Why mission matters
In October of this year, the General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops will commence in Rome which will have as its theme The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith. The purpose of the Synod will be to draw together Church leaders from all over the world in an effort to reinvigorate missionary zeal and focus again on the mandate given to all Christians by the Risen Lord: "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" (Mt 28:19).
For the first disciples who received this command, the challenge to evangelize all nations must have seemed almost impossible. Their limited education, rejection by many, threats of violence and death, differences in culture, language, obstacles in travel: so many difficulties faced them that the only conclusion that can be drawn from their success is that the Spirit of the Lord was truly with them as he promised to bring their work to fulfilment (cf. Mt 28:20). Indeed the very survival of the Church over 20 centuries and the spread of Christianity to countries and cultures across the globe is perhaps the greatest sign that Christ never leaves his Church and that the message of the Gospel that she bears, transcends all races, nationalities and generations in a powerful unifying embrace.
Today, the Church faces no less daunting challenges as she seeks not just to propose but to re-propose the Good News of faith in Christ and the message of a God who loves us. Confident in the continuing presence of the divine in our Church and the Spirit's impulsion to re-embrace our missionary calling, we look to the early Church for inspiration and to saints who point us in the right direction as we enter into spiritual communion with them and seek new ways of witnessing to the Good News in the world with renewed enthusiasm and effect. This article proposes the example of Saint Patrick, whose feast we celebrate on 17 March, as someone from our tradition who can help the Church approach the New Evangelization with the hope of the same success in the present as he enjoyed in the past.
Saint Patrick (c. 385-462) was born on the west coast of Britain in the late fourth century, the son of a deacon who also acted as a Roman curial official. At the tender age of 16, he was captured by Irish pirates and brought to Ireland where he was forced into slavery. Separated from his family and immersed in suffering, he came to know God's friendship, to identify with Christ's closeness and to understand himself in a new way. After six years he escaped back to Britain and was reunited with his family who begged him never to leave them again. It was a promise Patrick could not keep for shortly afterwards, he began to sense a powerful call to return to the land of his captivity and to bring the Gospel to the Irish. This time, his presence in Ireland was not forced but was freely chosen "for the love of neighbours, sons and daughters", because of his "zeal for God" and for "the truth of Christ" (Epist. 1). There in Ireland in a pagan culture, he faced many difficulties and dangers. He was among a people many considered uncivilized and beyond redemption. He suffered persecutions, further captivity and expected to suffer martyrdom at any time. He describes himself as a "lowly, unlearned exile" (Confess., 2, 12) as he freely admits his own limitations. Yet, despite these obstacles, Patrick testifies to one of the most remarkable missionary successes in the early Church. He baptized thousands and witnessed to how the early Christian community in Ireland was "increasing beautifully" through his preaching (cf. Epist. 12). History testifies that Patrick's efforts began a chain of events that not only led to the Christianization of Ireland but to the influx of Irish missionaries into mainland Europe who made an immense contribution to the whole civilization project. With these missionaries that included St Columbanus (c. 540-615) and Malachy (1094-1148), key elements of Christian faith that promoted ecclesial and social unity were absorbed by cultures in a way that valued education, virtue and basic human rights. This concept of faith in the Trinity expressing itself in social harmony was the legacy of these Irish men and women of courage but one that originated with Patrick their father in faith.
For this reason, St Patrick is celebrated not just by the Irish but by Churches around the world who return thanks to God for the gift of faith received by Irish missionaries who left their homeland to bring the faith to other cultures and peoples after the example of Patrick himself. At this time of opportunity for evangelization, what the story of Patrick teaches us with renewed force and effect is simply that mission matters. God in his freedom did not have to involve us in his work of salvation but choose to do so. He desires that all peoples share fully in his divine life and asks us to help offer what he wants to give. God has given us the dignity of being partners with him in bringing his saving love to the ends of the earth. Therefore, in many ways the salvation of others depends on our response to be people of mission.
Patrick had an acute awareness that this was true. He speaks of his mission as "this holy and wonderful work" (Confess., 34) and of his "pastoral care for the salvation of others" (ibid., 28). He describes his preaching as "acquiring people for God" (ibid., 58) and of dedicating himself to the Irish "lovingly and joyfully for their salvation" (ibid., 51). He admits his difficulties as a Christian in a pagan culture but also of his hope that through him, God's promises would eventually be fulfilled. Despite temptation to leave the Irish, he "stayed with them for I hoped that some of them would come to faith in Jesus Christ" (ibid., 18). He is very conscious of his own example and that of the Church as being in direct proportion to people being led to Christ and his salvation. He witnesses to "the faith of truth" with "sincerity of heart" lest "the name of God be blasphemed through me" .(Confess., 48) . Because of the purity of his witness, Patrick has seen many believers "born through me" (ibid., 38) for he is "an ambassador for Christ" (Epist. 5) just as the Church is "the letter of Christ" (Confess., 11). Here is a man convinced that mission matters: that just as the Father had sent Christ into the world so Christ had sent him to Ireland to bear his saving love in person to the ends of the earth (cf. Jn 20:21).
Through God's loving call and Patrick's generous response, the saving message of Christ not only transformed his life but an entire nation. Through the birth of a Church that was defined by mission from the beginning, Irish men and women carried the offer of God's saving love everywhere they went in the world, convinced that like Patrick, the kingdom of God was brought about by their presence and witness. As the Church prepares for the New Evangelization, this conviction of Patrick and early Christians of the importance of their role as conduits of salvation cannot be overstated. With so many who wait to hear words of hope and at a time of "rich harvest" (cf. Mt 9:37), Patrick and the saints lead every Christian to understand that their response to God's call contributes uniquely to the saving mission of the Church that seeks to make Christ known and loved throughout the world. For Patrick, the acceptance of one man of his call to mission led to the conversion of a nation and the influence of millions over generations and continents. His story warns us never to underestimate the personal and unique task God has committed to each of us for in the words of Blessed John Henry Newman, "God has committed some work to me which he has not committed to another. I have my mission".
As we look forward to the Synod on the New Evangelization and consider the task that lies ahead, let us not be discouraged or overwhelmed. United in communion with the early saints and their courage, we renew our confidence in the Lord's promises that he will be with us always. It is Christ who asks us to bear him to the world so that his light and truth can be seen and heard. In 1979 during his visit to Ireland, Blessed John Paul II asked us to: "Remember Saint Patrick. Remember what the fidelity of just one man has meant for Ireland and the world" (Address to Seminarians, Maynooth, 1 October). On his feast day, we remember Saint Patrick and give thanks for what God achieved through him. For us, we must never doubt the wonders God continues to do in our own day through men and women who share Patrick's conviction that mission matters.
*Priest of the Diocese of Ferns, Ireland; currently Director of Formation at the Pontifical Irish College Seminary, Rome