A Christian’s passion for the mission gushes forth and is nourished by two important experiences. The first is being aware of the encounter with Christ, who redeemed and gave meaning to life that otherwise would not have been worth living. The second is the sense of the point of arrival towards which the whole of history with all events and lives of men flow: the return of Christ.
All of this radiates in the figure of Saint Paul in a paradigmatic way. In his letters, one can note an acute pain for his life prior to his conversion. His hostility towards the Church, which led him to commit injustice and violence was always present to him. I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, he write to one of his close friends, and I was very much so, unworthy of everything. In other epistles he confesses, I persecuted the church of God and I was the most intransigent among all of my peers. Saint Paul was remembering when he incarcerated the innocents, having oppressed them with severity. Everything began when he took the mantles from the men who stoned Stephen in Jerusalem after having been put on trial. And yet, he did not consider himself defined by these events: Christ had mercy on me, he writes with pride, he chose me and made me his minister. Here it is, the most decisive event of his life: Christ touched him and revealed to him the truth of reality so that he could be saved from bigotry and brutality. Gratuitously, for pure love towards him who was so far and hostile.
The passion that urged Saint Paul to dedicate himself to announce the faith is for him the only real answer: he was grateful for the One who restored him his life, and thus he dedicated it to him, spending every physical and spiritual energy for Him to the point of shedding his blood. Every time that he recalls what had happened to him, he is tormented: Christ judged me faithful by appointing me to his service! I, who was formerly a blasphemer, persecutor and assassin. Hence this is the first element which triggers a missionary spirit in Christians: the wonder aroused by what had happened, which becomes an impelling need to share it with others. The power of communication lies here, if we are able to sincerely say to another, “I discovered something that you totally need to see!” If the encounter with Christ is a real watershed of our lives, it would be unavoidable to make Him known to everyone. This is the only real strategy for missions: not a program to carry out, but a discovery that we cannot not share with others.
A real Christian, however, recognizes a second element which triggers an inner momentum for missionary spirit. The encounter with Christ does not remain for him as something in the past, but sees it as a genesis that awaits its fulfillment. A Christian considers his personal story as something unified, starting from the vocation received; and for this reason, his being is directed toward the future. In general, all the human affairs seem polarized by the imminent return of Christ; the reality of the world appears to his eyes as a river that flows toward this point. Jean Daniélou – in a short essay entitled “the Salvation of the Nations” which is worth rereading – writes that Christians of today, especially in the West, have lost the sense of this horizon. It is due to the immaturity of our faith, he notes, the time of awaiting has been extended and we made ourselves comfortable, and no one is aware of the fact that we are expecting something. The first century Christians, on the other hand, imagined that Christ would return in a short time, probably before the rise of the next generation. With the passing of time and the help of Saint Paul, they understood that Christ is letting time pass, because he was entrusting them with an immense responsibility: to spread the faith to the ends of the earth. Initially, also Saint Paul “thought that perhaps he could convert the whole world in his lifetime as man”, writes Daniélou, “and that he himself, apostle of the gentiles, would be able to gather together all men to Christ”. Little by little he had to enter into a different perspective, rooted in a deeper understanding of the mystery of God and his work. Nevertheless, driven by the desire to hasten the definitive encounter with the One who had saved him, life of Saint Paul was similar to a race to reach Christ, and he sincerely tried to carry away with him all men.
Saint Paul has an acute understanding of the sense of time, and his epistles are full of advice about it: Be mindful of the moment! The days are growing short, make good use of them. Seize every opportunity. Often it can become dramatic: Wake up, shake yourself from sleep, we cannot fall asleep! Salvation is nearer now than when we began to believe in Christ. He will come like a thief in the night. In “that sort of hastiness which propels him to go to every place on the earth, that passion which captures him and becomes the master of all his senses”, Daniélou sees here “the tragic aspect of his preaching”. “Tragic”, here means “existentially not deferrable”. The restlessness of Saint Paul, which is the sign of his conscience – a Christian conscience – to live now the end of history, “becomes clear only if an eschatological sense of his mission is considered”.
This urgent need which is generated by faith, is important. It is beautiful to admire it in those who are very much alive and profound, and this can and should dominate also our lives. Everything becomes pressing, and every minute precious, when we are gravitated toward the return of Christ, the One who chose and sent us out all over the world.
(in the picture, our missionary priests in Chile, on a pilgrimage with a group of students from Santiago)