A Permanent State of Mission

On January 1st 2014, 40 Catholic men and women departed on a  nine day mission to General Cepeda, Mexico.  Among those who attended were two Mercedarian Friars to assist with the Sacraments and promote the Order.

Danger of Losing the Faith

General Cepeda, Mexico
General Cepeda, Mexico

The region of General Cepeda, Mexico is located 221 mile from the Texas border. The area surrounding the city is mostly desert, however over time many tiny villages have sprung up. The “Ranchos” and “Ejidos” are composed of 10 or so adobe houses. Each “Rancho” has a small chapel, but the people only occasionally see a priest. At times, the residents can go up to 3 or 4 months without the Sacraments. Absence of catechesis and the Sacraments can have devastating effects on the people’s faith. Protestant and non-Christian sects take the opportunity to proselytize the people. Some Ranchos have gone from 100% Catholic to 94% Jehovah Witness. One wonders if this would occur if the Church was able to better tend to Her sheep.

Family Mission Company arrived in General Cepeda in the 1980’s with the intent of aiding the diocese in reaching out to the poor with a missionary spirit. They open their doors to many who wish to exercise their baptismal call to mission. It was to this place that Life Teen organized a mission experience and opened it up to young adults. Several of these Catholic youth, have already made a courageous commitment to be part-time or full-time missionaries to the youth in the United States.

The Shift

3 PopesOne might ask the question: What is the reason to go all the way to Mexico when there is such a need in the United States? This is certainly a legitimate question. In fact, Pope Francis expressed this need in his recent Apostolic Exhortation that all Catholics throughout the world are called to be in a “permanent state of mission” (EG #25). Many such as Dr. George Weigel would argue that there is a dramatic shift going on over the past 40 years in the Church’s relation to the world. In the 400 years prior to the Second Vatican Council, we lived what might be referred to as “Counter-Reformation Catholicism”. It was characterized by defense of the Church’s doctrine in response to criticism from Protestantism and Rationalism. This philosophy was effective in preserving the faith and evangelizing thousands in South America, Asia, and parts of Africa. However, it was not equipped for our contemporary culture which began to take shape in the 20th century.

The pontificate of Blessed John Paul II gave us the concept of the “New Evangelization”. This new method of Church life is vastly different from the old model since it seeks to “engage” the culture rather than “solidify and protect one’s own beliefs”. Pope Benedict continued this call by giving us the foundation to bring out into the world. He gave us much clearer understanding of the liturgical and catechetical aspects of our faith. Now, Pope Francis dreams of “a missionary option…so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation(EG #27).”

How to be Missionaries

The Whole Gang
The Whole Gang

All of this is sounds nice, but it must be practically put into action. We need to learn how to be missionaries. One way to do this is to step back and go on a classical missionary experience to gain a better understanding of the essential aspects of “mission”. The Family Mission Company’s mission at General Cepeda offers such an experience. The members of the mission had to collect funds for their trip from local parishes or sponsors. After meeting in Houston, we all traveled almost 12 hours in vans from Houston to General Cepeda.

From the beginning each member was asked to foster a missionary heart or attitude. Several virtues were to be embraced. First, we were to realize that a certain type of austerity is essential for mission. As our Holy Fathers says, “…I want a Church which is poor and for the poor (EG 198).” We must live as the people we serve. For North Americans this can be a great penance.

Several sacrifices are inherent in living this region of Mexico. The desert climate was warm during the day, but cold at night. The houses do not have any heat so an individual room can get as cold as 30 to 40 degrees at night. Secondly, water is a precious commodity which must be used with limits. So each missionary was only allowed to shower every other day. Toilet paper is scarce and cannot be flushed down the toilet, but must be put in the trash. The missionaries took turns each day cleaning the bathrooms and doing other service duties. The food was of a very good quality, but we were encouraged to use moderation and “eat what is placed before you”.

61470_10101109594305978_961339706_nPrayer was a central part of the mission experience. Each morning we began the day with prayer. Every activity was initiated with prayer and praise. The tendency to complain was offset by an emphasis on gratitude. Each day we were asked to give thanks for everything individually and communally. Thus, we attempt to escape what Pope Francis calls the “deadly habit of complaining (EG #82).”

