Why is there a Church?
To what end?
What is the mission of the Church?
The Church, and parish communities in particular, can have tremendous impact on surrounding neighborhoods and communities. These communities give hope, share faith, promote love, serve the poor and homeless, foster connection, create spaces of prayer and reflection, and call us to continuous conversion. Yet among all the different functions of the Church, the question of “why” arises. Why is there a Church? What distinguishes the Church from other institutions in society? What is the mission of the Church? Understanding the mission, the reason for which the Church exists, is the key to identifying the ways in which the Church—and parish communities—should proceed into the future. The mission of the Church is stated clearly by the highest authority: Jesus Christ himself. He told his disciples, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Mt 28:19-20).
This Scripture passage often is called the Great Commission, and its mandate is to “make disciples,” that is, followers of Christ. Therefore, the mission of the Church is to be missionary: as disciples of Jesus, we are called to go beyond our own buildings and parish communities into the neighborhoods and the world. The Church “exists in order to evangelize.” Evangelization is sharing the Gospel with others and is the first part of catechesis; the second part is to lead people deeper into the faith. The Directory for Catechesis begins with the declaration that both catechesis as well as the broader process of renewal in the Church must be faithful to “the command of Jesus Christ to proclaim always and everywhere the Gospel (cf. Mt 28:19).”
Many parish communities have realized the importance of mission and have developed mission statements to direct their activities. Yet any particular mission statement must be held against the overall mission of the Church given by Christ. It must flow from Christ’s mission and be a particular expression of it in order to be part of the Church’s mission. A parish’s mission is the way in which that particular community will share the Good News of the Gospel, rooted in the community’s particular identity, charism, history, and context.
Choosing to Do Mission First
Pope Francis writes extensively on the mission of the Church in his apostolic exhortation The Joy of the Gospel (Evangelii Gaudium). He reminds us that the mission of making disciples calls us to go beyond our own communities. We are called, as Church, to “go forth,” to take initiative. We cannot wait for people to come to us.
The mission of the Church is not just one part of what we do or one item on a long list of tasks to complete. Rather, the mission is to permeate everything and take priority over other courses of action. Pope Francis lays out this vision: “I dream of a ‘missionary option,’ that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, 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.”
The word “option” emphasizes that parish life is formed by concrete decisions regarding resources, spaces, and schedules. A missionary transformation requires us to take this option instead of other, often very good, options. Saying no to or letting go of priorities and programs that do not advance the mission in favor of the missionary option is a critical part of change. An example of this challenge is when a parish cannot use a room for a new evangelization program, because a parish group already reserved the room to play bingo or cards on those weekday nights. Other options face resistance, because the hospitality for a new activity would cost more money than the income it would create. A community with a mission puts sharing the faith first and other matters second.
What Disciples Look Like
Once the mission is clear and its importance apparent, the question remains, “What must one do to be a good Christian?” What is discipleship? What does a mature disciple look like? Pope Francis describes in Rejoice and Be Glad (Gaudete et Exsultate) the call for all the faithful to follow Christ. He lays out holiness in the section “The Saints ‘Next Door,’” describing holiness as conversion in small steps and actions, being yourself in everyday life while following Christ’s mission. The mature disciple is a person who lives according to the Beatitudes. Living the Beatitudes leads us into holding difficult tensions in life. For example, “blessed are the peacemakers” includes refraining from gossip and building relationships just as much as facing conflict head on instead of ignoring it.
Pope Francis invites us to follow the great criterion of Matthew 25 to feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, care for the sick, and so on. He tells us to be prayerful, passionate, bold, joyful, discerning in our decisions, and living in community in order to grow toward holiness. A mature disciple is a person who rests in faith and prayer, and is also transformed every day to be more grateful, more forgiving, more compassionate, more loving, and more giving. This is an invitation to all of us to hear and heed this call to holiness and to transform our communities according to the missionary option to make disciples as well as to become missionary disciples.
The Directory for Catechesis recognizes the role of catechesis within the mission of forming disciples, stating:
In the multiplicity of ministries and services with which the Church realizes her mission of evangelization, the “ministry of catechesis” occupies a significant place, indispensable for growth of the faith. This ministry provides an introduction to the faith and, together with the liturgical ministry, begets children of God in the womb of the Church. The specific vocation of the catechist therefore has its roots in the common vocation of the people of God, called to serve God’s plan of salvation on behalf of humanity. The whole Christian community is responsible for the ministry of catechesis, but each one according to his particular condition in the Church: ordained ministers, consecrated persons, lay faithful.
The Missionary Impulse
- What impulses in our community seek to transform everything toward mission?
- What in our pastoral work is life-giving, disciple-making?
- Who are the people who are on fire for mission and are capable of being agents of change?
- What will the future look like if we are focused on mission and if we are becoming disciples more and more?
Our Ways of Doing Things
- What are our customs and our language?
- What are our priorities? In what ways do we allocate budget, space, resources, and time?
- What do we need to foster and what do we need to let go of in order to transform the community toward mission?
- What obstacles are we facing in the change toward mission?
Evangelization Rather than Self-Preservation
- What is our image of mature discipleship?
- How do we already live according to the Beatitudes? In what ways can we live more fully the vision laid out in the Beatitudes?
- What initiatives can start small and build a positive energy that will foster more change toward mission?
- What obstacles must be removed before change can happen? What do we need to let go of? Who needs to be on board with change to make it a reality?
 Pope Paul VI, Apostolic Exhortation Evangelization in the Modern World (Evangelii Nuntiandi [EN]) (Vatican City, 1975) 14; also see Directory for Catechesis: New Edition (DC), (Washington, DC: USCCB, 2020) 28.
 Pope Francis, Apostolic Exhortation The Joy of the Gospel (Evangelii Gaudium [EG]) (Vatican City, 2013) 163-175, “kerygmatic catechesis” and “mystagogical catechesis.”
 DC 1.
 EG, “go forth” is mentioned twenty-four times throughout the document.
 EG 27.
 Pope Francis, Apostolic Exhortation Rejoice and Be Glad (Gaudete et Exsultate [GE]) (Vatican City, 2018) 63.
 GE 6-9.
 GE 87-89.
 DC 110-111.