For the past 2 ½ years, I have been enjoying the unfolding of a new parish in the Diocese of La Crosse—Mary, Mother of Good Help Parish. I watch in amazement as we continue to sort the pieces of how to be a new parish. The whirlwind of finding a worship space, forming the committees and organizations, striving to complete the necessary legal work, while still accomplishing the day-to-day life of a parish, all has been challenging, yet joyful. Within this milieu, I am coming to appreciate the words of Pope Francis and his vision of missionary discipleship. I am witnessing the parish vitality that results from those who embody a missionary discipleship.
Reflecting upon the writings of Pope Francis, I offer two main concepts that support the formation of missionary disciples: conversion of heart, which leads to baptism. Pope Francis describes this conversion of heart as the moment when a person undergoes a necessary change in their belief system. The person opens their heart to receiving the “Good News” and believing in Jesus. This belief defines how the person chooses to live. Baptism is the affirmation of this conversion. The person becomes a missionary disciple who explores the Faith, and, as the person learns, the person shares the Good News with others.
I have witnessed the joy of the members of Mary, Mother of Good Help Parish who have experienced this conversion of heart. For Hmong people, the traditional religion is Animism. Whether in Laos or as an immigrant to the United States, many Hmong people practice this traditional religion. Christianity is quite new to many of the Hmong people. A decision to become Christian impacts family relationships and worldview. When a Hmong person chooses to become Christian, they experience the realism of leaving everything to follow Jesus; they are choosing to begin a process of changing their belief system. Christianity requires a major shift from the understanding of birth, spiritual life and death as known in Animism. The process of conversion requires a basic introduction to the stories of the Bible and the sacramental opportunities of the Catholic Church. The process is met with hunger to know more and more. As a pastor, I often feel that I cannot keep up with the pace of questions. I also anticipate that I need to research answers that force me to explain ideas that I take for granted; I know the idea, but can I explain it?! The process of conversion requires patience and sifting the beliefs of Animism and Catholicism to determine what is similar or different.
The parish vitality rests in this process of sifting. For the people that I serve, the Word of God is new. The people, events and relationship between the Old Testament and the New Testament are not familiar. For understanding to occur, the characters and relationships must first be introduced. Only with this background can the teaching move to meaning. For example, when using the name “Joseph,” one must clarify that several people in the Bible are named Joseph. The role of each Joseph then needs explanation, which leads to sharing the stories. Only after this process can the meaning begin to be explored. Missionary discipleship is the joy of this exploration.
Newness awakens a longing in the heart. Once meaning is absorbed, a hunger emerges to know everything that can be known. Teaching within a community of missionary discipleship requires a readiness to meet the demand of hunger. Meetings of extended length often occur when seeking to meet the demand of exploring. The topics are numerous. The content cannot presume participants already know the background of the stories to be shared. Yet the reward of teaching is witnessing the joy of those who grow in belief of Jesus and want to follow Him!
Joy leads to enthusiasm. Mary, Mother of Good Help Parish is a result of that enthusiasm. The members of this parish are committed to creating a place where the joy of following Jesus can be experienced in prayer, sacrament and community gatherings. The dream of creating a building wherein the opportunities are limitless to grow their Faith, celebrate their Faith and invite others to learn the Faith is the vitality resulting from missionary discipleship. The dream requires a zeal rooted in the willingness to never give up. Any parish exists because the people who comprise it are convinced of the need for Jesus, living the joy of following Jesus, enthused by the possibilities provided when believing in Jesus and the zeal to offer all these opportunities to others!
Father Alan Burkhardt
Pastor of Mary, Mother of Good Help Parish in Wausau
Photography by Myxee Thao
Published in the May/June 2021 Catholic Life Issue