World Mission Sunday and the Reform of the Church
COMMENTARY: With all the filth disfiguring the Church, World Mission Sunday cannot come at a better time.
Among the harmful consequences of the multidimensional clergy sexual abuse crisis is the way that it disfigures the face of the Church and impedes the Church’s mission.
In the best of times, many Catholics are timid in spreading the faith and inviting people to consider becoming Catholic. The shame and disgust that understandably follow the revelation of sexual abuse by a cardinal archbishop and hundreds of priests in the state of Pennsylvania, the lack of horror and adequate action on the part of some leaders in the Church to stop it, the lack of transparency on the part of some to own up to their responsibility, and the open divisions that have formed over what to do about to it today, all make it much more challenging to perceive Christ and his holiness operating in the Church. They render our message about God, the Church, and faith and morals in general, less credible because of the failure of so many messengers to practice what the Church preaches.
Yet, as St. Paul insists, where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more (Romans 5:20). God always seeks to bring good out of evil. Paradoxically, at times like this, when the Church has suffered a gut punch that has knocked the wind out of the mystical body, when she limps into the public square with a self-inflicted black eye, God is still mysteriously at work opening people up to the life of grace.
In 2013, Pope Francis gave an amazing commentary on the Gospel account of Emmaus to the bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean assembled with him for World Youth Day in Brazil. Focusing on why the two disciples were leaving Jerusalem and heading downhill into darkness crestfallen at the crucifixion of the one they hoped was the Messiah, only to have their hearts burn when the anonymous Wayfarer explained to them that Scripture taught that such sufferings were a confirmation rather than a contradiction of the Messianic Mission, Pope Francis made a general point:
“The reasons why people leave also contain reasons why they can eventually return. But we need to know how to interpret, with courage, the larger picture” and warm the hearts of others with the fire of our own faith in spite of shattered expectations.
Applied to the sexual abuse crisis, the reason why some leave the Church, and others would find it unattractive to join, is because people legitimately expect the Church and her ministers to be, if not holy, at least honorable; when they find filth, they are disgusted and repelled.
That nausea, however, contains within it the seed of a burning heart, once they meet people who are sickened by the sludge as much as they are and not only still believe but fight to restore the Church to its true dignity, loving the Church as Christ does.
That’s why World Mission Sunday cannot come at a better time. Held since 1926 on the next-to-last Sunday of October, it’s a time in which the Church not only prays for and supports missionaries across the globe, but also remembers that the Church is and doesn’t merely have a mission. It’s a time for us to grasp that the reform of the Church will involve a “reshaping” to its true apostolic nature, given to it by Christ.
The Church today is a lot like St. Peter after he and his companions had fished all night and caught nothing.
After borrowing Peter's boat to preach to the throngs, the Carpenter from Nazareth instructed the seasoned fisherman to put out into deep water and lower his nets for a catch. Peter had already cleaned his nets and was exhausted, discouraged and ready for bed. Fish, he knew, moreover, were caught in shallow water in darkness not in deep water in broad daylight. Yet, reluctantly, against his human wisdom, he did as Jesus said — and caught the largest catch of his life.
World Mission Sunday is an opportunity for all of us in the Church to put the Barque of Peter out again into the deep and troubled waters and lower our nets. Even if it seems the least propitious time to catch anything whatsoever, the reality is that grace is superabundant.
People are searching for those who aren’t hypocrites, for those who still are faithful “despite it all,” and after perhaps enduring some rude jokes, true and false accusations and many questions, we may just find them more open now than ever to the deepest Answer to their most existential questions.
On Monday, I had a chance to see the Church’s mission in action in a way that left me so deeply moved and inspired. I met Bishop George Pallipparambil, the bishop of Diocese of Miao, India. He had come from the Himalayas to New York as the guest of Aid to the Church in Need to speak about what has been happening in his region over the last 30 years and to ask for help so that that growth might continue.
