A “Missionary Option” That’s No So Optional

Unless you managed to spend the Thanksgiving holiday away from all modern forms of communication (or so immersed in friends, family, and cooking that you didn’t notice), you probably heard that Pope Francis released a new Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelli Gaudium [On the Proclamation of the Gospel in Today’s World] last week.

It’s long , but readable—and jam-packed with rich substance. Like the Venerable Pope Paul VI’s 1975 Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelli Nuntiandi [On the Proclamation of the Gospel in the Modern World], Pope Francis isn’t about surface changes, but about thinking differently, prioritizing differently, in a fundamental sense.

Pope Paul VI called the Church to recognize the reality that “Evangelizing is in fact the grace and vocation proper to the Church, her deepest identity”—that by her very nature and inmost being, the Church exists to evangelize (Evangelli Nuntiadi, §14).

Powerful words. Not much ambiguity about where our priorities should be.

And yet, think about parish life in Anytown, USA. How often, over the course of the nearly four decades since Evangelli Nuntiandi, have ministers, staffs, councils, and parishioners made choices about where to allocate financial resources, or how to use the time and talents of the baptized faithful, and not acted as if evangelization is the deepest identity of the Church? When criteria such as convenience, orderliness, concern for custom, and what the people already in the pews like trumps a sense of urgency for doing whatever it takes to cultivate the conditions for every person to truly encounter Jesus Christ and grow in loving relationship with Him and His Church, then our parishes are prioritizing maintenance over mission.

Summarizing his personal observation and the notes of bishops worldwide, Pope Francis remarks, “the call to review and renew our parishes has not yet sufficed to bring them nearer to people, to make them environments of living communion and participation, and to make them completely mission-oriented” (§28).

And so Pope Francis unpacks, even more concretely, what it means to think and live like a Church that exists to evangelize, writing:

I dream of a “missionary option”, that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation (Evangelii Gaudium §27).

Now, we usually think of “option” as being one of many choices. But Pope Francis isn’t telling us that we have a choice to be missionary sometimes, and other times choose some other, equally important, option. “Option” can also mean the act of choosing, and this is what we are called to.

I imagine this “missionary option” to be like putting on a pair of glasses with lenses that fundamentally transform the way we see our parishes. Through these lenses we view customs and routines, how we communicate, what our structures proclaim, and even the simplest decisions on “times and schedules” through the eyes of those in need of evangelization.

Sometimes, thinking this way can be profoundly unsettling. Propose at a parish council meeting to distribute stick-on disposable nametags once a month to encourage friendship and community at coffee and donuts after Mass, and some leaders might respond, “But I don’t want anyone to know my name.”

Or, if in a staff meeting, an RCIA minister floats the idea of giving the inquiry phase a less-jargonish name and moving it off the parish grounds, some might critically question, “This doesn’t even seem Catholic anymore! This is something an evangelical church would do!”

Taking the “missionary option” means having these hard conversations. Being fearless and faithful. Cultivating detachment from our own preferences and routines, and truly examining every aspect of parish life and ministry so that it is fundamentally rooted in evangelization, not self-preservation or comfort in the familiar.

At its heart, this is a way of thinking. A way of prioritizing. A way of decision-making.

It’s nothing new—the Church has always existed to evangelize. Pope Francis challenges us to live into this missionary-impulse, not just as one new program or committee, but in a way that is totally transformational, and certainly not optional.

Copyright © 2013, Colleen Vermeulen

Colleen Vermeulen

Colleen Vermeulen

Colleen Reiss Vermeulen, M.Div., M.N.A., blogs, ministers in parish life and lay/deacon formation, and serves as a U.S. Army Reserve officer. She and her husband, Luke, have been married since 2011 and live in Ypsilanti, MI with their two young sons.

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