Father Roger J. Landry, a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, is national chaplain for Catholic Voices USA.
At the beginning of this month, I had the joy to travel to Detroit to preach solemn vespers at the historic National Shrine of the Little Flower Basilica on the feast day of the Little Flower. In the canticle for vespers, taken from the Book of Revelation, we prayed how “all nations shall come and worship in [God’s] presence,” which gave us an occasion to focus on Jesus’ call for us to “go and teach all nations” (Mark 16:15, Matthew 28:18-20), sharing with them the treasure of Christian faith and life.
As we approach World Mission Sunday this weekend, the thoughts of St. Thérèse, the cloistered nun who became co-patroness of the missions, can give some important direction for the Church today.
The need for a more effective sharing of our faith cannot be denied.
In the U.S., 30 million people define themselves as ex-Catholics, one out of every 11, constituting the second largest religious group behind those identifying as Catholics. There’s the almost viral rise of the “nones,” those who don’t identify with any religion. There’s the shuttering of Churches, schools, convents and seminaries. There are many U.S. dioceses in which priests ride circuits of several hundred miles every Sunday to try to bring Christ to people. One of the most troubling worries of many middle-age parents and grandparents concerns family members who have stopped going to Mass and living according to Christian faith and morals.
Most Catholics in Europe, however, would love to have our problems, because theirs are infinitely worse. There is a widespread collapse of faith in many countries in which Christian life once flourished. An impressive institutional structure remains, featuring much patrimony and munificent Cathedrals, but many are more like museums, drawing far more tourists than communicants.
We have the situation on the Amazon, about which Pope Francis and bishops from the region are now meeting at the Vatican in an extraordinary Synod Assembly. The Amazon is an enormous tropical forest four times the size of Alaska, embracing 2.8 million indigenous people, 390 indigenous tribes, 240 spoken languages and as yet 137 uncontacted peoples. And many of those that the Gospel has reached are visited only once or twice a year by priests. Just 12 years ago, all the bishops of Latin America met in Aparecida, Brazil, and produced an extraordinary document calling for a continent-wide mission, but it seems that many have lost that zeal for and confidence in its summons. Rather than following through on forming missionary disciples, some bishops are now calling for the priestly ordination of elderly married men from the villages as an ecclesiastical last resort to ensure a sacramental life.
And we cannot forget that we have many countries that have yet to receive the Gospel, and countries where the Gospel is forbidden.
The Great Commission didn’t have an expiration date. There’s a need to learn the missionary dimension of our faith anew. That is one of the reasons why St. Thérèse was declared a Doctor of the Church. I would like to focus on three elements of the missionary spirituality she teaches us.
First, mission begins with love: love for God and love for others. The essence of her spirituality was “to love Jesus and make him loved.” The most important organ for a missionary is not the legs but the heart. St. Thérèse’s heart was formed very young, reading the “Annals of the Propagation of the Faith” with her family. As a little girl, she replied, “I have a passionate desire to be a missionary!” Later she wrote how she wanted to “spread the Gospel in all parts of the earth, even to the farthest isles, … [and] not for a few years only [but] … from the world's creation … till the end of time … so that … we may inflame all poor sinners with love of you.”
Do we love people enough to want to share Christ with them? The Little Flower was once asked by one of her adopted missionary priest brothers what was the reason why, more that 1,800 years after Christ had come, there were still so many people who had never heard Jesus’ saving name. Her response was that it was due to the laziness and lack of generosity of other Christians. Some of us don’t lose sleep over multitudes’ not living and dying without knowing Christ, being baptized, hearing the Word of God, receiving the Eucharist, having their sins forgiven in Confession, being properly prepared for death. Some of us live almost as if they believe that it’s no big deal, that there are no stakes for life in this world or the next, whether people come to believe, know, and follow Christ as the way, truth and life and learn how to love him in their neighbor.
As Pope Francis movingly wrote in The Joy of the Gospel, “What kind of love would not feel the need to speak of the beloved, to point him out, to make him known?” We know, he continued, from personal experience, just as St. Thérèse did, that “it is not the same thing to have known Jesus as not to have known him, not the same thing to walk with him as to walk blindly, not the same thing to hear his word as not to know it, and not the same thing to contemplate him, to worship him, to find our peace in him, as not to. …We know well that with Jesus life becomes richer and that with him it is easier to find meaning in everything. This is why we evangelize.”
Prayer at Heart
Second, the Little Flower teaches us that the mission involves constant prayer. Jesus knew that there would always be a “vocations crisis,” but he gave us the remedy: to pray to the Harvest Master to send laborers for his harvest (Matthew 9:37). St. Thérèse became a Carmelite precisely to support the missions through her prayer.
In 2000, the future Pope Benedict XVI commented about how Jesus used to call his disciples only after praying during the night. “Jesus had to acquire the disciples from God,” he said. “The same is always true. We ourselves cannot gather men. We must acquire them by God for God. All methods are empty without the foundation of prayer.”
To be a missionary is to be a contemplative. Often we are tempted to solve problems primarily with worldly means, placing our trust in new programs, advertising campaigns, and slogans. It must begin with prayer. It must begin with God.
Do we really pray for people to come to the faith? Do we pray as if lives depend on it? Do we intercede for those on the front lines of the mission and those with vocations to missionary institutes? Do we beg God that every baptized Christian, beginning with ourselves, will discover and live the apostolic dimension of the Christian life with tongues of fire given by the Holy Spirit? Do we implore for each of us to realize, as Pope Francis stated in The Joy of the Gospel, that “I am a mission on this earth; that is the reason why I am here in this world”?
Give More—Give All
Third, St. Thérèse teaches us how to sacrifice for the missions. She told a sister she aspired to Carmel “to suffer more and by this means to save more souls.” She confessed, “Our Lord had made me understand that it was through the cross he would give me souls, … but I have made a covenant with God that they may be for the benefit of poor missionaries.”
Three months before she died of tuberculosis at 24, she posed for a photograph, holding a saying of her foundress, St. Teresa of Ávila, “To liberate only one [soul] I would gladly die many times over.”
There are, of course, many ways to sacrifice for the missions. If God permits physical sufferings, we can convert them into a bodily self-offering, as she did. We can sacrifice monetarily — truly sacrifice, going without things we need — in order to help missionaries who often go without many of the basics we take for granted. And we can make the commitment to give our life to spread the faith whether in far distant lands or in our own neighborhoods.
Eleven days before she died, the Little Flower said that she wanted “even to save souls after my death.” She was excited that her missionary zeal would no longer be constrained by “cloister and grille.” She felt that “my mission is about to begin, … of making God loved as I love him,” and that her heaven would be spent “doing good on earth.” She said, “I cannot be happy rejoicing, I cannot rest, until all souls are saved.”
The Little Flower is spending her heaven praying for us, that we and the whole Church might receive the fruit of her prayers to the Harvest Master and realize that we are the laborers he is summoning to take in his white and ripe harvest.