Mission: The Reason the Church Exists
Liturgy that is divorced or disassociated from the mission of Jesus Christ is not Christian liturgy. In a participative community, the reason for liturgy is to prepare us for mission. We do not prepare by reading textbooks and hearing lectures. We do not watch PowerPoint presentations on how to be missionaries. We prepare as lovers do. The U.S. bishops tell us in Music in Catholic Worship:
We come [to church] to acknowledge the love of God poured out among us in the work of the Spirit, to stand in awe and praise. (2) People in love make signs of love, not only to express their love but also to deepen it. Love never expressed dies. Christians’ love for Christ and for one another and Christians’ faith in Christ and in one another must be expressed in the signs and symbols of celebration or they will die. (4)
Renew the human race
To love Jesus is to devote our lives to Jesus. It is to say “yes” to Jesus’ entire being and to his prime directive to those who would follow him: “Go into the world; and preach the Gospel to the whole creation” (Mk 16:15). Indeed, the reason the church exists is for “bringing the Good News into all the strata of humanity, and through its influence transforming humanity from within and making it new” (On Evangelization in the Modern World, 18).
This proclamation of the good news is always first of all proclaimed to the poor, and it is proclaimed in such a way that it sounds like good news. To the hungry, good news is food. To the sick, good news is healing. To the oppressed, good news is justice. Christ came to proclaim God’s kingdom, a reign of peace and justice. We cannot authentically preach the good news of God’s kingdom without actively working for the fullness of the reign of justice. The Catechism says this:
In its various forms—material deprivation, unjust oppression, physical and psychological illness and death—human misery is the obvious sign of the inherited condition of frailty and need for salvation in which man finds himself as a consequence of original sin. This misery elicited the compassion of Christ the Savior, who willingly took it upon himself and identified himself with the least of his brethren. Hence, those who are oppressed by poverty are the object of a preferential love on the part of the Church which, since her origin and in spite of the failings of many of her members, has not ceased to work for their relief, defense, and liberation through numerous works of charity which remain indispensable always and everywhere. ([Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, instruction Libertatis conscientia, 68] 2448)
The liturgy rehearses us in this missionary activity in all the ways we have been speaking about: being a hospitable community, a Spirit-filled community, a community of faith. All of these virtues will prepare us for mission. But even more deeply, the very structure of the liturgy itself and its celebration throughout the liturgical year form us for mission. Our mission is, actually, to make the Paschal mystery manifest in the world in a way that is a clear and obvious challenge to the sinful structures that cause human misery. And the Paschal mystery, Christ’s own suffering, death, and resurrection, is what the liturgy schools us in week in and week out. A participative community that is immersed in mission will have many of the following characteristics.
- A participative community will engage in a faithful celebration of the cycle of the liturgical year. Every member will make a diligent effort to be at every Sunday and feast day liturgy to help the community “learn” the fullness of the Paschal mystery.
- Homilies will be centered on the Gospel and the liturgy of the day and not omitted in favor of current-event topics, fundraising appeals, and worthy causes.
- A participative community will demonstrate a vivid and recognizable preferential love for the poor. While there are many ways of showing such love, no one in the community will see such actions as secondary or “extra” to the mission of the parish.
- A participative community will recognize and teach their children that “”˜Not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and deprive them of life’” ([St. John Chrysostom, Hom. in Lazaro 2, 5: PG 48, 992] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2446). Communities will recognize and teach the catechumens that “the demand of justice must be satisfied first of all; that which is already due in justice is not to be offered as a gift of charity” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2446).
- A participative community will initiate new members on a regular basis. When good news is effectively proclaimed, hearts are converted. Evidence of that conversion will be seen by an increase in new workers in the vineyard. The mission of the church is symbolized in the deep structure of the eucharistic liturgy itself.
Liturgy leads us to mission
The initiative in the mission is always God’s. In the liturgy, that initiative is symbolized by the calling together of the community. God calls us, and we respond by gathering.
Once assembled, the Word of God is proclaimed. We hear, once again, of God’s unconditional love for us. This is the good news that converts hearts. The good news liberates us and sets us free from all the misery that chains us and enslaves us.
God’s liberating word is always creative. Every time God speaks, creation happens. In the beginning, what was created were the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, the earth and the stars, human beings, the entire cosmos. God’s creation is ongoing because God is still speaking to us. When God speaks in the liturgy, what is created is faith. We respond to that gift of faith the way our parents taught us to always respond to a giver of gifts: we give thanks.
There are many ways to give thanks, but the way Christians give thanks is by sharing a meal. Why by sharing a meal? Because that is what Jesus told us to do when he said, “Do this in memory of me.” That meal is no ordinary meal, however. In giving thanks, we tell the story of how we came to be liberated. The Eucharistic Prayer is a story of God’s saving love throughout history. That love culminates in the breaking of Jesus’ body and shedding of his blood. By eating and drinking that body and blood we are taking into us the very life, the real presence, of the Broken One.
That presence, as we’ve seen, is first of all a message of liberation to the poor. So we go out from the meal to do what we ate and drank. We go out from the meal to love as we have been loved, to be the body and blood of Christ.
The way we be Christ is to tell others the good news—God loves them. God’s liberating word is always creative. What gets created out in the world is faith. Hearts are changed. People convert. We are now in a new relationship with them. Through our new bond with them, God calls them to worship.
And the cycle begins again. This is the mission of the Church. It is the reason we exist. We practice this cycle in the liturgy and live it out in the world over and over again until God’s love and justice have been proclaimed in every land and every heart has been changed. We do this until Christ comes again in glory and all are united with him.
Thanks for your participation
This is the final session in the 5-part e-course, “How to Make Mass Matter to Marginal Catholics.” If you enjoyed the course, please e-mail your friends and colleagues and invite them to view the sessions. You can send them to this link to sign up.
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Thanks for all you are doing to strengthen liturgy in your parish. Blessings on your ministry.
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