In his letter for the 2013 World Youth Day, which was published yesterday, Pope Benedict urged all young people to be missionaries, wherever they find themselves. This as an answer to Jesus’ call to “Go, and make disciples of all nations!” (Matt. 28:19) which is the theme for this 28th World Youth Day.
These nations are not only to be understood geographically:
“Some people are far away geographically, but others are far away because their way of life has no place for God. Some people have not yet personally received the Gospel, while others have been given it, but live as if God did not exist. Let us open our hearts to everyone. Let us enter into conversation in simplicity and respect. If this conversation is held in true friendship, it will bear fruit. The “nations” that we are invited to reach out to are not only other countries in the world. They are also the different areas of our lives, such as our families, communities, places of study and work, groups of friends and places where we spend our free time. The joyful proclamation of the Gospel is meant for all the areas of our lives, without exception.”
The letter is a clear call against the silence of so many faithful, especially young people who no longer have the words to speak about the faith. It is most definitely a counter-cultural move, and perhaps for many in the west even a step too far just yet.
Pope Benedict identifies several steps in the way to becoming missionaries. The first and most important is to become a disciple of Christ:
“A disciple is a person attentive to Jesus’ word (cf. Lk 10:39), someone who acknowledges that Jesus is the Teacher who has loved us so much that he gave his life for us. Each one of you, therefore, should let yourself be shaped by God’s word every day. This will make you friends of the Lord Jesus and enable you to lead other young people to friendship with him.”
A missionary then has to go out, into the world, but also out of himself, out of his own little world, habits and comforts. The sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation are essential in this. Missionaries then have to take what they have received, Christ’s love and mercy, out into the world, to the “nations”. Here, the Holy Father emphasises two specific areas: travel and migration and social communications, especially the internet.
“As I mentioned to you on another occasion: “I ask you to introduce into the culture of this new environment of communications and information technology the values on which you have built your lives. […] It falls, in particular, to young people, who have an almost spontaneous affinity for the new means of communication, to take on the responsibility for the evangelization of this ‘digital continent’” (Message for the 43rd World Communications Day, 24 May 2009). Learn how to use these media wisely. Be aware of the hidden dangers they contain, especially the risk of addiction, of confusing the real world with the virtual, and of replacing direct and personal encounters and dialogue with internet contacts.”
One of the direct and challenging questions follow then. A young missionary has to make disciples, and that means an active engagement with their contemporaries.This can happen through words, but in the first place through our sharing of Christ’s love, which is our own love.
“The main way that we have to “make disciples” is through Baptism and catechesis. This means leading the people we are evangelizing to encounter the living Christ above all in his word and in the sacraments. In this way they can believe in him, they can come to know God and to live in his grace. I would like each of you to ask yourself: Have I ever had the courage to propose Baptism to young people who have not received it? Have I ever invited anyone to embark on a journey of discovery of the Christian faith? Dear friends, do not be afraid to suggest an encounter with Christ to people of your own age. Ask the Holy Spirit for help. The Spirit will show you the way to know and love Christ even more fully, and to be creative in spreading the Gospel.”
The questions that I have highlighted in bold are, in our modern secularised and relativist culture, the most difficult to ask. It is so counter-cultural and can be so easily and automatically perceived and an attempt at indoctrination or condemnation of a person’s current lifestyle. It is anything but that, of course, but there is an innate hostility towards any expression of faith in our culture, if that expression can’t be easily relegated to a mere opinion or a private matter. But if we take our faith seriously we can’t do nothing but share it. As the pope writes in an earlier paragraph:
“When we forget God, we lose hope and become unable to love others. That is why it is so necessary to testify to God’s presence so that others can experience it. The salvation of humanity depends on this, as well as the salvation of each of us. Anyone who understands this can only exclaim with Saint Paul: “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” (1 Cor 9:16).”
To be able to do this, we must stand firm in the faith, and we need prayer and the sacraments for that. “We must first speak with God in order to be able to speak about God,” the Holy Father writes. The sacraments of Confirmation and Confession and Eucharistic Adoration (pictured) are also valuable means to be able to become firm enough in the faith to be able to proclaim the Gospel, to evangelise.
And we can’t do so alone, by our own standards or morals. We need the Church.
“Dear young people, if you are to remain firm in professing the Christian faith wherever you are sent, you need the Church. No one can bear witness to the Gospel alone. Jesus sent forth his disciples on mission together. He spoke to them in the plural when he said: “Make disciples”. Our witness is always given as members of the Christian community, and our mission is made fruitful by the communion lived in the Church. It is by our unity and love for one another that others will recognize us as Christ’s disciples (cf. Jn 13:35).”
Lastly, for those interested, read my Dutch translation of this letter here.
Art credit:  Harold Copping, “Jesus at the House of Martha and Mary” (1927).