Christians are a people who have a mission - Jesus has given us a work to do.
At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says to his disciples:
'All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit'. (Matthew 28:18-19)
This is often referred to as ‘The Great Commission’ and it is still the mission of the Church to fulfil this task - to make disciples.
In our times, this has been referred to as the ‘New Evangelisation’, the need to spread the gospel to a world that has increasingly never heard it proclaimed. This is certainly the case in the UK and in our own diocese. As Bishop Richard wrote:
‘The Church in this country finds herself in a very significant moment. Many have described society as ‘post-Christian’ or ‘post-religious.’ This presents the Church with both a challenge and a significant opportunity.’
It is Pope Francis’ dream that the Church would live out this mission.
‘I dream of a “missionary option”, that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channelled for the evangelisation of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation.’
This mission can sound overwhelming. How are we supposed to evangelise the nations as Jesus asked?
The first thing to say is that Jesus does not leave this mission just to us - he works with us in it. Jesus left us the Holy Spirit, the same Holy Spirit that came upon the disciples at Pentecost, empowering them to share the gospel for the first time. This first evangelisation could not have taken place without the power of the Holy Spirit, and this New Evangelisation will not happen without the Spirit. This should help us not to be overwhelmed by the idea of evangelisation, as it means that we are not in control of the process. Catholic convert and author Sherry Weddel puts it this way:
‘We are dealing with the mystery of a relationship that God himself is initiating in the human heart. Let me stress that we cannot bring anyone to faith through pressure, guilt, argument or cleverness. Conversion and true faith are works of the Holy Spirit.’
If evangelisation is still an intimidating idea, another word for it would be friendship. Friendship is also at the heart of introducing people to the Christian faith, as Jesus asked us foremost to love others and to be open to journeying with them, as he did with his disciples. Pope Francis refers to this as the ‘art of accompaniment’. He writes that:
‘The Church will have to initiate everyone – priests, religious and laity – into this “art of accompaniment” which teaches us to remove our sandals before the sacred ground of the other. The pace of this accompaniment must be steady and reassuring, reflecting our closeness and our compassionate gaze which also heals, liberates and encourages growth in the Christian life … We need to practice the art of listening, which is more than simply hearing.’
In really being open to walking with others, we allow friendship to grow, the Holy Spirit to move and the faith to flourish. English saint St John Henry Newman discovered friendship, or personal influence, as the primary way that the gospel spreads from person to person.
‘It [Christianity] has been upheld in the world not as a system, not by books, not by argument, nor by temporal power, but by the personal influence of such men … who are at once the teachers and the patterns of it … we shall find it difficult to estimate the moral power which a single individual, trained to practise what he teaches, may acquire in his own circle, in the course of years.’
When Mother Teresa (now St Teresa of Calcutta) won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984, she said this in her speech.
‘And so, my prayer for you is that truth will bring prayer in our homes, and from the foot of prayer will be that we believe that in the poor it is Christ. And we will really believe, we will begin to love. And we will love naturally, we will try to do something. First in our own home, a next door neighbor in the country we live, in the whole world.'
Here we see the ripple effect of the missionary heart. A heart fuelled by love for others and prayer, that moves from loving their home, to their neighbour, to the country, to the world. It is this starting small that blossoms and has a transformative effect on many others.
Today, we do not have to go far to find ourselves in mission territory, we need only to step outside our own doors. So start there, by inviting in the Holy Spirit, extending friendship and simply loving those before you.
‘By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.’