I was once invited to preach at Sunday Mass in St Martin De Pore’s Parish at Soweto in South Africa.
I was one of two white faces in a packed congregation of six hundred people. Everyone danced, sang loudly and well, laughed at my jokes, called out support for the big points I made in my homily, but they lamented that it only lasted 10 minutes. It was the first time I had ever been accused of being short-winded! At Soweto they like homilies that go at least 20 minutes. I was to discover that during the homily the congregation fully participate, calling out at the big points, “Ah-men”, Hall-le-lu-jah” and, my favourite, “Umm-ahh”. I grew to like these interventions, so feel free to do likewise any time the Spirit moves you!
The energy and life of this parish was palpable. Even with a short homily, Sunday Mass lasted two and half-hours. No one came late and no one left early.
This Sunday is Mission Sunday. Traditionally, it’s the day when we reflect on our mission to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus to all people. In years gone by it was the time when we prayed for vocations to the Missions, we raised money for the work of the Church in far away places and hoped that pagan peoples would be converted.
Do you remember how ten cents kept a plane in the air for a minute? In addition, a dollar stocked a dispensary for a week?
Well, God has a way of answering our prayers and turning our world upside down, because it is hard, now, to work out where the missionary territories are and who is in greatest spiritual need.
There is no question that the first world has grave financial responsibilities toward our brothers and sisters in developing countries. For while we have so much, on average, 31,000 people continue to die every day of malnutrition and starvation.
But it is in developing countries where the Church appears to be most alive, producing vocations and martyrs. We have lived to see the so-called missionary countries now the beacon of Christian faith in the world.
In South Africa, for example, 80% of the population is Christian and 60% attend Sunday Church services. Amidst the poverty and deprivation of the indigenous community, vocations are flourishing and prophets of a more just, less violent and peaceful society are rising up and Christian martyrs are laying down their lives to see such a society becomes a reality.
In previous generations our talk of the missions was paternalistic, Euro-centric and normally the kiss of death for the local culture. Those days are gone. Current thinking in the Church does not impose a white Jesus on black babies, but recognises that God has already been present since the dawn of time in the best aspects of every culture.
What the Universal Church offers to these local Churches, through its money and missionary personnel, is an opportunity for us to practise what we profess here every Sunday. If we do not care about the world’s poor, we have not heard the message of the Gospel. We have been commissioned to give the resources necessary so that all God’s children will have access to education, welfare and health services. God desires for all people to live with dignity.
For too long we thought that belonging to the Roman Catholic Church was a question of lording one European Church over another and treating our Church as a master, and cultures as servants.
What we are seeing now, though, is that our culture, for its marks of sophistication, goodness and fairness, is losing its very soul. Developed countries are fast becoming the new mission territories of the world.
In the future developing nations may help us to find Christ in our culture and to find, again, the way, the truth and the life of the Gospel. They may also show us that while one needs the basics of life to have dignity, even in the midst of hardship and love, one can hold on to fidelity and faith.
This, of course, should not come as shock to us for Jesus tells us today that this is how it is meant to be amongst us, where no one, no thing or any culture is to rule or be tyrannical. What marks greatness in the Christian Community is the humility and generosity not only to serve but to be served as well.
And this is something to which we all cry out, “Umm-ahh.”
Rev Dr Richard Leonard SJ is the author of 12 books. His most recent is The Law of Love: modern Words for Ancient Wisdom. Paulist Press 2021.
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