Thirty years ago, there were no Catholics throughout the region, which is inhabited by nearly 100 tribes that have often been brutally at war with each other. Now there are 90,000 Catholics, with 32 parishes, 156 mission stations, 90,000 Catholics, 44 schools, 13 high schools, one college, 28 Diocesan priests, 68 religious order priests, 165 women religious, 158 lay catechists, a diocesan seminary with 31 seminarians, and the only hospital in the region of 17,000 square miles — the size of Massachusetts and Connecticut combined — where among other successes in the two years since it opened, infant mortality rates have declined by 80 percent.
It’s a situation event that reminds us of the Acts of the Apostles and the spread of the early Church. One of Bishop Pallipparambil ’s collaborators, a deacon from Ireland, calls him, only half-jokingly, “The St. Patrick of Miao.” We could call him a 21st century St. Paul of Tarsus.
Everything started in the late 1970s. A few young warriors from the tribes journeyed far from their villages and found some peers who were educated and had jobs because they had been able to go to a Catholic school not too far from the region. The warriors were able to persuade their families to allow them to go away to be educated at the Bosco Bible School.
Several months later they and girls from the village returned not only with professional skills — they went to school from 5:30am to 10:30pm each day! — but well fed, having had the chance to have three meals a day instead of a few meals a week. They were also able to read and write and were talking about a new God and a new Book.
Across the tribes, the leaders came together and sent a message to then “Father George,” saying, “Please come to us and tell us more about this God Jesus who has done so much for our children.”
In 1979, 900 were baptized in Borduria; 13 years later, the first Church was built, with Father Pallipparambil as the founding pastor. He trained lay leaders, catechists and youth ministers, and recruited the Missionaries of Charity to help him care for the needs of the poor. He traveled extensively throughout the region, preaching and strengthening the faith and setting up mission stations throughout, providing education for the children and establishing youth groups, women’s groups and mothers’ associations, so that women would no longer be treated as the property of their families.
In 2005, Pope Benedict established the Diocese of Miao and appointed Father George its first bishop. The exponential growth has just continued.
At dinner in New York, Bishop Pallipparambil described a little bit the sufferings of Christians in various parts of India, including his own, and the risks he himself took to try to plant the seeds of the Gospel in a place where doing so was initially against the law and French martyrs once irrigated the soil with their blood. But he spent most of his time joyfully describing what God has done since he began to put out into the deep.
He also described the appeal of Christianity and his particular missionary priorities.
When people are baptized, he stresses, “You are becoming a member of the biggest family in the world!” Especially for people who are isolated, knowing that anywhere they might travel they would find the Gospel expands their horizons to the grandeur of God himself.
The people, he says, are also attracted to how Catholicism makes everyone equal. Members of tribes are even lower in the caste system than the untouchables. In the Church, however, the dignity of everyone is affirmed.
The Christ he preaches is “Christ with them.” He seeks to help them to understand, in contrast to the dualist animisms that have pervaded that territory, that God came into our world, is totally and only good, remains at their side, and in fact loves them. Part of that love is shown in the love that those believe in him have for each other, which is the motivation behind their building so many wells, schools, hospitals and dispensaries. They can’t miss that love.
And he tries to form them to love Christ and others in return. He has started perpetual Eucharistic adoration at a shrine constantly visited around the clock by faithful in two-hour shifts, praying for the needs that are sent in from all over the Diocese. Extraordinary miracles, he said, happen as a result of prayers there. These bring many more to the faith.
One boy had had his foot severely broken and turned from front to back because of a soccer injury. He was carried to the shrine by family members who had heard of its reputation. They prayed. And they saw his foot turn around before them as prayers were being said. The bishop said laconically, “Twenty families were baptized as a result!”
There’s much more that could be written about what God is doing in bringing so many to the faith among the Mongolian indigenous peoples of northeastern India. But I think we can find in what Bishop George is doing perennial lessons that are just as important for the new evangelization as missionary work proper, lessons that can help us recover the Church’s true missionary form after the scandals.
We are still members of the biggest family in the world, and the Church at its best behaves toward each other with familial love, featuring spiritual fatherhood and motherhood.
Everyone has equal dignity, and clericalism has no place.
Christ is still with us, loving us, and seeking to help us truly love others, by defending, protecting and caring for them, rather than tolerating any exploitation of them.
And Christ is still blessing us in the Eucharist, desiring to work miracles and to turn his Mystical Body around.