Besides the Masses and home visits, each missionary was encouraged to engage in alms giving. In and around General Cepeda, there are many people living in poverty. This poverty is not like anything we would see in North America. On a daily basis many people come to the door seeking alms. Often times, it is for serious medical issues or even money to provide for the very necessities of life. The missionaries were told of these requests and invited, if they wished, to give assistance.

Due to the recent heavy rain in the area, many homes were significantly damaged. Each day a group of missionaries would go out to do Work Projects. This particular week we were able to build a roof for a family. Their roof had collapsed during the heavy rains and they did not have the means to get it fixed.

Missionary Disciples

In his recent Apostolic Exhortation, Pope Francis has called each one of us to move from an attitude of “self-preservation” to a “permanent state of mission”. Everyone is called to this by their Baptism, but as the Pope says, “…we no longer say that we are disciples and missionaries, but rather that we are always missionary disciples (EG 120).” Being missionary means perpetually going out to invite all to experience the love of Christ. We do this by speaking the truth with love to our relatives, neighbors, and in the workplace. However, we always recognize that the greatest witness is living a good and generous life. Living simply and sharing freely is the strongest Gospel proclamation that we can give.

Those of us who attended the General Cepeda Mission are grateful for the experiences that we had. We do not leave the mission behind, but it comes with us. As “missionary disciples” we now know better how to take part an active part of the New Evangelization which is to be lived in all places and at all times.

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The Mercedarians attend REACH Philly and learn about the New Evangelization

The Friars recently attended REACH Philly, a prayer breakfast conference sponsored by FOCUS. Here are some of the highlights of the morning:

reach-philly-logoOne of the fastest growing youth movements in the Church is FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students). This group was founded in 1998 in response to Blessed John Paul II’s call to a New Evangelization. This evangelization is now carried out in over 74 campuses throughout the United States by over 361 missionaries.

In an effort to “reach” out to the broader Church, FOCUS is sponsoring New Evangelization Prayer Breakfasts throughout the United States. The purpose of these events is to unite and equip Christ’s whole Body for the new evangelization. Here in Philadelphia the REACH Prayer Breakfast was held on Friday, May 10th. Clergy, religious, and parishioners from all over the Northeast met to listen to talks given by Archbishop Charles Chaput, O.F. M. Cap., George Weigel, Sr Joseph Andrews Bogdonawicz, and Brian Gail.

Over_six_thousand_young_people_pack_the_main_ballroom_for_the_SEEK_2013_conference_in_Orlando_FL_Credit_Jason_Siegel_for_FOCUS_CNA_US_Catholic_News_1_8_13The morning began with the Rosary followed by the celebration of the Holy Eucharist. During his homily, Archbishop Chaput exhorted all to follow the example of St. Damien of Molokai who memorial we were celebrating. The Archbishop explained that Damien did not intend to go to the leper colony in Molokai, Hawaii. His brother, who was also a priest, had volunteered to go, but fell ill before departing. Damien volunteered to go in his place. This is often how God works in our lives; he opens doors for us, but we must have the courage to take chances so that Lord can do great things through us. Archbishop Chaput, also, went on to explain that we must be willing to preach the full Gospel and be at times ridiculed for it.

After Holy Mass, Brian Gail, author of the popular book Fatherless, as MC introduced everyone to the topic of the New Evangelization which is carried out by FOCUS on college campuses. These courageous young adults invite college students to a relationship with Jesus Christ, which can fill the void left by an increasingly secular culture. They do this mainly through bible studies which are meant to lead into deeper questions of life and it’s meaning.

Mr. Gail introduced Sr Joseph Andrews of the Dominicans Sisters of May Mother of the Eucharist who spoke to us of our responsibility to be generous with the Gospel message we have received. We must bring this to the world with “TLC or Truth, Love, and Courage”. Our culture which is sickened with the disease of relativism must be confronted with the truth about freedom. Sister explained that “Freedom is for the sake of truth”. And, “There is no freedom without truth”. Our new Holy Father, Francis, is showing us the way to confront the culture with love. To allow people to live without purpose in the name of tolerance is to lack love for them. For “truth sets us free to love…”. But loving others means that we may have to charitably challenge them, as Pope Francis says, “with courage and frankness.”

