made by those who go through life without great difficulties.

Proximity to life ‘in progress.’ Jesus met His first disciples on the shore of the Sea of Galilee while they were focused on their work. He did not meet them at a convention, a training workshop, or in the Temple. It has always been the case that the proclamation of Jesus’ salvation reaches people right where they are and just how they are in the midst of their lives in progress. Amid the needs, hopes and problems of everyday life we find the place where one who has acknowledged the love of Christ and received the gift of the Holy Spirit can offer an account of his or her faith, hope, and charity to those who ask for it.

The sensus fidei of the People of God. There is one reality in the world that has a kind of ‘feel’ for the Holy Spirit and his workings. It is the People of God, called and loved by Jesus, who for their part continue to seek Him amid the difficulties of their lives.

A special care for the little ones and the poor. Any missionary impulse, if derived from the Holy Spirit, manifests predilection for the poor and vulnerable as a sign and reflection of the Lord’s own preference for them.

“All these demands and approaches are part of the Church’s mission, guided by the Holy Spirit.”

Talents to develop

The Holy Father proceeded to speak about the need to safeguard and enhance the PMS, as it provides the network that supports the universal mission ‘to which the entire Church is called,’ while also outlining the specific talents of the PMS, which he called for to be built upon.

“The Missionary Societies arose spontaneously from missionary fervour expressed by the faith of the Baptised,” he said. “There has always been a deep relationship between the Missionary Societies and the infallible sensus fidei in credendo of the faithful People of God. Since their beginning, the PMS have moved along two tracks or two parallel channels that in their simplicity have always been close to the heart of the people of God—those of prayer and charity in the form of almsgiving.

“The PMS, which arose spontaneously from the life of the People of God, in their simple and concrete configuration were recognised by the Church of Rome and her Bishops, who in the last century sought to adopt them as a unique expression of their own service to the universal Church. Hence the title ‘Pontifical’ was conferred upon these Societies. From that time on, the PMS have always shown themselves to be an instrument of service in support of the particular Churches in the work of proclaiming the Gospel. In this same way, the Pontifical Mission Societies have readily served the Church as part of the universal ministry exercised by the Pope and by the Church of Rome, which ‘presides in charity.’

“The PMS, since their initial diffusion, have been structured as a widespread network spread throughout the People of God, wholly anchored and indeed ‘immanent’ in the network of pre-existing institutions and realities in the Church’s life, such as dioceses, parishes, and religious communities. In time they became a network spread throughout the world, mirroring in their own configuration the variety of accents, situations, problems, and gifts that characterise the life of the Church in the various parts of the world. This plurality can serve as a safeguard against ideological homogenisation and cultural unilateralism.”

Pitfalls and recommendations

The Pope then outlined some pitfalls that the PMS must seek to avoid in order to ensure their continued success in serving the Church throughout the world, including: self-absorption, control anxiety, elitism, isolation from the people, abstraction and functionalism.

With regard to the pitfalls related to self-absorption and abstraction, Pope Francis’ comments were particular strong and impactful.

“Church organisations and agencies, quite apart from the good intentions of their individual members, sometimes end up turning in on themselves, devoting energy and attention primarily to promoting themselves and to advertising their own initiatives,” he explained.

“Once they become self-absorbed, institutions and entities connected to the Church lose contact with reality and fall prey to abstraction,” he added. “They needlessly multiply instances of strategic planning in order to produce projects and guidelines that serve only as means of self-promotion for those who come up with them.”

Moving forward, the Holy Father outlined some recommendations for the PMS throughout the world that would help them to continue to grow and serve the Church, especially where it is young or poor.

“To the best of your ability, and without undue speculation about the future, preserve or recover the role of the PMS as part of the larger People of God from which they arose,” he implored. “It would prove beneficial to seek a greater ‘immersion’ in the reality of people’s lives.

“I would also suggest proceeding in such a way that the essential structure of the PMS remains bound to the practice of prayer and of gathering resources for mission, in all its simplicity and practicality. This would clearly demonstrate the relationship of the PMS to the faith of the People of God. The PMS are and must be experienced as an instrument of service for the mission of the particular Churches, against the backdrop of the mission of the universal Church. If, in some cases, missionary fervour is fading, it is a sign that faith itself is fading.

“The service undertaken by the PMS naturally brings its staff into contact with countless realities, situations and events that are part of the great ebb and flow of the life of the Church on every continent. Gratitude for the wonders worked by the Lord among His chosen ones, the poor and the little ones to whom He reveals those things hidden from the wise (Matthew 11:25-26), can make it easier for you too to avoid the pitfalls of self-absorption and leave yourselves behind as you follow Jesus.

“Asking for offerings for the missions should continue to be directed first and foremost to the larger body of the Baptised. The use of the donations received is always to be evaluated with an appropriate sensus Ecclesiae regarding the distribution of funds in support of structures and projects capable of advancing the apostolic mission and the preaching of the Gospel in various ways and in diverse parts of the world. Your contribution should aim at giving concrete answers to objective needs, without squandering resources in initiatives marked by abstraction, self-absorption or generated by clerical narcissism. Do not yield to inferiority complexes or the temptation to imitate those super-functional organisations that collect funds for good causes and then use a good percentage of them to finance their own bureaucracy and to publicise their brand name. Even publicity can at times become a way of promoting one’s own interests by showing how one works for the poor and those in need. And as for the poor, you too, must not forget them.

“The PMS, in their worldwide network, reflect the rich variety of the ‘people with a thousand faces,’ gathered together by the grace of Christ and marked by missionary fervour. The PMS are not an autonomous entity in the Church, acting in a vacuum. Among their distinctive features always to be cultivated and renewed is the special bond uniting them to the Bishop of the Church of Rome, which presides in charity.”

That unity was bolstered by Pope Francis as he concluded his message as he said: “Move forward with enthusiasm! There is much to do on the journey that awaits you. Always demand that every consideration regarding the operational aspect of the PMS be illuminated by the one thing necessary—a spark of true love for the Church as a reflection of love for Christ. Yours is a service rendered to apostolic fervour, namely to that impulse of Christian life, which only the Holy Spirit can bring about within the People of God. Think about doing your work well, ‘as if everything depended on you, while knowing that everything in fact depends on God’ (St Ignatius of Loyola).”

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