A Reflection on Mission
By Father Tom Charters
Pastor, St. Michael the Archangel Mission
Unicoi County, Tenn.
In a philosophy class, it is not uncommon for the professor to ask the question "Which came first, the chicken or the egg?" The purpose is to get the students to reflect upon how things began. Consider a parallel question in regard to Christianity: "Which came first, the Church or the mission of the Church?" How do you answer that question?
When I have asked people that question, they usually answer "the Church." We experience the Church before we understand mission. We go to church. We worship in church. We come to know and grow in our faith through the Church. People point out that the Holy Spirit came upon the 120 followers of Christ in the Upper Room 10 days after Christ's Ascension. When the window opened and Peter gave his first sermon, the Church began. What is often forgotten is what occurred 10 days before Pentecost. For that we read Matthew 28:19-20, the last words Jesus spoke to his followers:
"'Go, therefore, 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...'"
Jesus gave his followers a mission, which preceded the formation of the Church. The formation of the Church would evolve later on, as we read about in the Acts of the Apostles. The mission, given by Christ, preceded the Church, and the Church emerged from that mission.
Take a quiet moment to return to Matthew 28:19-20. Place yourself on that rocky mountaintop. Feel the breeze. Feel the rocky soil under your feet. Hear all the people speaking around you. Be aware that Jesus is standing there in front of you. You are there because Jesus, your friend, has personally invited you to climb that mountain with him. Imagine Jesus looking right at you. Feel his eyes upon you. He is not merely looking at you—you are aware he is looking into your heart, into your soul. His look expresses the great confidence he has in you. And as he looks at you, hear him speak to you his words "Go forth." He is giving you a mission. He wants you to go forth and carry on his work, revealing to others his divine presence, proclaiming his divine forgiving love. How do you feel being called by Jesus to carry on his mission?
But being called by Jesus to go forth is more than just a prayerful exercise. Jesus has already called you. Jesus spoke to you when you were baptized, giving you a mission on that day. He saw within you the ability to carry on his mission. After the water was poured and you were anointed with the oil of chrism, the priest touched your ears and then your lips, praying that you would accept the mission of Christ Jesus. The prayer: "May Christ soon touch your ears to receive his word, and your mouth to proclaim his faith, to the praise and glory of God the Father." You began your life in Christ with Christ giving you a mission, the same mission he gave to his followers before he ascended.
When I was sent to Unicoi County, Tenn., as a Glenmary missioner, I was sent with that same mission given to Christ's followers before he ascended. For Glenmary, it is a mission of gathering the few Catholics in the county to assist them in recognizing the meaning of their baptism. It is a mission of reaching out to the unchurched, offering them the Good News of Christ. It is a mission of sharing the Good News of Christ with other Christians who are not in full union with the Catholic Church. It is a mission of being there to serve the poor, the forgotten, and the people on the fringe of society whose only "bible" might be you. It is a challenge.
My initial task was to assist the few Catholics in Unicoi County reach the awareness that they too had a mission given to them by Christ when they were baptized. They were to witness to Christ by what they said and did. They were to fulfill the mission commandment of Christ at the time of his Ascension.
That was a challenge for the Catholics in Unicoi County. Initially, they were not very interested in reaching out in mission to others. Rather, they wanted the trappings of a Catholic church: a building, statues, stations, a church name. But I shared with them that they were first called to live out the mission of Christ and let that mission emerge into a local Catholic community. Most accepted that challenge, while some rejected it. Those who stayed began doing something they never did before: they asked how they could inform others about our Catholic presence, they told people they were Catholic, and they invited people to worship in our temporary mission space.
Before we celebrated the first Sunday Mass, the few Catholics began telling others about the Catholic presence. They put signs in local stores. They set up a Web site. They even set up a table on Main Street to let people know that Catholics were gathering in Unicoi County. Slowly people began drifting into our worship space on Sunday. The number of individuals gathering in the temporary mission space in the local Elks Club, where we began with 37 people, grew quickly. The 37 soon grew to 75, and now, nearly two years later, we are over 100 and continually growing. We are now looking for another, larger space to hold Sunday Mass.
Catholics who never considered themselves as sharing in a mission now understand that they received a call to mission at baptism. Catholics who have never spoken about their faith with others are now sharing the Catholic faith. Catholics who never invited anyone to Mass before are reaching out and inviting others.
The Catholics who have lived in this county for years say that if Glenmary had not sent a priest, a brother and a lay coworker here, they would not have been aware of their mission. There would not be a Catholic presence visible in Unicoi County. What I say to them is, "If you did not accept your mission as Catholics there would not be a Catholic community in Unicoi County." We all have different roles in our call to mission.
While all are called forth to recognize their baptismal calling, some are offered the opportunity to come forth as priests and brothers to formally assist others in recognizing the mission given to them in baptism.
Could you be hearing Christ say, "Go and share your mission calling as a priest or a brother"?
Read more about Father Tom Charters and his ministry in Unicoi County, Tenn.