To understand the mission of the Catholic Church is to know that it exists for one reason only. That reason is to proclaim through deed and word the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Specifically, that he was born a human being like you and me, taught the path to authentic life and freedom in God and was rejected by people like you and me because the truth he revealed and pointed to shone an unwelcome light into their hearts. As a result, he was put to death in one of the cruellest ways imaginable. But because his love for, and trust in, God was pure, this was not the end. God’s life sustained him through death, revealing for all time that in him the human being is not destined to be crippled by sin or hate, nor bound by the finality of death. Jesus is the ‘saviour’ for in him we discover the path to healing, forgiveness and life.
Everything the Catholic Church is and does is at the service of this proclamation. If it is not, then the Church has no business being in existence or doing what it is doing. In this mission, all the baptised are called to participate. The years since the 2nd Vatican Council have reminded us that the proclamation of Jesus Christ in the world is to be undertaken by all the baptised, no matter which state of life they are called to live.
We can say with certainty that we are all called to go to all people with all of the Gospel message all of the time. This is a challenging thought, as the temptation is to subtly edit these words out of convenience, reluctance or uncertainty.
That we are all called is addressed elsewhere under the topic Mission – the Church. In this brief article, in which we set the scene for what can be found elsewhere, we look at a few starting points that underpin our approach to mission.
At the heart of the Church’s missionary imperative over the centuries is the deeply held conviction that all people deserve to hear the good news as outlined in the opening paragraph above. In a world so regularly characterised by suffering, pain, futility, misunderstanding, war and death, who does not deserve to know that these things are not the end and that all have the opportunity to find meaning, purpose, peace and life in Jesus Christ?
All are welcome. This is both a blessing and a curse for the Church. For, while we understand that we are but the messenger and that the message is for everyone, it does mean that those who contribute to the mission of the Church, and those who do not, can identify as Catholic. We are, it must be admitted, a motley crew. When Catholics fail (and we all do to some degree regularly) the mission of the Church is experienced by the benefactors of that mission as losing credibility. For better or worse, we are increasingly identified through the lens of our weakest members, and not by the strengths of the many Catholic men and women who go quietly about living good lives at the service of others. The ongoing need for renewal and reform is acknowledged and addressed elsewhere.
Intrinsic to the Church’s approach to her mission is the incarnation. This may seem an odd thing to assert, particularly if you are unsure what ‘the incarnation’ refers to. The reference is to the ‘taking on of flesh’ by the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity in the person of Jesus Christ. He is both truly God and truly human, without compromise or alteration to either of his natures. How this impacts on the mission of the Church is that in Jesus, we experience that the spiritual and physical can no longer be thought of as distinct. Contrary to the expectations of some, the mission of the Church is not, and cannot be, purely spiritual. In fact, it is impossible to think of the spiritual as being apart from the physical.
As we shall see elsewhere, this is also the premise of Catholic sacramental theology. For now, we apply it to mission. So much of the Church’s mission activity relates to engaging with people by attending to their real physical needs. Whether it be the education of the young, the care of the sick and elderly, supporting the disadvantaged, advocating for the displaced and the refugee, or promoting an awareness of the need to care for the environment, the Church has a long history of assisting those who need practical assistance. At a time when society believed that only the wealthy should receive an education, the Church taught the poor. At a time when the sick and elderly were looked after solely by those family members who were in a position to help, the Church opened hospitals and homes for those who were neglected and abandoned. While no one is in any doubt that there have been failures in these spheres, it must also be acknowledged that the origins of the education, social welfare, hospital and advocacy services to be found in any society influenced by the West are in the selfless activity of many Catholic individuals and groups.
We do this because we are aware that the mission to proclaim Jesus Christ is deeply connected with recognising him in those in need. The mission of the Church is to proclaim his presence and to serve him where he is to be found. It is why the Catholic Church teaches that we are saved by faith in Christ, but that faith, to be real, must be incarnated in what we do. This is the true meaning of the ‘faith and works’ teaching that distinguishes the Catholic and Orthodox Churches from those who believe faith alone will save them. Faith is purely spiritual unless it is manifest in the way we live our lives, without which it is not capable of saving anybody.
Original text by Shane Dwyer
Photo of man in car by Avel Chuklanov on Unsplash
Fr Anthony Mellor, 30 October 2019
Archbishop Mark Coleridge, Archbishop of Brisbane, 30 October 2019
30 October 2019