A Church on a Mission

“In Eldoret, saw a catechism class and a new mission to be opened that needs a church.... Drove 100 miles — impossible roads — arrived at Ortum at a Catholic hospital helping treat tuberculosis.… In Uganda made stop at a center for deaf and blind children. Also in Alexander Township, gave the Sisters $1,500 to help with 1,000 students.… Need in Nigeria — more Religious Brothers for teaching.”

Courtesy photo

These were among the notes written inside a small black notebook some 60 years ago by Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, then U.S. national director of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith. As he captured the work and needs of the Mission Church he saw on a visit to Kenya, Uganda and Nigeria, he also offered a glimpse of his personal encounters on these journeys. Archbishop Sheen would share these moments on the pages of the Society’s MISSION magazine and tell of them during his television and radio broadcasts.

Flash back to a century and a half earlier, to the early 1800s in France, where a young woman, Pauline Jaricot, had been hearing a great deal about the missions of her day — including in the United States — from her brother, Phileas, who was preparing for the priesthood. The letters they exchanged eventually would describe Pauline’s efforts for those missions and missionaries, as she gathered together “circles of 10,” mostly workers in her family’s silk factory. She asked each member of the group to offer daily prayer and a weekly sacrifice of a sous (the equivalent of a penny at that time). Her efforts would become what we know today as the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, one of the four Pontifical Mission Societies, encouraging daily prayer and regular sacrifices to a general fund of support for all the world’s missions.

Fast forward to today and the work of priests, religious sisters and brothers, and lay catechists continues in the world’s most vulnerable communities. How best to reflect the encounter with the missions today? The letters of Pauline Jaricot, even the visits of Archbishop Sheen, don’t seem to match today’s communications milieu: one characterized by direct, immediate, in-the-moment encounter. A recent Gallup poll indicated that texting is the most common way for anyone under 50 to communicate — short, quick updates — and that 80 percent of seniors own a cellphone. Another study found the typical cellphone user spends more than two hours on their phone every day. And, according to the Digital in 2017 Global Overview report, more than half the world now uses a smartphone, with two-thirds of the world’s population going mobile. With this in mind, how best to provide for mission encounter today?

Mission in the Digital Space

In 2015, the Pontifical Mission Societies, through the MISSIO app, provided such a space, as it fostered a new way to build and sustain Catholic parishes and communities across the globe, offering a direct, unfiltered and transparent relationship with people in their local communities and those in need half a world away. (That app was an updated version of the first MISSIO, which was launched by Pope Francis in May 2013.)

Now also a web experience (mobile or desktop) at MISSIO.org, the platform continues to provide a place for mission encounter where there is ongoing accountability and transparency on how the funds have been used and who is using them. Parishioners can ask questions of project leaders, see updates and know that 100 percent of their donations goes directly to the project being presented for a specific purpose. MISSIO offers a safe and secure channel of fund disbursement via the local apostolic nunciature (the pope’s representative in mission countries) guaranteeing that monies arrive in tact and go directly to the beneficiary.

Missio and Your Parish
A priest in Rowanda distributes Communion during Mass. Courtesy photo
The materials for World Mission Sunday from the Society for the Propagation of the Faith introduce an opportunity for ongoing formation as missionary disciples, starting with the MISSIO chatbot from Facebook Messenger, and leading to MISSIO.org. Here are three connection points for your parish with MISSIO:

Through MISSIO, U.S. Catholic parishes with twinned mission projects and other mission relationships could widen their “circles of 10,” to use the Pauline Jaricot method of encounter, through social shares and emails. And the “circles of 10” could now include your parishioners, along with a priest in Rwanda, a sister in the Philippines and a faith community in India or Kenya. All connected, experiencing the work of missions across the globe, at the same time, in the same moment.

Missio.org via CNS

On MISSIO, Father Angelo Nisengwe in Ruhengeri, Rwanda, provides real-time updates about his work among the prisoners of Musanze, and then he writes to the leader of another project, one to build a chapel in Tanzania: “I will offer my Mass tomorrow for your work.”

On MISSIO, Sister Claudine tells of her efforts to build a computer science classroom for vocational training in Madagascar, and then she writes prayerful congratulations to a newly married U.S. couple who was helping her raise funds.

On MISSIO, the visits are virtual; the letters, more like quick chats in a texting format.

Following Francis’ Lead

Pope Francis, in Evangelii Gaudium, would seem to advocate this ongoing evolution of encounter. “Pastoral ministry in a missionary key seeks to abandon the complacent attitude that says: ‘We have always done it this way,’” he writes. “I invite everyone to be bold and creative in this task of rethinking the goals, structures, style and methods of evangelization in their respective communities” (No. 33).

And the last line of the Pope’s message for the 2017 World Mission Sunday celebration seeks the intercession of our Blessed Mother so that we can all acquire “the holy audacity needed to discover new ways to bring the gift of salvation to every man and woman.”

This year for World Mission Sunday the materials from the Society for the Propagation of the Faith tap into technology to provide an encounter that lies at the heart of missionary discipleship, taking their cue from the chief missionary himself, Pope Francis — not only his call for bold creativity for evangelization, but also his words and wisdom for this ongoing formative relationship for mission.

Pope Francis launches the MISSIO app during an audience at the Vatican in 2013. CNS photo

Chatting with the Pope

This year, the celebration of World Mission Sunday will incorporate the use of a chatbot, part of Facebook Messenger (see sidebar). Through the MISSIOBot, Catholics in the United States will be able to participate in a guided conversation with the pope — to “chat with the pope” about the work of the missions, about today’s missionaries and about how they can help, especially for World Mission Sunday. Mission stories and portraits of today’s missionaries are presented in a conversational format, inspired by what Pope Francis has written and said about mission. MISSIOBot is the digital MISSION magazine to hearken to an Archbishop Sheen mode to present mission encounter; it is the updated version of Pauline Jaricot’s one-by-one, highly personalized way of forming her “circles of 10.”

How to chat with Pope Francis
Courtesy image
The materials for World Mission Sunday from the Society for the Propagation of the Faith encourage an ongoing formative relationship for mission, offering portraits of today’s missionaries inspired by the words of our chief missionary, Pope Francis.

Facebook Messenger has 1.2 billion users worldwide, broadening the reach for mission encounter. And with 50 percent of young people using Messenger daily, MISSIOBot can bring mission to young people, whom the Holy Father calls in this year’s World Mission Sunday message, “the hope of mission.”

Visits. Letters. Now chats. A response of the pope’s mission societies is to provide a space for encounter with the mission Church whenever and wherever you are … now through MISSIO.org on mobile or desktop, and through a Facebook Messenger chatbot. Notes about these encounters are written to and from missionaries, not on paper but in a digital notebook of sorts. And without having to get on an airplane — or drive 100 miles over “impossible roads” — you’ll experience what Archbishop Sheen did, and what Pauline Jaricot knew would renew the Faith in her home country of France: growing faith in the missions, and a way to answer the call to each one of us who are baptized to be missionaries ourselves, through prayer and sacrifice, in word and deed.

During this Mission Month, let’s meet on MISSIO — when we’re not “chatting with the pope”!

MONICA YEHLE has been director of communications at the national office of the Pontifical Mission Societies in the United States, which include the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, since 1987.