By Eli Chaves Dos Santos, CM
Today, many individuals, especially young men and women in various countries, are discovering the Vincentian missionary ideal as a way to give meaning to their life and to revitalize their life. In Mozambique, in the small town of Xinavane, I met four young members of MISEVI from Mexico who, with great joy, were involved in a process of evangelization among the poor country people. Also in Mozambique, in the city of Nacala, I spent time with some young people from Spain, members of the Vincentian Marian Youth Association and MISEVI who left the comfort of their family and country in order to engage in the evangelization and the social promotion of the poor. In the city of Cochabamba, Bolivia, two young people from Spain and one from Honduras, members of MISEVI, coordinate several social centers that advocate for those persons who are living on the streets. In Brazil, the Congregation of the Mission ministered for twelve years in a parish on the outskirts of Diadema. In 1999 when the Congregation left this parish a group of twenty lay persons decided to organize a branch of MISEVI in order to minister in this poor neighborhood and in order to participate (during the time of their vacation and with other members of the Vincentian Family) in popular missions that were offered to the people living in that area.
These are just some of the numerous examples of people who are discovering and living the Vincentian missionary ideal as a way to give meaning to their life and to rejuvenate their life. I would like to share with you some elements of that missionary ideal. I invite you to reflect on the missionary experience and the fundamentals that ground this way of life.
The foundation of the missionary ideal
Why are these individuals embracing the missionary ideal? What is the significance of this ideal? What is its foundation? The foundation of this missionary ideal is Jesus, the missionary of the Father who calls us to be his disciples and missionaries.
Jesus, missionary of the Father
God, in infinite love, created the world and the human person. Because of sin that disfigured creation, God made a covenant with Abraham and established the people of Israel. Throughout history God spoke to these people and invited them to a new way of life. God promised this people a “new land”, a new world of peace and justice and freedom. In order to reveal the fullness of creation and to establish in a definitive manner his covenant and his promise, God sent his son, Jesus, who inaugurated the reign of the fullness of life, the new heaven and the new earth (Hebrews 1:1-3).
In Jesus, the Son of God made man, God inaugurated his plan. In the synagogue at Nazareth, Jesus presented himself as one anointed by the Spirit and sent by the Father to proclaim Good News to the poor (Luke 4:18-19). His mission was to insure that all people would have life, the fullness of life (John 10:10). He proclaimed that the priority in life should be first, to seek the kingdom and its justice (Luke 12:31).
During the three years of his public ministry Jesus lived as a poor man; he reached out in a preferential way to those who were poor and defended them in their suffering and in their need. Jesus lives and presents his proposal for new life, namely, love must become the measuring rod of all reality. In love people are called to live in faithful obedience to God, in communion with others, in the building up of their own life and in responsible action that transforms the world.
With words and actions Jesus lived what he proclaimed and proclaimed what he lived. In the midst of a reality marked by social and economic poverty, by Roman domination and by religious domination, Jesus developed a liberating ministry: he reached out to people, healed their infirmities, opened their eyes and their heart so that they could understand the meaning of life and become aware of their rights and thus become integrated into society. With regard to the dignity of the person, Jesus promoted the true nature and vocation of the human person and developed an inclusive and integral ministry.
Jesus utilized a pedagogy that enabled him to touch people’s heart and transform their life. Jesus’ words and actions quickened the heart, called people to a new way to live as community and urged people to live in solidarity with one another. Furthermore, Jesus’ words and actions created an enthusiasm in people that, in turn, enabled them to love God and their neighbor. Jesus evangelized by his presence, by his being with people, and by his loving action. Jesus engaged in transformative action; he created authentic community; he placed new values and attitudes of service before people and provided people with a new way of viewing and living life.
Jesus became like us in all things but sin. Jesus presented his message with humility … he did not impose his message but respected the freedom of his listeners and followers. Because of the depth of his message and the quality of his life and service, Jesus’ activity and words have credibility and authority. Jesus reveals the value of the cross: Jesus teaches people to live in love and solidarity in order to transform the hearts of people and such love and solidarity demands renunciation and the cultivation of generosity. Jesus teaches us about the need to accept the cross and suffering as a necessary condition in seeking the greater good.
