Did you know that St. Térèse de Lisieux — the Little Flower — dreamed of being a missionary? She had the true evangelical spirit: the love-drive. It was love that impelled her. The Holy Spirit, the Master of relationships, IS that love. When the dearth of her remaining days on Earth began to dawn on her, she made a kind of bargain with God. Resigning herself to a short life on Earth, she made a most remarkable discovery about the nature of God’s mission for her, generously declaring: “I feel my mission is soon to begin, to make others love God as I do, to teach others my ‘little way.’ I will spend my Heaven in doing good upon Earth.” Just wow! 

This is a month of missionaries. On Oct. 1 we celebrated the feast of St. Térèse. Oct. 2 was the feast of our Guardian Angels, God’s personal ambassadors to each and every one of us. Forget about the bad angel. Just bring a prayer into any idle moment of boredom. You can’t pray and sin at the same time. Your guardian angel has your shoulder. 

Last week as I was preparing a video for World Mission Sunday on Oct 20, it occurred to me how profound an influence the stories of the missionaries had on my life, and particularly, my vocation to the priesthood. I always saw them as heroes, not so much because of their courage and what they gave up, but because of their faith and the love that motivated it. They were on fire with grateful love of God, aching to pour it out like the tears of the woman who had been forgiven much, who washed and anointed the feet of Jesus. They had so much love for the graciousness of God that, like St. Térèse, they could not keep that joy to themselves. The world had to know. 

My father had taken the family on a few occasions to Auriesville, the site where many of the North American martyrs of the 17th century, had come to bring the name and Gospel of Jesus to the indigenous peoples, mostly the Huron and the Iroquois (particularly the Mohawk). What amazed me is how resolved and peaceful they were in the face of almost certain torture and death. Love could not hold them back, even in the face of terror. 

They had come from all kinds of backgrounds. Some were farmers, from peasant stock, some professionals, doctors and teachers. They were French, so the probably enjoyed some fine cooking, croissants and café au lait. They left the comforts of home and traveled over the seas not knowing what they would face. 

A few visits to Maryknoll in Ossining during my early teens, also led by my father, left a similar impression. I talked to a few seminarians and priests there and went away with some brochures about life in the missions, places like Peru, Japan and China, which seemed very far and exotic to me at the time. I was particularly impressed by the story of Bishop Francis X. Ford, who was a Brooklyn native. He suffered torture and unspeakable humiliation under the Chinese Communists, eventually dying in prison. His body was “disappeared,” so to speak, no doubt to check the growth of the movement among local Catholics to promote his sanctity. 

Our own Diocese has cultivated missionary vocations such as Fr. William Kruegler, a Maryknoller, graduate of Central Catholic High School in Troy, who was killed when he tried to protect the young people of his village in the mountains of Bolivia. Not all missionaries become martyrs, but their self-sacrificing spirit inspires us in our own calling as missionary disciples of Christ. 

That’s right! We are all called to be missionaries. The Church exists to evangelize, to preach and live the Gospel. In his message to us, which follows the teaching of all of the recent pontiffs, Pope Francis encourages all of us to see ourselves as evangelizers within our own families, parishes, workplaces and communities — wherever we have an opportunity to bear witness to our faith. That’s the missionary spirit, right here at home! 

The prime way we can evangelize, however, is not by what we teach or preach but what we do. Jesus always meets us exactly where we are. He comes to us, especially when we are at our low points. He is the friend of the downtrodden, the marginalized and of every sin-sick soul. Our evangelizing works best when we approach a person gently with patience and joy. It is the listening and the accompaniment that gradually begin the formation of a bond of trust. From that foundation we can build a space for praying and exchanging stories through which we learn of one another’s struggles and desires – and strengthen one another’s faith. 

Jesus shows up in such relationships, such spiritual friendships. Nothing turns people off more than when zealous and well-intentioned disciples overplay their “truth card,” confident of their own righteousness, displaying an attitude of judgment that is really God’s role alone to impart. This can seem hypocritical, however sincere. An old Native American aphorism goes, “judge no one unless you have walked a mile in their moccasins.” 

Not all missionaries, historically, have followed the good example of Jesus, who was remarkably direct yet patient and gentle with people in their fallen state. The woman at the well, the countless lepers (presumed to be sinners), the tax collectors and prostitutes, whom he said would be more likely to enter the kingdom than many of the religious, economic and political ruling classes. At times unreflective and overly confident missionaries have brought physical and cultural diseases, imposing their own subjective habits and prejudices instead of bearing the light of the Gospel. This kind of intellectual arrogance is not unknown among contemporary evangelizers, fresh off the latest seminar or theology course. 

I have always been awed by the accounts of missionaries who attempt to evangelize by drawing connections from the native cultures of the people to whom they sought to bring the Gospel. Matteo Ricci, S.J., for one, who drew a comparison between the Chinese respect for ancestors and the canon of saints who are, in a way, our spiritual ancestors and who remain with us still. The North American Martyrs of our region, in particular, went to great lengths to learn the language and customs of the tribes among whom they mingled, without complaining about the food that was doubtless quite a change from what they remembered from their mother’s kitchen in France. 

On Saturday, Oct. 19, by the way, we celebrate the memorial of Saints John de Brébeuf and Isaac Jogues, priests, and their companion martyrs, among them many laypersons. And let’s not, of course, forget the deacon and preacher, St. Francis of Assisi, whom we commemorated on Oct. 4.Talk about a missionary spirit! His loving heart, which sang the praises of God’s creation, in the poorest of God’s people, the innocence of the animals and the simplicity of the flowers, was firmly anchored in the Eucharistic presence of Christ, his first and foremost love. 

Every morning, as we leave our homes for work or accompany our children to school, we are on a mission. Our journeys and our destinations, though not perhaps over wide seas and soaring mountains, are nonetheless great voyages. We are impelled by our baptismal mission to bring the presence of Jesus wherever we go and particularly to those most in need of hearing the voice that will speak to their lovelorn heart.  

Join me in prayer that each of us may trust in the Lord to give us the courage and zeal of the heroic missionaries whom we remember this month as we celebrate World Mission Sunday. Today — YOU may be the only Christ that some person may ever have known!

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