On this World Mission Sunday, it is good to recall that the Church has long had its distinctive mission statement – given by the Risen Lord himself – “Go, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19=20). Our challenge is to live that mission – faithfully and effectively, in whatever place we are, and at this particular time in human history.
The world in which we find ourselves today poses particular challenges – and opportunities. Our Catholic immigrant ancestors, who built the Church in the United States, constructed not just buildings but a network of solid institutions – strong local parishes, the largest and most successful non-public school system in the world, and an amazing network of hospitals and other charitable institutions that have served millions of people, Catholic and non-Catholic. Growing up in the post-war era, my “baby boomer” generation inherited and benefited from all that – a Church that was visibly and structurally present in its surrounding society, effectively involved in people’s lives, at every stage of their lives.
But the world has changed and with it the ability of our church institutions to meet the needs of today’s individuals and families, of the millennial generation, and of those coming after. In a recent interview, Pope Francis suggested that among “the most serious of the evils that afflict the world these days are youth unemployment and the loneliness of the old. The old need care and companionship; the young need work and hope but have neither one nor the other, and the problem is they don't even look for them anymore. They have been crushed by the present. You tell me: can you live crashed under the weight of the present? Without a memory of the past and without the desire to look ahead to the future by building something, a future, a family?”
Of course, the problems the Pope points out are not novel, but they are happening in a novel context, in which a lot of what individuals and families and the Church used to be able to take for granted no longer applies. When it comes to evangelization, when it comes to creating and living Christian community in our world, we are in new territory. That so many more people today, especially younger people, profess no religious affiliation is a symptom of this new way of living, that poses powerfully new and challenging questions for the mission of the Church.
In the 19th century, Paulist founder Isaac Hecker found God in the Catholic Church and devoted the rest of his life to helping others do the same. How do we witness, as Hecker did, in a society now as divided and polarized as his was, but in which religion seems increasingly irrelevant and ineffective in ways that would have been unimaginable just a few decades ago and is less and less seriously seen as a foundation on which to build a life, a family, or a nation? How do we evangelize a society in which more and more people struggle just to get by, bereft of precisely those beliefs and institutions that have historically given life meaning and purpose? How do we minister most effectively to people who increasingly find themselves alone on their own, less likely to be in church, more materially needy, and less well served socially and spiritually?
To make a difference in this new world, we will certainly need to maintain our facilities and have our financial house in order, but that’s just the first step to being actively and visibly engaged in the Church’s mission so that individuals and communities experience real impact from our ministry. To discern how best to do so in today's world, with our limited personnel and diminished resources, is our present and future challenge.