Jesus teaches and gives witness to the fact that the human desire for happiness finds its response in God. Life has a transcendent dimension of communion with a merciful God. Jesus teaches us to establish a relationship with God through prayer and contemplation. He also teaches us to cultivate an authentic spirituality so that we can overcome sin, live the true values of life, heal the wounds of the world and make people aware of their inner goodness. Jesus invites us to engage in a fruitful journey of love. Jesus’ whole life and the content of his teaching are a plan to be lived, an horizon that enables us to confront the reality that surrounds us and then, move forward … Jesus’ life and teaching is a path to be followed.
Jesus makes us disciples and missionaries
Jesus proclaims the Kingdom and relies on the collaboration of those who are poor … the collaboration of all people. Incarnated into the life and the history of his people and his time, Jesus awakened people to his proposal and to the need to live their life in a new way, to live their life from the perspective of love. Throughout his missionary journey as the One sent by the Father, Jesus, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, invites all people to follow him; he calls men and women and communicates to them a new way of life, a new way to be community and a new way to love. From among the number of his followers he chooses his apostles and disciples.
As the result of a profound relationship with Jesus, his followers discover that they have been chosen by God for a new life, a life ultimately related to the person of Jesus and committed to the task of making all things new. As participants in the life and the mission of Jesus, these disciples receive the command: Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature (Mark 16:15). The disciples are called to identify themselves with the Master, to share their treasure, the gift of faith and to not measure the effort or the sacrifice that is needed in order to live in accord with the gospel and in order to proclaim the gospel to all people … Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! (1 Corinthians 9:16).
The command of Jesus specifically mentions the proclamation of the word, the celebration of faith and charitable action as means to establish and strengthen communion with God and union among people. Communion and mission are intimately related with one another. Communion is missionary and the mission is for communion. The Disciples of Christ are not isolated or static persons; rather they are persons who live in community and who give themselves to others. The missionary/disciple cannot “possess” or “own” his/her life, rather such individuals are always reaching out to others, always putting aside self-centeredness and self-interest in order to refer all things to Jesus Christ and to the people to whom they must proclaim the good news. These men and women are subjects who move toward an encounter: an encounter with the Teacher and with men and women who are awaiting the proclamation. Therefore, Jesus gathered his disciples together in community and after his death and resurrection he sent the Holy Spirit to them which in turn made them church and strengthened them in communion and in the mission. Jesus, through the action of the Holy Spirit, continues to entrust this missionary endeavor to the Church so that all might live in communion with God and with one another. The mission is the essential task of the Church, a task that should be carried out in freedom, dialogue and charity in order to establish communion in solidarity, justice and love.
The mission and its challenges
Lay Vincentian missionaries attempt to live and act as disciples and missionaries of Christ, the Missionary of the Father. They are convinced that, today like yesterday, Christ calls them and sends them forth along paths throughout the world to proclaim the gospel to all people (Matthew 28:19) and to accept the demands and challenges proper to their time.
The mission of evangelization
The mission is an integral part of Christian identity. As people become more aware of their oneness with Jesus, they also become more aware of the need to communicate the gift of this encounter. When the disciples are in love with Christ, they feel compelled to proclaim to the world the fact that salvation is found in Christ alone who is the fullness of life. To be a disciple and a missionary are two fundamental dimensions of the Christian vocation that are assumed at the moment of Baptism. The mission is a question of faith … it involves sharing with all people the gift of faith in Christ. To evangelize is the primary mission of the church and of each Christian. To evangelize is to do what Jesus did, to continue his mission of proclaiming the nearness of the Kingdom of God, providing concrete signs of its nearness, following Jesus’ teachings and living gospel values.
To evangelize is to proclaim the good news which is Jesus himself … Jesus who, through the Spirit, communicates to us the life of the Father. Benedict XVI has stated: There is no greater priority than this: to enable the people of our time once more to encounter God, the God who speaks to us and shares his love so that we might have life in abundance (Verbum Domini, #2). In light of the fact that the people of God is a people who are “sent”, the mission of proclaiming the Word of God is the obligation of all the disciples of Jesus Christ, an obligation derived from their Baptism. The mission is universal. Even though Jesus exercised his ministry within a small and very limited geographical region, his missionary disciples have no geographical or cultural boundaries when proclaiming the good news. The irreplaceable and necessary presence of the Spirit is the very soul of this action of proclaiming the Good News of salvation to all peoples and all cultures and all places.
The challenges of the mission
The disciples/missionaries, inspired by the Holy Spirit, attempt to make visible the merciful love of the Father in all places and to all people, but especially to those who are poor and suffering. As they live out this mission, the disciples advance in holiness which in turn they reveal to the world. Their task is to proclaim the Good News in light of the joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the people of our time … to proclaim the Good News with a profound respect and in dialogue with the world, in dialogue with the social and cultural diversity of the world. Therefore the mission is always a proposal, freely presented, that transforms life and society.
