Pope Francis’ Message for World Mission Day 2020 takes its title from the biblical quote in the third sentence: ‘In this year marked by the suffering and challenges created by the Covid-19 pandemic, the missionary journey of the whole Church continues in light of the words of the prophet Isaiah: “Here am I, send me” (6:8)’. Indicating that ‘this invitation from God’s merciful heart challenges both the Church and humanity as a whole in the current world crisis’, Francis recalls the incident in the Gospels of the disciples caught up in the storm on the lake. For fishermen familiar with that stretch of water since childhood the sudden loss of control and sense of danger, even drowning, must have been desperately distressing. Applying it to the present pandemic, he states that ‘we are indeed frightened, disoriented and afraid’. This acknowledgment of fragility and the fear of death ‘at the same time reminds us of our deep desire for life and liberation from evil’. The call to mission’ now means accepting the invitation ‘to step out of ourselves for love of God and neighbour’ in a spirit of sharing, service and intercessory prayer’. The challenge of the Gospel calls for a dying to self, leading ‘from fear and introspection to a renewed realisation that we find ourselves precisely when we give ourselves to others’. Responding to this call makes the members of the church missionaries of mercy.
Mission Sunday this year falls on 18th October, normally the Feast of Saint Luke. Luke is the evangelist of God’s mission in Jesus, as promised in the prayer of Zechariah, the Benedictus, that ‘by the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace’. Sitting in darkness/shadow of death and longing for peace are powerful symbols of the human condition and the need for salvation. In the present they show the existential anguish experienced by so many people, asking for both health and hope. Presenting Jesus as the prophet of God’s compassion, at the beginning of his mission, Luke quotes the lines of Isaiah about proclaiming both ‘release to the captives, the year of the Lord’s favour’. From this moment Jesus goes out from his hometown, heralding the mission of God’s mercy which will extend to the ends of the earth after his death and resurrection. Luke’s theology of history includes our need for a year of God’s favour, to free all from fear and flight in the face of Covid-19.
This ecumenical sense of Christian mission is powerfully expressed in the recent co-production of the Vatican Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and the World Council of Churches, Serving a Wounded World in Interreligious Solidarity. Subtitled A Christian Call to Reflection and Action During COVID-19 and Beyond the focus is naturally on the pandemic while affording ‘a time for discovering new forms of solidarity for rethinking the post-Covid-19 world’. Its cover symbol of a facemask in a heart enfolded in two hands communicates both the human capacity for compassion and the collaboration that Christians can conduct with ‘those who profess and practise religions that are different from our own or consider themselves unaffiliated to any particular tradition’. With its Lucan leitmotif of the Good Samaritan it proposes the example enacted in and the words of Jesus expressed at the end of the parable, ‘Go and do likewise’, as the standard of mercy in action. More than exemplar, the document declares that ‘Christ’s co-suffering with all of humanity’, even to death, reveals the extent of God’s compassion and that ‘in Jesus’ rising from the dead this solidarity also opens up a new way of being for all’.
Francis’ preferred image of the church – a field hospital – shows both the mobility of its mission and its readiness to go out into the whole world. The invitation issued to members in his Message is to be available for to act in the church’s apostolate of healing and giving hope. This willingness to witness and work compassionately is already a moment in and movement towards the horizon (another favoured image of Francis) of mercy in the Kingdom of God.
Fr Kevin O’Gorman SMA