Pope Francis introduced the term “Missionary Disciple” in his exhortation on The Joy Of The Gospel. Since then we hear this term used a lot, partly, because the term makes something old, new again and partly, because, it reignites our call to action from our relationship with Christ. The definition of this term is essential for us to understand fully because, if we don’t, our responsibility to take action as Christians in the faith will not be fruitful nor productive. This is why many Dioceses are conducting teachings on missionary discipleship. Stephen J. Binz has a bible study on it, people are publishing books on it, and we hear this term in many of our Christian settings and forums. Pope Francis has tried to narrow the definition in many of his homilies and reflection to help us more readily understand because, as Christians, we don’t often see ourselves as missionaries. We tend to view missionaries as a role reserved for priests and religious, but Pope Francis says, no, that is not true.
On February 7th, 2017, at a Sunday Angelus he gave a reflection that included a snippet of what he means by referring missionary discipleship as being bound to Our Lord Jesus Christ and being bearers of Him – ambassadors of Christ, as St. Paul says – who put on Christ and bring Him to others, forsaking themselves and all others and everything else in the world for His sake. “Not,” explained Pope Francis, “because He wants us to be heartless and ungrateful – not hardly, not at all.” “On the contrary,” he continued, “because the condition of the disciple requires that one’s relationship with the Master take precedence over all others.” “Any and every disciple, whether he be a layman, a laywoman, a priest, a bishop: the relationship [with Christ, the Divine Teacher] takes precedence.”
Let me take it one step further, by sharing with you two stories that give a window into the type of missionary discipleship I think he is referring to.
There is a woman I know named Rose, who has been a dedicated religious Dominican Sister for twenty-two years. Her brother was born with brain damage and diagnosed with an Intellectual Disability. Her parents loved and cared for him into adulthood and then unfortunately passed away. The only ones left to care for him are his two sisters. The one sister (Rose) lives in a convent working for her order and serving the community. His other sister has a family and a job and did not think she could handle the 24/7 care that her brother required, which means, he would have to go into an institution. Rose did not want that happen to her younger brother and made a very difficult decision to leave her order and devote the rest of her life to caring for him and showering him with love. To date, she takes care of his every need and still finds time to help the community as well. She is a living witness to missionary discipleship.
Another friend of mine, named Alice, was walking her dog in her neighborhood as she often does. Alice prefers to walk her dog to the left of her house so she can avoid a particular neighbor. I’m sure some of you can relate to that. Alice told me whenever she runs into this neighbor she finds her very cold, unfriendly and looking angry all the time so as a practice she walks her dog in the opposite direction. On this one particular day, her dog forced her to walk towards the right by pulling her. Being a somewhat small and thin woman, plus her dog weighs almost as much as she does, he won. He pulled her right in front of the women’s house and then sat down and stared at it. She couldn’t believe what was happening and wondered what was going on.
The neighbor, of course, came out of the house, and the dog ran right up to her and began wagging his tail and nudging her. Alice a little fearful, this woman might start yelling at her began to apologize for the dog’s behavior. At this point, the dog was attempting to jump up on the woman and lick her face and shower her with all kinds of love which made her sour grin begin to soften. They started to chat a little, and one thing led to another, and much to Alice’s dismay she found herself inviting this woman to her prayer group the next morning. She said the words just flew out of her mouth before she realized what she was saying and to her surprise, the girl replied, “maybe.. maybe, I will drop by.” Immediately, the dog started to pull her back towards their house as if he were done and ready to go. The next morning as the prayer meeting was about to begin her neighbor came walking into the room nodded her head with a gesture of hello like a soldier and sat down next to the others. She couldn’t believe it, and after they had prayed the rosary, the woman started to cry and through her tears shared her story.
She said, she hadn’t been to church in over 30 years and was thrown by Alice’s invitation. No one ever invited her to anything so she thought she would come and check it out. Her life fell into a spiral of horror after a few traumatizing events happened in her life. She and her husband had a heated argument with one of their sons which resulted in some very hurtful words said and ended with their son leaving in a huff on his bike. Later that evening they received a phone call telling them their son was struck by a car and they needed a family member to come to the hospital and identify the body.
Of course, they were both devastated as you can imagine. The husband went alone to the hospital, and when he returned, he was so grief-stricken and feeling guilty that their last moments together ended in a terrible fight and he was unable to say I’m sorry and I love you that he couldn’t bear the thought of living another day. He told his wife they should commit suicide together. In her overwhelming grief, she considered it, but then decided she would give it more thought and took a shower. When she came out of the shower, she found her husband dead on the bed by suicide. From the sorrow and loss, she grew distance and cold and then two years later her other son was in a car accident and died. She thought she would die herself from the pain it was all too much for her to bear.
As this woman continued to tell her story, she proclaimed that it wasn’t until Alice and her dog’s visit and the personal invitation to come today that she felt the possibility of hope. The prayer group received her, and her story, with so much love that she felt comforted and healing, started to take place within her. She was compelled to go directly from the prayer group to confession and start living her life again and practicing her faith. To this day she attends not only Sunday Mass, but daily mass as well, and has not missed a prayer meeting since.
I believe these two stories are examples of people living as missionary disciples. In Alice’s case, a simple invitation was all it took to bring healing to someone else. My religious friend Rose, made a difficult decision that required immense sacrifice on her part, but in both cases, they changed someone’s life forever, and I wonder how many others lives have been altered by their witnesses.
We won’t always know what to do in these kinds of situations, but we aren’t supposed to; otherwise, it would be coming from us and not the Holy Spirit’s guiding hand. Through our baptism, the Holy Spirit guides us each day to live as missionary disciples. These stories remind me that even though we may be reluctant to act or invite others God will use whatever means he can to help us, including using nature and animals. I saw this quote on a tee shirt the other day that I think is apropos to end with, it said, “there are angels among us, be one.”