The mission has to be continually actualized and cannot avoid confrontation with the concrete problems of the world. The theology of the mission tells us that we ought to develop a process of evangelization ad intra (a process that encourages people of faith in those lands that have been traditionally Catholic) and a process of evangelization ad gentes (a process that reaches out to people in those areas where the faith and the church are not firmly established). Today, with globalization and rapid change, there is almost no distinction between these two forms of evangelization. Today the whole church should be in a state of mission since the whole world and all nations are in need of an intense missionary activity.
The horizons of evangelization are as vast as the various situations that we find in the world … thus the horizons are quite varied. The present world is pluralistic, a place of many changes and therefore, we must evangelize in a new manner. If we operate only within the parameters of the culture and do what we always did in those places, then the result will be one of nullifying the power of the Holy Spirit. God is everywhere and so we must discover how to proclaim the good news in the language of each specific culture, in new places, and in a new manner that is in harmony with the reality of the specific place.
Today we live in an historical time of true epochal change. It is a time filled with enchantments and disenchantments, a time in which we confront new values, problems and possibilities that raise questions for the disciples and missionaries of Christ. In light of this reality God calls us to live and renew our faith and to offer a missionary response, a new and zealous response. The Catholic Church invites us to renew our faith and to proclaim it with enthusiasm. It is for this reason that the Pope convoked a Year of Faith and has called us to develop a new evangelization. Benedict XVI has stated: We cannot accept that salt should become tasteless or the light be kept hidden (cf. Matthew 5:13-16). The people of today can still experience the need to go to the well, like the Samaritan woman, in order to hear Jesus, who invites us to believe in him and to draw upon the source of living water welling up within him (cf. John 4:14) … there is a need for stronger ecclesial commitment to new evangelization in order to rediscover the joy of believing and the enthusiasm for communicating the faith (Porta Fidei, #3 and #7).
It is not easy to present a synthesis of the challenges and the primary lines of action of evangelization during the present era. I preset here what I believe to be some of the more significant and important challenges.
A] Evangelization is not a proselytizing campaign that is developed in order to confront people of other religions and /or non-believers; evangelization is not an attempt to recover some glorious past of the Catholic faith. Evangelization is an attempt to stir up in people and in the community an acceptance of the gospel so that it touches and transforms every aspect of life, which leads to a life of love in communion with God and with others. It is necessary to evangelize from the base, that is, from the concrete situation of people and not from a position of economic, cultural, clerical or religious power. Thus we are called to evangelize from the perspective of personal and community witness as a poor/servant evangelizing church which does not seek to establish the church of the past, a church of power that had the support of the sate and other powerful groups.
B] Evangelization ought to be developed from the perspective of nearness and encounter. These two attitudes characterize the manner in which God revealed himself in history and are two ways of living in an ecclesial manner as disciples/missionaries. God is near to people, so near that God became incarnated in the midst of people. Just as God goes out to encounter people, the missionary ought to be close to people in their concrete reality and ought to promote an encounter with Jesus Christ and an encounter with one’s brothers and sisters. Nearness creates communion and belonging and also creates the possibility for an encounter. Nearness takes the form of dialogue and creates a culture of encounter.
C] Evangelization is the work of everyone and no one person or group of persons in the Church has an exclusive right to evangelize. The evangelizing task is the mission of all Christians. From the perspective of ministry, everyone has a missionary responsibility and this is especially true of the laity who, in light of the clerical evangelization of the past, ought to be protagonists of the new evangelization.
D] Evangelization, in light of the spiritual experience of people, ought to promote missionary activity that leads people along a path where they are able to discover Jesus, able to become fascinated with his person and with his cause. Evangelization should make people passionate about Jesus and equally passionate about transforming the world into the kingdom, passionate about making Jesus’ values present in the world. Evangelization ought to be prophetic and liberating … ought to make people more human and ought to promote peace and justice. Thus evangelization is not just concerned about worship and the preservation of religious customs and traditions.
E] Evangelization should not begin with doctrinal, catechetical, dogmatic or moral concepts. Above all else evangelization should be biblical and should place people in direct contact with the world that leads them to the historical Jesus of the gospels. In light of the word it is important to discover, in the midst of the present reality, the voice of God and the ways in which God is present.
