Making Couples Missionary

Pope Francis is calling all members of the Church to become more missionary, to evangelize. To leave the comfort of one’s present situation and go forth to the streets to make Jesus better known, loved and served. “If we wish to lead a dignified and fulfilling life, we have to reach out to others and seek their good. In this regard, several sayings of St. Paul will not surprise us: ‘The love of Christ urges us on’ (2 Cor 5:14); ‘Woe to me if I do not proclaim the Gospel’ (1 Cor 9:16)” (Evangelli Gaudium, The Joy of the Gospel, No. 9).

Pope Francis has spoken often about having a renewed poorer Church which works more for the poor, gets out and become more involved, even if she may come across as messy in her activities, making mistakes. Better, though, than sitting home in the “sacristy,” safe and sound, never getting bruised and wounded by interaction with others — but if the Church stays wrapped up in itself, it will age. “If I had to choose between a wounded Church that goes out on to the streets and a sick, withdrawn Church, I would definitely choose the first” (The Joy of the Gospel, No. 00). He has also said: “To serve, accompany and defend” the poor is the mission of Catholic social ministry.”

At Vatican II, the Church Fathers declared, “God, who has fatherly concern for everyone, has willed that all men and women should constitute one family and treat one another in a spirit of brotherhood” (Gaudium et Spes, No. 24). The family is the first cell in that church. “The family has received from God the mission to construct the first and vital cell of society. It fulfills its mission when is an intimate sanctuary of the Church” (J.P. II).

How then, can a pastor get his couples and their families to fit into this renewed vision of the Church? That they become more aware of their missionary and apostolic vocation?

Let’s start with a reflection upon whom God is, His nature, His DNA. We Christians believe in a trinity of persons, one God with three different beings who live as a divine family. In this trinitarian life, we find the perfect community, union and solidarity, each working perfectly with the other while maintain his distinct role and function. There is no conflict, tension, envy, division. This happens because God is the author of LOVE.

As the essence of love, He reaches out and extends himself to share this love by creating life. God is the exact opposite of selfishness, of only having concerns and worries of taking care of oneself. After many millenniums of inanimated and non-rational life, He created men and women to live in community, giving us the family as an institution which promotes that love; it protects and sustains the life of its members, which, will then give a visible manifestation of His presence in today’s world. John Paul II in Solicitude Rei Socialis wrote “all this plants within the human being — man and woman — the seed and the requirement of a special task to be accomplished by each individually and by them as a couple.”

In an article which I once wrote, I said that the Trinity is a divine manifestation, archetype or model, of the family; the family is a human sacrament of the Trinity. If we want to know what and how the family should live, look to God. If we want to know how God lives and acts, look to the good unified family.

In the book Happy Together, author John Bosio presents us a theological base for developing the social dimension of Christian marriage when he writes that “life as a married couple is not intended to be self-serving. John Paul II explains that the unity of husband and wife ‘rather than closing them up in themselves, opens them toward new life, toward a new person.’ Husband and wife marry to become active partners with God to create and to nurture human life” (p. 133).

Lisa Cahill, well-known married lay theologian, wrote in her book A Christian Social Perspective: “If the family is a school of intimacy, empathy and love, then the family as little church schools these virtues in attentiveness to the least of Christ’s brethren. The virtues of compassion, mercy and service are not merely held up as distant ideals or supererogatory forms of perfection. Those who fail to find Christ in active love of neighbor must depart from Him on the day of His glory.”

The family has this wonderful vocation and mission to be the first and best school which teaches love. Without love, life does not have any taste or flavor, has lost its way. John Paul II also said that a person cannot live without love. . .and his life is stripped of meaning.

God is love, who wants to share it with others. (cf. St. John) If we do not imitate his example by loving others, we will be frustrated and unhappy. He who does not love has missed the whole purpose and reason for being. What good is a car if it does not provide us with transportation; or a refrigerator that does not keep our food cold; or a television that does not give us a clear picture?

Let us now reflect upon the sacrament of baptism. If this sacrament inserts us into the Body of Christ, into the Church, then some theologians would hold that when two baptized people are united in the sacrament of matrimony there is a deepening, a new insertion into Christ, into the Church. One is more baptized, more Church than a single person!

