Catholic News Service
Pope Francis, in his 2013 apostolic exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel” (“Evangelii Gaudium”), says that the church, the people of God, is called to go forth and proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ to all the world. In order to do this, all of the baptized must see themselves as “missionary disciples” (No. 120), re-creating the missionary zeal of Jesus’ first disciples.
To understand what it means to be a missionary disciple, a good place to start is with the stories that come to us from the early church. Both the Acts of the Apostles and the epistles tell us much about the missionary dynamism experienced in the early years after Jesus’ death and resurrection.
The first missionary disciple was Mary Magdalene, who after seeing the risen Jesus in the garden ran to find the other disciples to proclaim the good news that Jesus had indeed risen (Mt 28:1-10; Jn 20:11-18). Jesus tells Mary, “Do not be afraid” (Mt 28:10), good advice for all disciples.
After the disciples received the Holy Spirit on Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4) they took the good news of Jesus out into the world. Peter, as presented in Acts 2:14-41, so enthralled the crowd with his preaching that about 3,000 people were baptized that day. Acts 3-4 tells of Peter’s willingness to proclaim the message of Jesus to powerful groups even after they tell him to be quiet.
The first disciple to be put to death for proclaiming the Gospel was the deacon, Stephen. He was stoned for proclaiming a message about Jesus that challenged people’s attitudes and beliefs. Most of the apostles and many of the early disciples were put to death for proclaiming Jesus.
Perhaps the most effective missionary disciple — and certainly the most famous — was St. Paul. Acts describes the three missionary journeys of Paul and his companions Barnabas, Silas and Timothy. See Acts 13-21 for specific details of these journeys.
So, what can we learn about being missionary disciples from these early disciples?
First, the message Jesus gave to Mary Magdalene, “Do not be afraid.” One has to be brave to proclaim the Gospel in the face of possible rejection, violence and even death.
Second, to understand that as disciples we are sent by the larger Christian community. We go because we are compelled by our faith, not because we seek fame or fortune. While we probably won’t have Philip’s experience of being sent by an angel (Acts 8), we will still be moved to action by the Holy Spirit.
Third, in our proclamation we offer to others what the church believes and teaches, not our own personal ideas. St. Paul had to learn what it meant to follow Jesus before beginning his missionary journeys. Likewise, we have to prepare ourselves for the task at hand. If we are to proclaim the good news of Jesus, we must first understand it and love it deeply.
That’s what it means to be a missionary disciple.
(Mulhall is a catechist who lives in Louisville, Kentucky.)
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FOOD FOR THOUGHT
The root of the word “catechesis” is “instruction by word of mouth” or “to resound.” St. John Paul II wrote in the apostolic exhortation “Catechesi Tradendae” (“Catechesis in Our Time”) that “at the heart of catechesis, we find, in essence, a person, the person of Jesus of Nazareth” (No. 5).
Catechesis aims to communicate the message of Christ, leading others toward Christ, the Father and Holy Spirit. “Every catechist should be able to apply to himself the mysterious words of Jesus: ‘My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me,'” reads the Catechism of the Catholic Church (No. 427).
The catechist’s goal is foster others’ relationship with Christ. “From this loving knowledge of Christ springs the desire to proclaim him, to ‘evangelize,'” the catechism continues.
Speaking to the International Congress on Catechesis in 2013, Pope Francis said, “Catechesis is a vocation: ‘Being a catechist,’ this is the vocation, not working as a catechist … because this is something that embraces our whole life.”
Quoting Pope Benedict XVI, Pope Francis reminded the audience of catechists that “the church does not grow by proselytizing; she grows by attracting others.” Pope Francis instructed the catechists to “start anew” with Christ in three ways. “The first thing for a disciple is to be with the Master, to listen to him and to learn from him,” he said.
The second way is the imitate Christ by going out and encountering others. And the third way, to “start anew” with Christ, “means not being afraid to go with him to the outskirts” and go beyond our comfort zone, Pope Francis said.