110430American Ca.aurora_standalone.prod_affiliate.79Sr Joseph Andrews was followed by the keynote speaker George Weigel a famous Catholic theologian, author, and spokesmen for the Church. Dr. Weigel presented the historical perspective behind the New Evangelization. The Church is now at the beginning of a new stage in Her history. Prior to the Second Vatican Council, She was, what Dr. Weigel calls, living “Counter-Reformation Catholicism”. This time spanned over 400 years. It was characterized by defense of the Church’s doctrine in response to criticism from Protestantism and Rationalism. This philosophy was effective in preserving the faith and evangelizing thousands in South America, Asia, and parts of Africa. However, it was not equipped for our contemporary culture which began to take shape in the 1960’s.

Vatican II accelerated the shift from the Church of the Counter Reformation to the Church of the New Evangelization. This new method of Church life is vastly different from the old model since it seeks to “engage” the culture rather than “solidify and protect one’s own beliefs”. Dr Weigel explained that the 2nd Vatican Council differed from previous Councils because it did not provide the Church with a “key” to interpret it’s documents. This is why there has been so much confusion over the past 40 years about what the council fathers really intended. However, Weigel says the Lord has provided His Church with the proper interpretation through the pontificates of Blessed John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

The last two pontificates have given the Church a solid interpretation of the 2nd Vatican council, which can be understood as “Communio of Discipleship in Mission” . Weigel, one of the foremost experts in the pontificate of Blessed John Paul II, explained that the Jubilee Year of 2000 was all about the New Evangelization. The central event of this year was the Pope’s pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Here Blessed John Paul II symbolically carried the Church to the place where God had entered into human history.

Young Catholics Attend Youth Rally With Pope Benedict XVIThe Pope announced at the end of the second millennium of Christian History that the Church was to once again “put out into the deep” for a catch: “Duc in altum” (Lk 5:4). This, Dr Weigel, says completes the term of institutional protection and points to the need to go forth engaging a more hostile culture with the truth of the Gospel. Pope Benedict XVI, who was also at the 2nd Vatican council, further solidifies the council fathers intentions. During Benedict’s pontificate we are given a clearer understanding of the liturgical and catechetical aspects of our faith. We are taught by Blessed John Paul II and Benedict XVI that our faith is very rational and extremely relevant to our culture. In fact, the culture desperately needs the truth of the Gospel to prevent it from crumbling. The “air has become hostile to the Gospel” and even to objective truth.

Pope Francis’ pontificate is shaping out to be one of conversion and action. The Church is now in the period of the New Evangelization which requires the Catholic to be alert and on the offensive. Dr Weigel explained that “a kept Church has no future in the world in which we are living”. Christians must resist the temptation to hold onto our faith as private rather than living and missionary.

Mercedarian master with Pope FrancisIt is here, in these storms of the New Springtime, that the Lord has risen up groups such as FOCUS. How ironic that it begins with the youth? It began in 1950’s Poland with young Karol Wojtyla going as a University Chaplain “hanging” out with College Students. It continued as he, Pope John Paul II, went against all odds in 1993 to begin the World Youth Day in Denver, Colorado. Now, it continues with FOCUS which takes the saving message of Jesus Christ to Universities throughout the United States. They have a simple method: prayer and share. The missionaries give up 2 years of their lives to go to a designated University. Here they begin to pray for their peers growing up in the Culture of Death. Then, they share the message of life with all who will listen.

As a religious, we the Mercedarian Friars, are blessed to know that so many young adults are generously sharing the message of the Gospel. We are inspired to REACH out to those around us with greater zeal. The New Evangelization is not just for religious and priests, nor is not just for young adults, this is the new model for our Church today and in the future. Let us not be left behind or caught up in obsolete models, but embrace the New Evangelization with our whole being!!

For more information: http://www.focus.org/