Called to Be Missionary

Posted: 6/3/2011

Father John S. Rausch

Glenmary Father Wil SteinbacherFather William Howard Bishop, the founder of Glenmary, wanted to convert America to the Catholic Church. In his writings, sermons, prayers and waking moments, he yearned for souls in Appalachia and the South, especially, to join the Church.

Yet, curiously, through the 1940s and until his death in 1953, his mission theology developed broader dimensions. In his February 1952 mid-winter letter, he wrote to his young society: “But I am convinced that side by side with the great convert-making purpose, there is another objective…to lift up and improve the moral lives of the people around us, regardless of their beliefs or lack of beliefs; regardless, even whether they will ever accept the faith or not.”

Before Vatican II the Church’s mission theology stressed the salvation of souls and the expansion of the Church. The Church of that era preached extra ecclesia, nulla salus (“outside the Church, no salvation”) and practiced a cultural bias of bringing “Western civilization” to the mission lands of Africa, South America and Asia.

While reflecting the Church’s theology of mission, Glenmary worked for individual conversions but also tried to avoid imposing a distinct Catholic culture in its mission areas. Glenmary missioners nurtured a respect for the unique Bible culture of the South, because they wanted to fit in.

They did tent preaching, sang Protestant hymns and pronounced Appalachia (“apple-at-cha”) like the locals. While encouraging the redemption of the social order by moral uplift, Glenmary’s theology aimed at winning souls for Christ through the conversion of the unchurched and non-Catholic Christians.

Essays Published

In 2006 Father Wil Steinbacher helped organize a group of scholars to reflect on the missionary parish. The group committed themselves to meet two times a year for four years to discover ways U.S. parishes might become more “missionary.” The result of that effort was published as the May 2011 issue of New Theology Review, a quarterly Catholic journal of ministry.

The authors of the essays featured in the issue see the mission parish as "a countersign to any injustice, exclusion, or life-denying structures." Written for a wide audience, the essays also attempt to present pastoral theology that is readable and provocative.

To order copies of the May issue contact New Theology Review at 800-858-5450.

Then the world changed, as did the Church’s approach to missiology, according to Church theologian Divine Word Father Roger Schroeder. Father Schroeder, coauthor of Constants in Context: A Theology of Mission For Today, discussed this change during a theological reflection retreat for Glenmarians and coworkers held in April.

According to Father Schroeder, the 20th century shook the placid notion of individual conversions when it witnessed the tectonic-like transformations caused by two world wars and “the horror of human tragedies.” These tragedies included “the deaths of 10 million victims of Stalin’s social reconstruction and six million Jews during the Holocaust, and the destruction of two-thirds of the city area of Hiroshima and half of Nagasaki by atomic bombs.”

The Church realized that the spirit of evil can flare up at anytime, anywhere and in any culture. The new world was shaky with fears of nuclear annihilation, genocide, catastrophic climate change and more withdrawal from institutional religion. And the approach to mission shifted as a result.

Vatican II, in addition to inviting people into the fullness of the Catholic faith through belief in Christ and baptism, also called Catholics to the mission theology of today that represents a more engaging stance toward the wider world.

Salvation involves, in the words of Pope Paul VI, “liberation from everything that oppresses man,” because Jesus addressed both spiritual and physical healing. Mission today means striving to transform the world by working for the salvation of society together with the salvation of individuals.

“My approach is to say God has a plan, and that plan is the Reign of God,” Glenmary Father Wil Steinbacher tells participants during his workshops on mission theology. “Mission for us is to bring about the Reign of God through love, compassion and justice.”

Using a PowerPoint presentation, Father Wil interweaves quotes from sacred Scripture, Vatican II and the popes when he speaks during his three-night program to energize a parish for mission.

He drives home the theology of mission when he quotes Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Redemptoris Missio: “The Church is missionary by its very nature.”
The Church recognizes that God continually calls all humanity everywhere. This means the Holy Spirit is “already present” to some degree in every culture, religion and human heart, so an important mission task becomes one of dialogue.

In Glenmary areas, for example, neighborliness, personalism, care of creation and devotion to family reflect God’s presence already there. After years of Glenmary service in Bruce, Miss., three Protestant ministers from Calhoun County wrote the bishop of Jackson affirming how important the Catholic Church was to their area. They appreciated the mission dialogue that meant cooperation in matters spiritual and temporal.

But, the footprints of sin are also present in cultures with patterns of oppression, indifference and greed. Christ challenged the hypocrisy of his own culture, so another task for mission is challenging how the Reign of God is “not yet present.”

In East Tennessee, where Glenmary will open three new mission areas, a local Catholic woman wrote that some people in the area “live in shacks worse than our hen house.” She also mentioned that some pastors with no college or seminary training preach erroneously against the Catholic Church: “One local pastor advised me that the pope is the Antichrist.”

In parts of society where the Reign of God is not fully present, Father Schroeder says, the Church’s mission requires a prophetic stance to speak against bigotry, racism, poverty and the destruction of the environment.

This call to mission—evangelization—cannot be relegated only to priests and religious. Proclaiming the Reign of God, whether in Appalachia or New England, is the reason the Church exists. As Father Wil teaches in his workshops: “Baptism is what makes a person a missionary, and we are called to be missionaries through our actions and words, every day of our lives.”

This article originally appeared in the June 2011 Glenmary Challenge.