Extraordinary Missionary Month: The mission Ad Gentes today and Religious life

Sr. Georgeanne Donovan, SMSM
General Superior Marist Missionary Sisters

Fr. Lazar Stanislaus Thanuzraj, SVD
Mission Secretary, Rome (download his presentation)


The Mission Ad Gentes ~ Religious Life

Good Afternoon, everyone – or, in some cases, Good Morning or Good Evening to those of you tuning in from other parts of the world.

It is truly a privilege for me to be invited to participate in this Webinar today. The topic of “Mission Ad Gentes today and Relgious Life” is very close to my heart since I am a member of a Religious Congregation of women that has mission Ad Gentes / ad extra as one of the core elements of its charism. The two other core elements are that of being Marist and being religious.

First of all, missionaries today and yesterday share in the same mandate that Jesus gave to his disciples: “Go into the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to every creature” (Mk 16,15). This is the mandate to every Christian: we are baptized and, as disciples of Jesus, we are sent to proclaim God’s saving work. We are sent to proclaim the Paschal Mystery of Christ – his Passover from death to New Life and the reconciliation that he offers to each of us. It is a proclamation of joy that, through our baptism, we have become partakers in this Mystery and that this great gift is open to all. Where we go and to whom we go will depend on the Spirit-led vocation of each Christian. Today, I will speak about this in the context of the vocation of the Religious, specifically of the missionary Religious woman.
In reflecting on the theme, I asked myself what would be the key elements of Mission Ad Gentes today as different from Mission Ad Gentes yesterday – that is, in former times. I reflected on this through the prism of my own congregation’s beginnings and subsequent development to help shed some light on the subject.

My Congregation has no foundress or founder; rather, we have eleven pioneers, the first one being Marie Françoise Perroton, a lay woman from Lyon, France. It was she who planted the seeds that would grow into my Congregation, the Missionary Sisters of the Society of Mary. Her story – and, therefore, our congregational story – is unusual.

Marie Françoise Perroton was a member of The Association of the Propagation of the Faith founded in 1822 by Venerable Pauline Marie Jaricot, another lay woman in Lyon. Basically, the members of this Association worked in small cell-groups to collect money for the support of the missions. The 1842 Annals of the Association published a letter written to the faithful in Lyon from the Christians of the island of Ouvea in the Pacific. They stated: “We have already had practical proof of your charity but now we are making still another request: it is that, if you hold us dear [if you love us], you send us some devout women [some sisters] to teach the women of Ouvea.” (This letter was signed by two young women who became Religious years later.)

This message deeply touched the heart of Marie Françoise Perroton and she experienced it as a personal appeal. She prayed, took advice (discerned!) and her decision matured over the next three years until finally she could say: “I have given the matter much thought, and my decision is final…My firm wish is to serve on the mission fields for the rest of my life.” So, at the age of 49 (she was not young!), she set out. Before leaving Lyon, the provincial of the Society of Mary (the Marists) accompanied her to the Shrine of Fourvière and added her name to those of the Marist missionaries in the heart that hung around the neck of the statue of Mary. It was a symbolic gesture that she never forgot; it assured her that she had been confided to the Society of Mary. And here we have proof of the second core element of our charism – that of being Marist, part of the Society of Mary.

Marie Françoise set out in faith with no material resources, trusting in Providence to provide for her needs. She left France in November of 1845 and, in October 1846, she arrived on the Island of Ouvea (also known as Wallis) in the Pacific. This was part of the mission territory of Western Oceania that had been entrusted by the Church to the Society of Mary in 1836. It was the practice of the Church in the 19th Century to entrust to congregations of men certain territories in different parts of the world to carry out the work of evangelization. Mission was linked to geography (territory) and it was the men, the priests, who were considered to be the missionaries. Our sisters were considered their auxiliaries.