In baptism, we receive three munera: prophetic, priestly and kingly.

The Christian family, the domestic church, announces to the world through its prophetic munus the beauty and joy of a new loving community, a countersign in a world with still too many wars and conflicts, violence and economic exploitation, racism, etc. The family as domestic church condemns all exploitation by having its members working, living and loving together in peace and harmony.

By its prayers and spirituality, the Christian family as the first church reveals the concrete and visible presence of God. By living the priestly munus she sanctifies her members and all those with whom they come in contact. Hence the importance of conjugal and family prayer. How beautiful to see a whole family coming together to worship in the Eucharist, and then taking that love back to their home and to all the places that they will visit.

In Ephesians 5, St. Paul educates us that the husband must be a sign of the love of God toward his wife, the way Christ was for the Church. This lived love becomes visible for the children, and thus the parents become the first catechists and educators of the faith.

Our current models of authority and power leave a lot to be desired. There is still too much abuse and excessive privilege which harm the little and simple. The exercise of the kingly munus teaches the family how to order a new social model, a new form of service and helping the needs of others. There is a saying used in Brazil that goes like this: He who does not live to serve, does not serve to live. Christ’s Kingdom is about serving, not so much about being served. The service that the spouses put into practice between themselves and with their children prepare them for serving all their brothers and sisters in the greater human family.

The family as domestic church, the first church, thus carries out Christ’s mission in today’s world. The pascal sacrifice, the death and dying of the Lord, continues on in the family through the sacrifices, renunciations, pardoning, sharing, loving and helping of one another.

That is why at Vatican II, the bishops said “the well-being of the individual person and of human and Christian society is intimately linked with the healthy condition of that community produced by marriage and family” (G.S., No. 47). If the “family is the foundation of society” then that same family and its members have to be involved in one way or another in building up a new society where love and concern for one another abounds.

But Pope Francis has noted that, when there is a greater need than ever for more missionary dynamism (which will bring salt and light to the world), many lay people fear that they may be asked to undertake some apostolic work and they seek to avoid any responsibility that may take away from their free time (J.G., No. 81).

What then, is the family, the domestic church, supposed to do? Many years ago President Kennedy used an ancient Chinese proverb to give Americans an example of what they could do. He only gave the first two of what should be included: Give someone a fish to eat today, immediately, because they are hungry. Teach them how to fish, to become independent.

But we cannot stop here. To be able to fish, people may need a fishing pole, a net, a boat, bait. Yet, when they get to the river, they find that someone has polluted it, put a fence around the lake. Fishermen cannot get to the fish.

Some Christians are going to be called to offer immediate assistance, like those who work in a soup kitchen; others will educate and train the needy to become independent; others still will provide the means and instruments so that people can perform their jobs, and finally there will be a small number of people in positions of authority to shape decisions on a regional, national or international level for the benefit of all. There is room for each and every person to act on at least one of these levels.

That is why John Paul II instructed us: “preference for the poor, and the decisions which it inspires in us, cannot but embrace the immense multitudes of the hungry, the needy, the homeless, those without medical care and, above all, those without hope of a better future. It is impossible not to take account of the existence of these realities. To ignore them would mean becoming like the rich man who pretended not to know the beggar Lazarus lying at his gate” (cf. Lk 16:19-31) (SRS, No. 42).

So Pope Francis reminds us that in virtue of our baptism, all the members of the People of God have become missionary disciples (cf. Mt 28:19). All the baptized, whatever their position in the Church or their level of instruction in the faith, are agents of evangelization, and it would be insufficient to envisage a plan of evangelization to be carried out by professionals while the rest of the faithful would simply be passive recipients. The new evangelization calls for personal involvement on the part of each of the baptized (J.G.).

Every Christian is challenged, therefore, here and now, to be actively engaged in evangelization in all its various dimensions. Francis believes that anyone who has truly experienced God’s saving love does not need much time or lengthy training to go out and proclaim that love. Every Christian is a missionary to the extent that he or she has encountered the love of God in Christ Jesus. Look at the example of the first disciples, of the Samaritan woman, or St. Paul, who immediately proclaimed Jesus. So he asks each one of us, what are we waiting for?

