Every spring, National Directors of the Pontifical Mission Societies from 120 countries come together in Rome to discuss and distribute the generosity of the world’s Catholics to the 1,150 mission-dependent dioceses that cover more than half the territory of the globe. The gathering always includes a meeting with our “chief missionary,” our Holy Father.

On May 17, Pope Francis welcomed us for the first time as a group, saying he was particularly glad to meet us because we “keep alive the activity of evangelization, the paradigm of every Church.” In fact, he said “mission is the paradigm of every Church institution.”

Such a “paradigmatic attitude” for any ministry can be traced to then Cardinal Bergoglio’s influence on the Aparecida Document, named after the Fifth General Conference of Bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean held in Aparecida, Brazil, in 2007. Aparecida called for the Church at all levels to be in a permanent state of mission, echoing the Council’s teaching that the Church is missionary by her very nature (Ad Gentes, No. 2).

So what might this paradigmatic missionary attitude look like? What the Pope did after delivering his speech to the National Directors gave me a few clues.

I was positioned at the end of the long line waiting to greet Pope Francis. I was with Father Antonios Fayez, the National Director from Egypt, with whom I’d spent Christmas 2012 in Cairo, celebrating midnight Mass while armed guards stood watch at the church gates.

We were last in line because the Pope (or his staff) had agreed to launch a new mobile App called MISSIO. A type of news aggregator, the downloadable App offers a daily digest of papal activities, as well as news from the Church around the world, courtesy of the news service of the Pontifical Mission Societies in Rome, FIDES. It is available in eight languages, including Chinese and Arabic, and we had developed the electronic gizmo with the help of some dedicated Catholic techies here in the United States.

With a single finger swipe on a button marked “evangelizantur” on my iPad — Latin for “they are evangelized” — the Pope “unlocked” the App, placing the missionary Gospel in the pockets of young people around the world. What a great use of the papal keys, I muttered to myself.

But what happened immediately after that was striking. All during the audience, a group of staff from the central offices was assembled at the back of the hall. They had been told they would not be able to greet the Holy Father which had caused some disappointment and downcast looks.

After fiddling with the iPad for a minute or two and talking about digital media, my colleague from Egypt mentioned to the Pope that the staff at the back of the hall was eager to greet him. Suddenly all talk of iPads and Apps and digital news became stale as the Pope looked and saw the gathered laity still patiently waiting for him.

Something changed, not only on the Pope’s face, but also in his heart. From looking puzzled at this computer gadget before him, he lifted his gaze and saw the crowd. He immediately motioned to them to come forward. A cheer went up and the Pope’s demeanor went from bored techy to excited shepherd in the time it took to send a text message half a world away. One of the Pope’s private secretaries smiled wryly and was reported as saying that they would likely be eating overcooked pasta for lunch once again. . . .

‘Eyes on the Invisible’

A common beef of the faithful with their priests is that they arrive late to events and are usually the first to leave. Maybe this is an occupational hazard but is readily justified (and forgiven for the most part!) because of the sheer volume of commitments. Never mind about the importance of time management and the perils of over-scheduling, by spending an extra 20 minutes to greet everyone in the hall, the Pope was exhibiting a core truth of pastoral practice: that the mission of Christ and His Church is a pastoral priority and is always a personal one.

With his eyes on the invisible, Pope Francis continues to walk the talk. During World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro this past July, for example, we watched as he embraced the prisoner and the poor, as he left the charted course to step beyond the sidelines, for those personal encounters in which he met Christ and offered His love and hope. To the Bishops, priests and seminarians, he said: “God asks us to be missionaries. But where? Where he himself places us, in our own countries or wherever he has chosen for us.” Being present is being missionary, where the personal is priority.

It is who we are as Church, Pope Francis tells us. More than once, he has stated that the Church is “not a relief organization, an enterprise or an NGO”; it is, as he writes in his message for this year’s World Mission Sunday, “a community of people, animated by the Holy Spirit, who have lived and are living the wonder of the encounter with Jesus Christ and want to share this experience of deep joy, the message of salvation that the Lord gave us.”

Encounter, dialogue, going beyond, being called and being sent — it’s a missionary presence that is both personal and permanent, and one Pope Francis not only talks about but practices every day. Looks like his secretaries will be eating overcooked pasta for quite some time. TP 

Father Small, a Missionary Oblate of Mary Immaculate, has worked in pastoral ministry in Brazil and in Houston, Texas. He led the U.S. Bishops’ campaign against global poverty from 2004 to 2009 and served as the U.S. coordinator of recovery efforts for the Church in Haiti after the devastating earthquake in January 2010. An adjunct professor of international law at Georgetown University Law Center, he earned his doctorate in theology from The Catholic University of America. He was named National Director of the Pontifical Mission Societies in the United States in 2011.