Marie Françoise lived with solitude as her constant companion for twelve years on the islands of Wallis and Futuna, responding to the needs of the women and children. In 1858, her desire that others would join her was fulfilled when three “Sisters of Charity of the Third Order of Mary” arrived in Futuna. The day following the arrival of the Sisters, Marie Françoise received the habit, the Rule and a religious name. Over the next two years, seven others arrived in Oceania. These, our eleven pioneers, were missioned to various islands in different vicariates. They took a vow of obedience to the Bishop and lived according to a simple rule of life. In that, there is the indication of the seed of the third dimension of our charism – that of being religious.

It took 85 years and many different stages of growth and development before we were approbated as a Congregation of Pontifical right in 1931. During those first 85 years, our locus of mission was Oceania. Women from many countries joined the Congregation but all of them set out for mission in Oceania; and in the early years, they set out with the understanding that they were going for life. It was a total giving of self – leaving behind beloved families, nations, the comfort of cultures and customs, in order to give themselves away in love for Christ and the people to whom they were sent. Also, women from the islands of Oceania joined our Congregation from the beginning and they, too, were often sent on mission to other islands. The call to “mission Ad Gentes” was for us an integral part of our charism and remains so today. With the approbation of 1931, our Congregation was open to universal mission; we were no longer restricted to mission in Oceania or to the territories associated with the missions of the Society of Mary. From that time on, we were able to respond to the invitations to serve in mission in different parts of the world and we went, especially to those on the margins… on the peripheries.

In the past, the term “gentes” referred to the heathens or pagans, which is not exactly a positive expression – one that we certainly would not use today. This understanding promoted the idea that missionary endeavor meant going to the ‘other’ with the intention of converting everyone to our faith. It also led to the thinking that we could look for or measure success by the number of baptisms, or the total embrace by the people of our way of perceiving the world and living in it.

Since Vatican II, there has been a radical shift and transformation in the Church’s understanding of “the gentes” We see the shift clearly in the Vatican II document Nostra Aetate: “The Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions. It has a high regard for the manner of life and conduct, the precepts and doctrines which, although differing in many ways from its own teaching, nevertheless often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men and women” (Nostra Aetate, no.2). This laid the groundwork for further development in missiology which would promote a new understanding of Christian mission, an understanding in which I was formed to become a missionary sister after Vatican II.

Key elements for understanding mission Ad Gentes today are that:
1. The Mission is God’s mission, not ours (Church, congregations, individuals).
2. God sent Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit to effect this mission. (Mission flows from the communion among and dialogue between the Persons of the Trinity. The Father’s love for all of creation in need of salvation is the impulse for sending Jesus. And His complete openness to be sent, in the power of and accompanied by the Holy Spirit, is the foundation moment of mission.)
3. All disciples of Jesus are called to participate in the mission of Jesus by working for peace, justice and the fostering of right relationships in our world, thus striving to build the Reign of God. (All the baptized are sent on mission: to be ambassadors of reconciliation to the broken spaces in people’s lives, in society, in creation… sent to those on the peripheries both near and far.)
4. Missionaries participate in this mission in a culture other than their own – be that culture in one’s own country or in another country, with and among a people to whom they have been sent, (and, hopefully, invited) with the awareness that
a) we walk on holy ground where the Spirit has already preceded us;
b) we open ourselves to receive from the richness of ‘the other’ as well as to share, when invited, the richness of our own faith tradition and to give ourselves in service “in the name of Jesus”;
c) living the mission of Jesus faithfully – with love and respect for all – creates the possibility for mutual evangelization;
d) we learn from and collaborate with (cum gentibus) those who have welcomed us into their midst to share in the works of justice and peace;
e) we help to build the bridges with which to cross the multi-layered divides that pit people against each other causing serious brokenness in society; thus, we become ambassadors of reconciliation;
f) what will be required of us is a gradual self-emptying, a daily dying to self so as to ‘put on the mind of Christ’, discovering his way of being the first Evangelizer. (An early Marist missionary said that it was easy to leave his own country; it was much harder to leave his “self” every day);
g) this empowers and impels us to act justly, to love tenderly and to walk humbly with God.

