October 2019: Editorial – Musings on Mission

Musings on Mission

Reading the message of Pope Francis for Mission Sunday,1 I’m struck by how theologically substantial it is. It’s not written in dense or technical language, but it is impressively rich. Pope Francis is careful to ground the Church’s missionary work in the life of God, the person of Christ, the baptism of believers. To be a missionary is not only to do good things for others: it is to be grounded in the very goodness of God in such a way that sharing and showing forth that goodness is our only option.

Some commentators on the present papacy like to set up a contrast between the hands on, practical approach of the Pope Francis, and an approach that appeals to ‘mere’ or ‘dry’ doctrine. In this, they sometimes appeal to such statements as the following: ‘Pastoral ministry in a missionary style is not obsessed with the disjointed transmission of a multitude of doctrines to be insistently imposed.’ (Evangelii Gaudium 35).

But the message for Mission Sunday in this Extraordinary Month of Mission does not allow us to read that statement – or others like it – as a disavowal of the importance of doctrine. Again, the Church’s mission is not a generic philanthropy: it is grounded, rooted in Christ and in the understanding of his truth, his vision.

The terms ‘orthodoxy’ and ‘orthopraxis’ have their uses, but when they are too strongly contrasted, neither is properly understood. The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council gave us two constitutions on the Church: Lumen Gentium, the dogmatic one, and Gaudium et Spes, the pastoral one. These two documents are not offered as alternatives, but as two aspects of a seamless whole. The same can be said of the Church’s mission: it is pastoral, for sure, and it is also dogmatic: it arises from an understanding of God, of Jesus, of the human person.

In the history of the Church, it would be hard to find a better example of a seamless concern with missionary grounding and missionary showing-forth than in the life and work of St Basil of Caesarea (ca. 329-379). A quick dusting off of the theology books can remind us that he was an ardent homoousion, defending the divinity of Christ, as formulated at Nicaea, against Arian opponents. He was also the great defender of the divinity of the Holy Spirit, and helped to lay the foundations of the Church’s developed trinitarian theology.

Basil dwelt on the theological heights, and as such, he might be regarded as fair game by those who regard such a location as an indication of irrelevance. That charge, however, could never stick, since the same Basil, as a bishop, started an institution to care for the sick. His large complex on the outskirts of Caesarea included a church and monastery, along with medical facilities staffed by trained personnel, living quarters for the infirm, and a hospice for lepers.

Basil may fairly be said to have invented the precursor to the modern hospital: a complex offering both accommodation and professional medical care. There was neither conflict nor tension between his high-flown theological concern and his mission to the needy.

It’s not the case that the Basils of history somehow ‘managed’ to be people of practical concern despite the ‘distraction’ of their theological engagement. Nor, on the other hand, was their mission to the needy an avocation that they somehow juggled alongside of their true, theological, vocation. They weren’t actually multitasking, but working from a unitary vision: they realised fully that mission was rooted in the Trinity, and that the life of the Trinity flowed out into mission.

Pope Francis, like the Basils of history, invites us to be grounded in God, so that all we do is the overflow of a gift. And he challenges us to be courageously practical, so that the gift may indeed overflow.

1 See pp. 10-11 of this issue of Intercom for the text of Pope Francis’ message for World Mission Sunday.

Chris Hayden