There is much pain and unrest in our world today. Certainly, the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened it, but we have been observing the symptoms for some time: loneliness, anxiety, depression and feelings of being disconnected. These have reached epidemic proportions across society, especially among our youth, with tragic increases in the rates of addiction and suicide.
There are many factors contributing to this distress, but we can often discern a common denominator—a missing or broken connection with God. It brings to mind a famous saying from St. Augustine: “Lord, you have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” Pope St. John Paul II said much the same thing to nearly 2 million young people at World Youth Day 2000 in Rome: “It is Jesus you seek when you dream of happiness, when nothing else you find satisfies you; it is He who provokes that thirst.”
You and I are called to step into this restless, suffering world as missionary disciples. As we have previously discussed, a missionary disciple is someone who prayerfully “sits at the feet” of Jesus, and embraces the loving relationship He offers. Nourished by prayer and the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, such a disciple knows they must be a missionary, “going out” to others with the Good News where we find meaning, peace and fulfillment.
There is no need to go door-to-door to set out on this task, though some may feel called to that. Often, the first call is to someone in your own family—a sibling, a child, perhaps a parent. And the first step on the missionary path is simply love and friendship. Especially in one’s own family, lectures are not typically well-received. But an attentive heart, along with genuine joy and peace at knowing God as the loving anchor of your own life, has a contagious effect—maybe not right away, but over time.
I think back to the 1975 movie “The Hiding Place,” about a Dutch family hiding Jews from the Nazis during World War II. They are betrayed by a neighbor. The two sisters in the family, Corrie and Betsie, are sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp. In the midst of their awful ordeals, a fellow prisoner, a middle-aged woman, bitter with hatred against her Nazi tormentors, keeps watching Betsie, who endures everything with gentleness and prays for her persecutors. Eventually, the woman turns to Betsie with eyes full of hope and says, “I want what you have!”
We may never find ourselves in such dramatic circumstances, but the principle is the same. So many people around us have an empty place in their hearts where God should be. They may be family members, co-workers, neighbors or even members of our parish. They may be far from God or they may believe in Him but know Him only in an abstract, distant way. Your first mission is to love them right where they are and to be interested in their lives. When the moment feels right, you can ask them what part they think God has had in the “story” of their life, past or present. Whatever their answer may be, they will see in your eyes and hear in your voice if you are really interested in them and care about them or if you are just sizing them up for your powers of persuasion.
If you have listened to a person’s story with a genuine heart of friendship, a space will likely open up for you to talk about God’s place in your life and you can bear grateful witness to His love and providence. The amazing thing is that most people are hungry to talk about life on this deeper level. I have discovered this repeatedly with strangers on airplanes, before COVID-19 spread us out!
Pope Francis calls this process “accompaniment,” an apt expression because it shows that we are alongside the person on their journey to knowing and loving Jesus Christ. Yes, this makes a greater demand on us. A plumber fixes a broken pipe, then leaves. A missionary disciple builds relationships, invites people to talk, to pray, perhaps to meet for Mass. For much more on this subject, read the bestseller “Forming Intentional Disciples” by Sherry Weddell.
Above all, nourish your own life as a disciple, inviting Jesus more deeply into your heart. Then He will accompany you, as you accompany others on the path to Him.
Father Walijewski’s story is widely known. He was a priest of our diocese and the founder of the orphanage Casa-Hogar Juan Pablo II, in Lima, Peru. You can read about him and his lasting legacy at frjoesguild.org. Blessed James Miller, a native of Stevens Point, who joined the De La Salle Christian Brothers and became a missionary, is somewhat less well known. He died a martyr on Feb. 13, 1982, gunned down while repairing a wall at the school where he worked in Huehuetenango, Guatemala. He was beatified by Pope Francis on Dec. 7, 2019. You can read about him at diolc.org/blessed-miller.
What did these two men have in common with each other and with all missionary disciples? Simply this: Amidst the sin and the sufferings of this world they clung, with utmost hope and confidence, to the glory of the risen Christ. As disciples, they sat at His feet, opening themselves to His grace through prayer and the sacraments. As missionaries, they poured out their lives in His service. They rejected comfort and safety and chose to enter the thick of human suffering and strife, embracing the truth that the path to Easter Sunday must pass through Good Friday. While only Brother James died a martyr’s death, Father Joe spent his last ounce of strength serving the poor of Lima, Peru, dying of pneumonia and acute leukemia in 2006–dying “with his boots on.”
Our circumstances are likely not so dramatic, but the principle remains the same. Life is hard. Indeed, Jesus told His apostles, “In the world you will have trouble, but take courage, I have conquered the world.” (Jn 16:33) When did Jesus say this? Of course, He said it the night before He was crucified. To make sure they understood, He said, “You … are now in anguish. But I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy away from you.” (Jn 16:22)
So it is that, like Father Joe and Brother James, a missionary disciple understands the Lord’s call to take up the cross and follow Him but always in view of the glory of the resurrection and the joy that cannot be stolen. The world is hungry for this message. It needs us to be such missionaries of hope, bearing witness daily to the triumph of the resurrection, even when it sometimes feels like Good Friday. If we pray for the grace to do this, the Christ we love will work through us to draw those we meet into His glorious, unending light.
Director of the Office for Ministries and Social Concerns
Published in the March 2021 Catholic Life Issue