Although Vatican II ushered in a new understanding of mission Ad Gentes, we are still in the process of conversion and transformation in its practical applications today. In reviewing my own Constitutions and our texts on “mission” that express the core of our charism, I ask myself how well we live the ideal that is presented there for us. What do they call missionaries to live into today? I would like to share some of these texts from our Constitutions with you that were written thirty-five years ago that I believe we need to embrace in an ongoing manner. The following excerpts are taken from the chapter entitled: AT THE SERVICE OF EVANGELIZATION which, for me, indicates a basic underlying attitude of the missionary… “at the service of”.

In our texts, Marist Missionary Sisters are reminded that:
Mission is the work of God:
“The loving plan of the Father
revealed by the Son
is continued in the Church through the power of the Spirit,
always at work leading all humanity in Christ, to the Father.” (#11)

God sent Jesus to do God’s mission:
“Jesus, sent by the Father, is the First Evangelizer. (cf. #12)

We participate in the mission of Jesus:
“In complete availability, we are ready to leave our own country,
to set out or set out again towards other peoples and other cultures,
knowing that the Spirit precedes us – …” (cf. #16)

We go with respect and openness to mutual evangelization:
“Sent to those who do not know Christ,
those who are seeking to know Him,
or to local churches in need of missionary service,
we open ourselves to their way of life,
ready to receive as well as to give,
having no other aim than to seek humbly, with all,
the coming of the Kingdom in its fullness.” (#17)

We do mission “in the name of Jesus”, in a spirit of collaboration:
“In …different services chosen, in the light of our tradition,
according to the needs of the country and the priorities of the local church,
we keep in mind that, in the light of faith,
it is Jesus Himself we serve in each person,
especially in the little ones, the suffering and the poor.” (cf. #19)

We are inspired by Mary’s attitudes:
“It is Mary who inspires our way of being at the service of evangelization.
Confident in her help, we seek to serve like her, humbly and discreetly,
without imposing…so as not to impede God’s action in those we serve.” (cf. #20)
Mary went to Cana as a ‘guest’ – not as one who desired to usurp the role of the host/hostess. She was attentive to the needs of others but, at the same time, discreet in her way of responding to a need. Missionaries go towards other peoples as ‘guests’.
“We prepare or encourage others to take their own responsibilities…” (cf. #21)
We work towards the empowerment of people in whatever sphere of ministry we are engaged: e.g. education and healthcare, forming lay leaders for Church and society, withdrawing from works when we have completed the task, empowering men and women through education to increase their capacity to take up their role in society and, at times, to continue a ministry that we started, etc.
“Among other peoples and in our own country,
in respect and dialogue
we try to be bonds of communion between peoples,
races, and cultures, and witnesses to universal love.” (#22)
We live in intercultural communities, witnessing to the truth that, with faith, it is possible to share life in communion with respect for each person in their diversity and richness of cultures. With the growing fear of the ‘other’ in many societies, the witness of faith-based intercultural communities is needed more than ever before. As missionaries enter into the lives of the ‘other’ in respect and dialogue, they need to be aware that they have now become the ‘other’.

Hopefully, all of us can rediscover our missionary call to be ‘guests’ of the ‘other’, to walk gently with respect among the ‘other’, to be open to mutual evangelization and, when the time is right, to welcome others into our ‘home’ as honored guests.

Being at the service of evangelization requires a missionary heart that embraces the qualities that I have mentioned along with a desire for intimate union with God. The heart of mission is prayer. Only when we step back in prayer and contemplation can we hear the cries of the poor (If you love us…) calling to us to attend to the needs of mission today – those that are ongoing, such as education and healthcare, and those that are new, such as supporting victims of human trafficking, street children, migrants, refugees, families in distress, youth, those needing to learn a skill to support their families, etc. The Church can only live its missionary mandate through the life of love and service of its members, the disciples of Jesus. For truly, we are all baptized and sent on mission.

Sr. Georgeanne M. Donovan, smsm UISG Webinar – 21 October 2019
Superior General – Missionary Sisters of the Society of Mary

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