by Catherine Doherty.
The foreign missions, the fringes Pope Francis talks about, and very likely your neighbourhood and/or your work place: today so much of the world is mission territory.
Catherine Doherty’s vision of mission is as pertinent now as it was when it was written over forty years ago.
For a long time, I have been wanting to talk to you about missions.
Let me begin at the beginning. I never wanted Madonna House to get into "activist" missionary endeavours such as teaching or working for big hospitals. These things never interested me that much.
I agreed to small dispensaries where medical help was hard to get, and I sometimes agreed to get involved in the teaching of catechism. But as an exponent of social justice and freedom from want, I was more interested in such works as co-ops and credit unions.
But what I wanted to engage in most of all has always been the chitchat apostolate; the kind that my mother undertook when she was a young woman studying at the academy of music in Petrograd.
But besides the chitchat (which to me expressed the essence of friendship, of brotherhood), I felt that the main job of the missionary was prayer, and that he or she would attract many just by those two factors—prayer and the chitchat apostolate.
These ideas were exemplified by Russian missionaries. For instance, take St. Herman of Alaska, the Russian priest who came over a hundred years ago to bring the Good News to the native people there. He has recently been canonized by the Orthodox Church.
He arrived, built a log cabin, and proceeded to say Mass outside whenever it was possible. He did this winter and summer, knowing that these were a free people who liked to worship in the open air.
But he didn’t approach them with catechetics right away; he just went on offering the liturgy—the Holy Mass.
He had a wonderful voice, and he sang. The people gathered around him. And through friendship and the normal chitchat apostolate and the acceptance of their ways and customs, he had a tremendous effect on the native people of Alaska.
Fundamentally, I believe that a missionary does not bring anything to his mission land, but rather goes there to find the Christ who is already dwelling there and reveals him to others.
A missionary must listen to the poor very carefully and allow himself to be penetrated with their misery. And he must be filled with respect for the ones whom he has come to serve.
We cannot allow our own enthusiasm to carry us away, to cause us to strive after quick solutions.
According to a book I read recently, As If He Had Seen the Invisible: A Portrait of an Apostle Today (Fides, Notre Dame, Indiana, 1967), missionary activity can be divided into three parts. And for each we need to be well prepared by prayer and fasting. These parts are:
1. A Time of Friendship;
2. A Time of the Word;
3. A Time of the Sacrament.
This friendship-time is a form of Nazareth—a shared life of working together, forming the bonds of kinship.
Time used in a special way so that anything and everything can contribute to "blending" us with the people whom we are called to serve. A time of "uselessness" when the secrecy of the Father is at work. For He deals with missionaries as he dealt with his Son; he wants to send us into his Bethlehem and Nazareth.
Before we proceed any further, we must also understand that, although we are discussing foreign missions, we must always remember that every Christian is an apostle, a missionary, one who is sent by God to others to proclaim the Good News and live the Gospel with his life.
That means that Christians, apostles, missionaries, must be lovers of men as well as lovers of God.
This time of friendship is not just a chunk of time taken out of our lives so we can prepare for some future missionary activity. No! This time of friendship, like the rhythm of the seasons, accompanies our missionary life always, wherever we may go.
Without it, we are not missionaries. We shall not be lovers of God or men, since friendship is the fruit of love.
We must live out this time of friendship where people live—in the marketplace, so to speak. And we go about it very quietly, without any hurry.
We must become "all to all" in our love and service. In a word, the missionary must become a person of the towel and the water (as Christ washed the feet of his apostles), for this truly represents love and friendship.
When this time of friendship has taken root, now comes the time of the Word. Having formed friendship with others, we can begin to speak the Good News. We do so slowly, gently, changing the phraseology and semantics so that it fits each person and every background. Above all, we must "speak" that Gospel with our lives.
Then comes the time of sacrament. All of these were the stages which Jesus went through while he was on earth. For him, the time of sacrament was the time of the Last Supper, of the Cross, of death and resurrection, of giving and forgiving.
When we sum up his life, we find that there are thirty years spent in the time of friendship. His time of the Word (his public life) was three years long. But the time of the Sacrament lasted only a few days.
I started my idea of the chitchat apostolate many, many years ago, and I continued it throughout my whole life. It is funny that, when I say I started it long ago and far away, I don’t mean that I started it only when Friendship House was opened in the 1930s. No. It was part and parcel of my Russian culture; for my mother, as I have often told you, "went to the people" as their servant.
Russian spirituality recognized that we are all missionaries, apostles to one another. Each one of us is meant to proclaim the Good News to the other; and repeatedly, for the application of the Good News is none too easy.
So, in a sense, I began that chitchat apostolate long ago and far away, and it was rooted in prayer. I still continue it today in Madonna House Combermere, which is so thronged with people constantly.
In the time of the Word especially, let us not be worried, even for a moment, about our thousand-and-one inabilities—our impotence, our lack of education, etc. It really doesn’t matter, for it is not we who shall speak; he will preach if we but open our mouths in his name.
We know who we are. We know that the seed must die to produce the fruit. And when we allow this to happen, then faith in action comes and dwells in us. Daily we realize more clearly that we are preaching God’s Word, and never our own.
St. Paul tells us that we carry this treasure in a vessel of clay to show that this abundance of power belongs to God and not to ourselves.
Because of this, I feel very strongly that we must realize the necessity of accepting our weaknesses and God’s strength, and we must show them to the world. In my mind, these are the ways of preparing the time of the Word.
As for the time of sacrament… well, there is very little to be said. Here, in our own small way, we undergo the agony in the garden and the crucifixion.
This is the time that we walk in a desolate land. This is the moment when we get detached from the judgment of mere creatures.
We are not moved by approval or disapproval from any individual or strata of society. We are indifferent to evil reports and good reports. In my estimation, the joy of the missionary—first, foremost, and last—is in this resemblance to Jesus Christ, in being an icon of Christ.
Perhaps St. Paul gives the best definition of a missionary.
In everything, we prove ourselves authentic servants of God:
By resolute perseverance in times of hardships, difficulties, and distress; when we are flogged, or sent to prison, or mobbed; laboring, sleepless, starving.
In purity, in knowledge, in patience, in kindness, in the Holy Spirit, in a love free of affectation, in the word of truth and the power of God; by using the weapons of uprightness for attack and for defence.
In times of honour or disgrace, blame or praise. Taken for impostors and yet we are genuine; unknown and yet we are acknowledged.
Dying, and yet we are alive; scourged but not executed; in pain yet always full of joy; poor and yet making many people rich; having nothing, and yet owning everything. (II Cor. 6:4-10)
This is exactly what I mean when I talk about this chitchat apostolate of ours. It should apply to all who are in an active apostolate and to those who are living the contemplative life. It is so simple; and yet, because of its simplicity, it is intensely complicated. These are some of my thoughts on missions.
—Excerpted and adapted from Dearly Beloved, Vol. 2, (1990) August 19, 1972, pp. 290-295, available from MH Publications
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