What is “mission”?

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“THE CHURCH does not have missions; it is mission.” So says Father Robert Schreiter, C.P.P.S., missiologist, offering the best word on the subject. Mission is the reason the church exists, if we’ve heard Jesus’ command to go, preach, and baptize correctly. Why take the good news to the ends of the earth? Because the good news about God and humanity is meant for a wider audience than the already convinced. Even Abraham was told: “All the families of the earth will find blessing in you” (Genesis 12:3). The Israelites were chosen to be “a kingdom of priests, a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6) as a universal revelation of the one God, which is why the Bible doesn’t start with the story of Israel but with the first human beings. Everyone is invited to share the blessing.

The Jewish community, however, did not evolve into an evangelizing community. Jonah is the only prophet who takes an oracle from God outside of his own nation—and he’s not happy about having to do it. While Isaiah, Jeremiah, and other prophets view Israel as an illuminating presence among the nations, they seem content to leave it at that. Matthew’s gospel, the most Jewish of the four, echoes this perspective in limiting the mission of Jesus and the 12 apostles to Israel (with problematic exceptions to that rule). Mark reveals a more proactive mission as Jesus moves back and forth between Jewish and Gentile territory. John’s account, considerably less invested in the mission of the apostles, describes the Samaritan woman and Mary Magdalene running to tell what they’ve witnessed.

While Mark and Matthew both see the tools of mission to be preaching, healing, and dispelling demons, John declares the mission of Jesus is “to testify to the truth” (John 18:37). In Luke and Acts the goal of mission is to preach and do justice. When Saint Paul picks up the mission to the Gentiles, he emphasizes the gospel of reconciliation that establishes peace where there was only division.

William Stanley
MARYKNOLL missionary priest
Fr. William Stanley, M.M. in Tanzania.
The church has continually reshaped its understanding of mission, from spreading the gospel to individuals on the one hand to mass (sometimes forced) baptisms on the other. In 1919 Pope Benedict XV uncoupled colonial goals from evangelization. Pius XI championed the ordination of indigenous bishops in mission territories. Pius XII and John XXIII saw the need for more sensitivity to local culture in the mission field, which John Paul II liked to call “inculturation.” Today, works of justice, inculturation, and a dialogue form of evangelization are the hallmarks of Catholic Christian mission.

Genesis 12:3; Isaiah 49:6; the Book of Jonah; Matthew 15:24; 28:16-20; Mark 1:38; John 4:4-42; 18:37; 20:1-18; Luke 4:18-19; 24:47; Acts of the Apostles 1:8

• Second Vatican Council, Ad Gentes, Decree on the Missionary Activity of the Church
• Pope John Paul II encyclical letter Redemptoris Missio (1990—on the 25th anniversary of Ad Gentes)
• United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, To the Ends of the Earth: A Pastoral Statement on World Mission

Reprinted with permission from PrepareTheWord.com. ©TrueQuest Communications.

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