Mission (im) possible

Testimony of a Bishop “from the end of the world”

What is our reaction when we hear the term “missionary”? Perhaps we instinctively think of a priest or a religious person who leaves his land to “evangelize” distant ones. This was the most common idea of ​​”mission” until a few decades ago. 

More recently, the term has gained a broader meaning and has begun to include all those baptized, extending the definition to more familiar contexts such as our deeply secularized Western world. 

The term “mission” comes from the Latin term missio meaning “to send”. We are all sent to spread the Good News that we have encountered in our life. In a certain sense, we are all called to be “apostles”, “to be sent”.

But the question I ask myself is: do we honestly still believe it? Do we still believe that our Faith can be meaningful, that it can change for the better the lives of many others who do not know it, or who have forgotten about it? 

All the baptized are called to be “missionaries”, that is people who evangelize. If the evangelizing drive fails, the Church loses her raison d’être. This is how the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI, Pope John Paul II – and most recently Pope Francis’s Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium – have expressed themselves.

But do we really believe it? Isn’t it easier to stay something among us, with “few people but good ones”, with our groups, with our activities … without bothering others who “are not interested” in what we have to offer? Logic and numbers all seem to add up against us. Yet, as we often like to remember, the “fire” of Christianity has been lit by just a few “ardent” apostles. It’s all about keeping this spark alive.

In recent days, this spark has taken on the appearance of an experience and a face, that of a Filipino Bishop, Pablo Virgilio David (for his flock simply “Bishop Ambo”), of the diocese of Kalookan, a populous and problematic suburb of the huge urban conglomerate of Manila.

We invited him to the Loyola School of Theology in Manila to tell us about his experience as Bishop in a “demanding” diocese, where even extreme poverty reigns supreme, and where the “war on drugs” launched by President Duterte continues to take away more lives, lives that the media no longer considers news worthy to take note of, but are instead accounted by one by one on Bishop Ambo’s Facebook page.

In his speech, Bishop Ambo introduced a simple consideration. On the record, the Philippines is the Asian country with the highest number of Catholics. Yet if you look at the data of participation in the sacraments, no more than a small 15-20% of believers regularly participate in the life of their parish. Most of the Filipino Catholics actually live their faith privately, going by devotions and simple prayers. 

They are “unchurched”, not reached by the Church. The official Church is not looking for them, and they on the other hand no longer care about the Church. The majority of which faces situations of poverty. 

In the face of this challenge, Bishop Ambo is reacting by organizing his diocese as a real “mission land”, alongside the traditional parishes with a good number of mission stations. The role of these stations entrusted to various religious orders but with a great and passionate collaboration of many locals, is exactly this: to establish a tangible presence of the local Church for many poor people who normally feel excluded from it

Even before drawing up elaborate pastoral programs, Bishop Ambo understood that the first step is even more essential: guaranteeing a presence, making people feel close, the human contact of the community of believers, to people who think they are not culturally, economically or morally worthy

Weighing his words well and not without a certain emotion, Bishop Ambo’s dream as he himself told us, is that of a truly “incarnate” Church, just like its Lord.

His speech touched me deeply and made me reflect. It brought me back to Italy and to our tired and ultra-secular Europe. We often complain about the numerical collapse of the faithful of our Churches, the decline in vocations to priestly and religious life, the irrelevance of Catholics in social and political life … yet, it seems to me, an even more fundamental question eludes us. 

Do we actually look for these people on the margins or those radically far from the Faith? Do we believe that the message we can bring to them is true, beautiful, and worthy of being shared?

Obviously it is not a matter in forcing anyone to believe, much less harassing others with a desire for proselytism. But to witness in an honest way the joy of our Faith. To experience the joy of the Gospel (as Pope Francis would say). And the first step, before any other high-sounding project, is first of all to go back to being there for these people.

Italy is certainly very different from the Philippines. The process of secularization, or even “de-Christianization”, whereby every discourse on God is normally dismissed with indifference, or sufficiency, or with a more or less accentuated sense of contempt, is at a much more advanced stage. 

Yet the type of spiritual poverty that we ordinarily face would require a missionary ardor equal to that brought by Bishop Ambo in his poor and peripheral diocese of Kalookan. Many of our brothers and sisters distant from the Faith are so out of their free choice, but often also because of our neglect, for the lack of our real presence among them. 

That is why perhaps the Church has lost so much of her authority: she has lost the patience of being and listening to those who are on the margins of the community. And without prior presence and listening, no teaching, let alone no condemnation can be taken seriously.

How can we be present again at the periphery of our believing community? What “mission stations”, real or ideal, should we implant in our local Churches? So many dreams and so few concrete answers to these questions for now. But for now, I want to thank Ambo David, a poor Bishop of a very poor diocese “at the end of the world”, for having rekindled in me the spark that can make the fire of the mission not only “possible”, but true and ardent …

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