F] From the perspective of a renewed theology of God, Christ, sin, morality, the Church, the People of God and openness to the world, evangelization needs to discern the presence of the Spirit in the signs of the time and this in turn should lead to a deeper commitment to the world. Evangelization should lead the Church to an on-going conversion to the gospel, to an ability to leave behind antiquated structures that do not allow people to live an authentic faith, a faith that transforms.
G] All evangelizing activity ought to be missionary and community oriented and not focused on the church as temple, but rather focused on the streets and the homes of people and the workplace and daily life and nature and ecology … realities that lead to an encounter with people and that lead to the integration of people into a living ecclesial community that in turn becomes a countersign to modern individualism and to present day “ecclesial membership” which so often is meaningless.
H] Incarnated in a culture, in a specific social and human situation, the mission needs to confront new situations (for example, the world of chemical dependency, immigration, ecology, youth, social exclusion, peace, and communication) and also needs to promote unity in diversity. In a spirit of humility and respect, the mission means that we are present and engaged on the outskirts of society, with those who are most poor and excluded, in those places where the cries of the poor are most urgent, on the frontiers where the church confronts new and difficult problems in the midst of new situations, in the desert where the gospel is not well-known, where the church is poor, where the church is a minority or just taking its first steps. May we allow ourselves to be led by the Spirit who renews everything and moves everywhere … may we allow ourselves to be led by the Spirit even though we do not know where the Spirit is leading us!
MISEVI: a new path that allows us to respond as missionaries
Lay Vincentian missionaries are present in various parts of the world and are attempting to live their missionary vocation as Vincentians and as members of a missionary organization called MISEVI. What does it mean to live out our missionary vocation as Vincentians? What is MISEVI?
The missionary witness of Saint Vincent
Vincent lived in the seventeenth century. Throughout his life he allowed himself to be questioned by the realities that surrounded him. He was aware of and listened to the cries of the poor and from that perspective developed his spirituality and his activity: God is absolute … Christ is the evangelizer of the poor … the poor are the presence of Christ … the proclamation of the Good News of liberation to the poor is the center of Jesus’ life and mission. Vincent de Paul said: And if we ask Our Lord, “What did you come to do on earth?” “To assist the poor.” “Anything else?” “To assist the poor” (CCD:XI:98). Nothing was more important for Vincent than to minister on behalf of the poor.
The encounter with Christ in those who are poor made Vincent aware of the fact that the poor are our lords and masters (CCD:XII:4). True faith involves a commitment to the mission and to charity on behalf of the poor. To make God know to poor persons; to announce Jesus Christ to them; to tell them that the kingdom of heaven is at hand and that it is for persons who are poor (CCD:XII:71). The Vincentian mission expresses and reveals a clear preference of ministry among those persons who are poor, a ministry in which we are attentive to the social reality but especially to the causes that create an unequal distribution of the world’s wealth. Evangelization of the poor is a sign that the kingdom is near at hand.
In Christ, evangelizing the poor, Vincent encountered the true model who should be used to measure all our actions. Christ is the Rule of the Mission (CCD:XII:110). Clothing oneself in the sentiments and the attitudes of Christ, evangelizer of the poor, is the path that enables the disciple/missionary to live and accomplish the mission. Vincent highlighted five virtues: simplicity, humility,, gentleness, mortification and zeal. These are personal and community virtues, indispensable tools that enable us to renew our faith, to draw closer to and to dialogue with those who are poor, to discover and accept the challenges of evangelization and to discover the various paths along which the mission will lead us.
Vincent developed the mission as an act of love, an act of generous and integral service on behalf of the poor. The mission involves: corporal and spiritual service, affective and effective love, words and actions, all things are related to charity. In the Vincentian mission, service of the word is intimately related to charity which in turn leads to the Word who frees, saves and transforms the causes that generate poverty and injustice.
Vincent was engaged in an extensive, creative and diversified ministry of solidarity. Always at the service of the Church and in communion with the Church, Vincent’s ministry was communitarian, participative and collaborative. Communion and collaboration with others (men and women, rich and poor, clerics and lay people) are the key of the success of Vincent’s missionary service on behalf of the poor.
To be a Vincentian disciple and missionary as a member of MISEVI
Yesterday and today the example of Saint Vincent continues to inspire many men and women in their vocation as disciples/missionaries of Christ and continues to create an awareness of new and creative missionary initiatives. MISEVI is the newest fruit of this Vincentian missionary heritage, a fruit that has come to maturity through the creative action of the Spirit in the church.