Mission: Called to be disciples

The Peninsular Malaysia Pastoral Team Assembly (PMPTA), with the theme Listen to the Holy Spirit, was held on Aug 23 and 24 at the Archdiocesan Pastoral Centre. Seventy-six delegates representing the Arch/Dioceses of Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Malacca Johore were present.

Sep 17, 2022

Jesus and his disciples (A scene from the movie Son of God)

The Peninsular Malaysia Pastoral Team Assembly (PMPTA), with the theme Listen to the Holy Spirit, was held on Aug 23 and 24 at the Archdiocesan Pastoral Centre. Seventy-six delegates representing the Arch/Dioceses of Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Malacca Johore were present.

Last week, we focused on the messages from Archbishop Julian Leow, Bishop Bernard Paul and PMPT chairman, Fr Jude Miranda. This week, our spotlight is on the thoughts of Bishop Sebastian Francis (pic). In the coming weeks, we will feature some of the reports from the assembly.

Bishop Sebastian Francis of Penang was tasked to speak on ‘Mission’. He began his address with a photo of a girl, aged about seven or eight years old, carrying her younger brother on her back and, at the same time, carrying a heavy load on her shoulders, with the caption

“It is responsibilities that make you mature with missionary impulse, not your age.” Below is his presentation. If this took place after Vatican II, “Is she (the girl) on mission?”

Before Vatican II, the missionary thrust was to convert ‘pagans’ so that they may be saved. After Vatican II, a deeper meaning of mission emerged. It is responsibilities that make you mature with missionary impulse, not your age. It all happened 2000 years ago.

The missionary thrust started in Jerusalem and began with the Holy Spirit. The disciples were stagnant until the Holy Spirit descended upon them. Without the Holy Spirit, there is no mission. Until the coming of the Holy Spirit, they had to wait. All the 12, except for James, left Jerusalem after Pentecost. Peter and Paul went to Rome. Thomas went to India and so on. But mission or the upcoming Synod in Rome is not about personalities. If the Holy Spirit is behind this synod, it doesn’t matter who is, or is not, around.

The 16th century brought St Francis Xavier to Malacca. St Peter’s Church was built in 1710. The Feast of Santa Cruz attracts thousands every year. Many adult baptisms are linked to the cross and death of Jesus. The French missionaries came to Penang, and the College General was set up in 1808. The first church, Church of the Assumption, was built in Penang. Recently it has been renovated, a reminder of the missionary thrust that has taken place. Do not make the story of mission ‘small’ and ‘petty’. Without the French and the Mill Hill missionaries (Sabah and Sarawak), none of us would be here. Even before Vatican II, people like Matteo Ricci, de Nobili, Devasayagam Pillai, and others, brought an element to respect the local cultures in Asia.

The Great Commission
The Great Commission of Jesus (Matt 28:19- 20) was to prepare and send out the Apostles on mission. The crucifixion in itself was not enough to send the 12 on Mission. Jesus rose from the dead and spent 40 days preparing them, not only for His departure, but also for Pentecost. Even after ascending, He asked them to wait for nine more days. Everything changed after Pentecost. After so long, the Church has never let go of this mandate. The word “mandate” comes from the word “mandatory”. There are three parts to the mandate: First – Make Disciples; Second – Some disciples may choose to be baptised; Third – Ministry of the Word and Teaching.

What will happen after the Synod? Will there be a paradigm shift? We wait to see how the Holy Spirit moves the Church from now. Many things may happen between now and next October. We should never stop reading the signs. Bishop Bernard Paul spoke about fundamentals. Archbishop Julian Leow about the spiral movement. Things keep moving and changing. So, how dare we say we have heard it all before? Is it because we are going on a spin instead of a spiral? Everything is a spiral. The Aggiornamento is a spiral. The Peninsular Malaysia Pastoral Convention (PMPC) is a spiral, and the spiral continues to work. The missionary spiral, theological spiral, pastoral spiral, spiritual spiral, even a liturgical spiral. Everything is repeated. So, what if we’ve heard it before? The key is the spiral. The Eucharist is repeated. But, it’s not a repetition, it is a spiral. That is the key. The person behind the spiral is the Holy Spirit.

A Synodal Paradigm Shift
I want to suggest a possible vision of a Synodal Church, a suggestion of a possible synodal paradigm shift – or, it could be just a dream. Hierarchy – clergy, religious, laity – are not biblically based. It is just a tradition that had served the Church well as a structure. Let us go beyond clergy-laity. When speaking about centredness, let us go beyond people, laity or clergy centredness, and become Christ-centred.