Francis indicates the challenges that the world is facing which need to be faced (cf. 52-75 of J.G.):

No to an economy of exclusion.
No to the new idolatry of money.
No to a financial system that rules rather than serves.
No to the inequality that spawns violence.
Then there are the temptations faced by pastoral workers. [76-109]
Yes to the challenge of a missionary spirituality.
No to selfishness and spiritual sloth.
No to a sterile pessimism.
Yes to the new relationship brought by Christ.
No to spiritual worldliness.
No to warring among ourselves.

The sacrament of matrimony, therefore, should give the married couple the graces to not be selfish, to be ready to give and share life with others, to make sacrifices and to renounce immediate pleasure in benefit of the good of others. Parents begin this mission by shepherding their children to discover and love the Lord. By living in a Christian community, one learns to forgive, to heal hurts and pains, to be willing to forego one’s preferences so that others might benefit.

The Christian couple will find themselves being drawn, according to their circumstances, to helping beyond the four walls of their own home and immediate family. Time, talents, capacity, etc. will dictate what, where and with whom, but because of the power of the Eucharist and their sacrament of matrimony, this couple will be open to giving of their love to those who are lonely, abandoned, scarred, bruised or hurt by life’s evil ways. Whatever the situation, there is always someone to love and serve.

John Paul II quoted Paul VI as saying that “the Church is an ‘expert in humanity,’ and this leads her necessarily to extend her religious mission to the various fields in which men and women expend their efforts in search of the always relative happiness which is possible in this world, in line with their dignity as persons. The Church does not have a so-called third way in terms of a political or economic agendas, but involves herself with her ethics and lights to work for a just society. We need, however, more Christian politicians, business people, artists, those agents who shape public opinion through the field of communications, doctors and nurses, lawyers and judges, school teachers and educators, etc., to make human and Christian values present and visible.”

One way in which a pastor can get his couples to begin their vocation as a missionary couple is to work on conjugal prayer. If he can get them to share a prayer life through dialogue, then they will learn to become open and receptive in many other ways, not only to each other but to a much wider circle of people.

William P. Roberts offers a wonderful reflection on this. We all know that one of the hardest areas of ourselves to reveal is about our prayer life and faith. That means that there is already a closeness and an ability to share in other ways also. This is not so much about revealing the dogmas one holds, but means talking about how a person relates to God. Who is God for me? Do I see Him as a distant judge or Abba? A loving Father or a lawgiver? What do I feel toward Him: fear, trust love, anger?

Where does Jesus fit into my scheme of things? Is my relationship with him personal? What are my hopes, dreams, fears and doubts about the afterlife? When husbands and wives shares these ideas, are they able to listen in a non-judgmental way? Support their spouse’s faith journey?

Sharing in prayer is more than reciting prayers together. While that may be beneficial, using someone else’s thoughts can be an escape from revealing where you are in your spiritual life. Spontaneous prayer reveals where each one is at that moment. Each gives the other a glimpse into his or her faith-filled heart and soul. It is one more intimate moment in the life of the couple. (cf. Readings in Moral Theology, No. 15, p. 124).

Couples who can share their deeper thoughts and feelings about their prayer life and faith will automatically become more apostolic and missionary, more outwardly looking.

So what challenges exist in your community? What needs are there? What can each couple and family offer? As no two couples are alike, so each will do it differently, depending upon the number and age of their children, the spouses’ health and talents, free time, etc. Even if it is not possible for the couple to act together as a couple, the one who goes forth does so as a married person, enriched and supported by the love of a spouse.

That is why John Paul II’s plea is still relevant today: “I wish to appeal with simplicity and humility to everyone. . .by the way they live as individuals and as families, by the use of their resources, by their civic activity, by contributing to economic and political decisions and by personal commitment to national and international undertakings — the measures inspired by solidarity and love of preference for the poor. This is what is demanded by the present moment” (SRS, No. 47).

So the great challenge facing us as pastors is how we can make our couples holier and more missionary. What areas do we need for them to work on? How can I help them achieve their goal?

FATHER KIRCHNER, C.SS.R., is Central Regional Chaplain for TOOL, Liguori, Mo. Father Donnell Kirchner, CSsR, of Liguori, Mo., received a degree in moral theology in Rome and taught for 39 years as a Redemptorist priest in Brazil. He currently travels around the U.S. preaching.