Jesus Himself was not Christ-centred. He was centred on the Father, the Trinity. He was totally obsessed and possessed by the Father. He did not want His followers to remain with Him, but took them beyond — to the Father. Jesus placed the Father, and also the child at the centre — the narrative of the Kingdom. He placed the child at the centre of the narrative of the Kingdom. When I was in Rome to attend a conference on child abuse, my contribution was “Place the child at the centre of the narrative.” The disciples tried to keep the children away from Jesus, but Jesus did not allow them to do so. If you take the child out of the centre of the narrative, you have killed not only the Church, but the Kingdom of God as well. Clergy-religious-laity, this may have been good but is it still relevant? The Synodal Paradigm Shift — does it call for a change of the understanding of hierarchy? The key word is ‘Discipleship’, which is rooted in God’s Word.

Moving forward to October 2023, perhaps we may see a shift in our understanding of Church based on the Word, and the Apostles. In the Catholic tradition, the bishops are the successors of the Apostles. The primary role of the bishops is to keep the primacy of love and truth, unity and continuity at the centre of the narrative. At the PMPC IV in 2016, the three bishops stated that “we want a Church in Peninsular Malaysia that is creative, inclusive and bridge-building.” Three years before the pandemic, the Holy Spirit prepared us. Those who were creative, inclusive and bridge-building during the two years of lockdown, kept the spirit of the Church alive. Personally, I prefer the sequence “Participation, Mission and Commission”. The end game after our death is not Mission, but Communion, intimacy, beatific vision, heaven, the Kingdom of God. The crux of the pre-synodal feedback is the call to return to discipleship — a Church of apostles, disciples. We are not clergy, religious, laity first, we are disciples first. This is based on the fact that the core is the sacrament of Baptism. After Vatican Council II, the people of God, the Church, continually reaches out to the world — Fratelli Tutti.

The call to be disciples
In going back to the foundations, let us remember that no calling in the Gospels and the Church supersedes the call to be DISCIPLES, that is, through Baptism and Confirmation, not even Marriage or Holy Orders. The primary foundation is the sacrament of Baptism, and no calling in the Church, including that of the Apostles, supersedes the call to Baptism. If possible, I would like to spend the rest of my time as a bishop in motivating and creating disciples. We have to see how the Holy Spirit is on mission, not only in the Church, but also outside the Church. Many will be called to ministry in the Church, but the primary calling is in the world.

The vision and mission of the Church, especially since Vatican Council II, have taken different shades and nuances — dialogue, encounter, engagement, accompaniment have become dear to us since Vatican Council II. The vision and mission, according to FABC, speaks of the dialogue of life, especially with the poor, other faiths, all cultures and youth. Archbishop Julian and I will be attending the FABC gathering and spend two to three weeks in prayer and discernment – to listen to what the Holy Spirit is saying to the Church in Asia.

Only those who are bored spin around themselves, going on an ego trip. Is not repetition the father of invention? The Exodus- Passover is a repetition with no novelty, repeated by fathers to their children every year, but that is how our faith has been transmitted. The Synthesis of the Malaysian Pre-synod Assembly was compiled and submitted to Rome by August 15. Mission comes with discipline and responsibility – journeying together, walking together and building relationships. There is a consolidation going on, beyond you and me, and that is the work of the Holy Spirit. In making disciples, two key texts come to mind (from the Joy of the Gospel): two foundational Gospel texts for the dialogue of life and making disciples of all nations: The Beatitudes in Mt 5:3-12 and the Last Judgment Mt 25:35-40. The litany of the saints and martyrs of Asia is being prepared. They will lead the way forward. The continuation of the Mission entrusted by the Trinity through the Son and Spirit continues in the Church through the Sacrament of Initiation. Before we become bishops, priests, religious – we are DISCIPLES. If we are not disciples, we are primarily navel gazing.

Two Pre-requisites for Mission
The two pre-requisites for mission are: 1) A personal and experiential encounter with the Risen Lord; 2) A personal and experiential encounter with the infilling and outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit will continue to purify and sanctify those sent on mission – before, during and beyond mission. The mission will succeed, with or without you because it is the work of the Holy Spirit. So, humble yourselves and join the winning team. The Holy Spirit does two things: He sanctifies – preparing you for communion and mission. He purifies before He sanctifies. The work of purification is happening right now. It is happening for the whole nation. The Holy Spirit is in charge. After purification comes sanctification. The Baptised are Called and Chosen and Sent on Mission by the Holy Spirit. There’s a dropout between the call and the chosen. Many are called but few are chosen. The Process: Communion – Mission. Our destiny after death is Communion – pure intimacy with God, creation and purified humanity To conclude, I would like to make mention of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a pastor hanged by the Germans during World War II, and a quotation attributed to him: “Cheap grace is preaching forgiveness without repentance; it is baptism without the discipline of community; it is the Lord’s Supper without confession of sin; it is absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without the living, incarnate Jesus Christ.” The quote is taken from his book “The Cost of Discipleship”. His last words were “‘I am dead, but my life begins now.’

Source: PMPC Secretary

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