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A Meditation on Mission

This short article first appeared in Grace and Truth, Vol. 27 April 2010. An enlarged version is due for publication latet this year.
Francis of Assisi: A Meditation on Mission
Anselm Prior, OFM

The Basis of Mission
For the past three or so centuries the basis of mission, particularly among Protestants, has been the Great Commission of Jesus which is found at the conclusion of Matthew’s gospel: “Go and make disciples of all nations…” (Mat 28:16-20). Much ink has been spilt to explain such phrases as “all authority,” “make disciples,” “all nations,” baptizing, and Jesus’ on-going presence in the church. The contemporary trend in Catholic Missiology is to go beyond these words written about 50 years after Jesus’ death and to root the missionary mandate in the life of the Trinity. The God who has given himself to humanity has done so as a community, three persons eternally engaged in a mission of love and service. This original and on-going community has given birth to a church which must, of its essence, express that divine community’s life by engaging in a mission of love to all. The church is challenged to reflect in its life, not only the innate community of the Trinity, but also the divine mission towards humanity. This is expressed in the Second Vatican Council’s text Ad Gentes where it is explicitly stated that the church is missionary by nature (#2). This means that any part of the Church which is not in mission is not fully church.

In his encyclical Redemptoris Missio, John Paul II has taken the church’s teaching further. He speaks of three levels of mission, or evangelization. The first refers to the traditional missio ad gentes, that is, the taking of the message of the gospel to those who have never heard it. In the old language this would be referred to as taking the faith to “infidels”, “pagans”, and “the lost”. Today one tends to speak of “those of other faiths or none”. The majority of the world’s population today has either never heard of Jesus Christ or has not accepted the Risen Lord as their Saviour and Redeemer. This task of evangelization ad gentes, then, is very much needed in our day.

The second level of mission for John Paul II is what we would call pastoral ministry. It is the continuing obligation we have of evangelizing or “missionizing” those who have accepted Christ, but who, through human exigency, need to be continually renewed and uplifted in their belief. The third level – the new evangelization – is that missionary activity which is aimed at those who, either personally or through the demise of Christian influence on their culture, have lost the true Christian spirit. This would refer to, for example, many in Europe, as well as the once-evangelized countries of Latin America.

The Church and Mission
Historically the church has always engaged in mission. We know well of the enthusiasm and zeal of the first apostles who took their faith in Jesus Christ all over the then-known world. What is referred to as the “era of the martyrs” points to those centuries when many Christians witnessed to their faith by dying for it. From the 5th to the 12th centuries the monastic movement included thousands of monks who spread the faith throughout Europe, and especially in “pagan” lands. Indeed, the Christianizing of Europe is mainly due to the missionary zeal of monks. The Celtic monks, for example, could be found from Scotland to Ukraine. In the post-Reformation years, while Protestants were consumed with efforts at defining the core tenets of Christianity, Catholics, convinced that they possessed the true faith, moved throughout the world to take the gospel to others. The fact that much of this missionary effort was closely allied to the colonizing of many countries does not take away from the enthusiasm, even fanaticism, of many of the missionaries of those times.

St. Francis of Assisi and Mission
Francis never intended to “found an Order”. As he says in his Testament: “The Lord gave me brothers.” They felt called to live a life of penance and to preach the gospel to all who would listen. John Perugia tells us that from the beginning Francis instructed his brothers:

God in his mercy has called us not for our own good alone but for the good of many others and even for their salvation. Let us, therefore, go through the world exhorting and teaching them by word and example to do penance for their sins and to keep before their eyes the commandments of the Lord (LP 4:18a).

The friars went out two by two to all the provinces of Italy and then into neighbouring countries. We hear of them preaching throughout Europe, Asia and Africa. The five first martyrs went to Morocco where they confronted the Muslims and lost their lives for it. On hearing the news, Francis cried out: “Now I can really say that I have five friars”.

Francis’ own missionary effort to Africa took place during the fifth crusade which had been called by Pope Honorius III. Francis went into the Crusader camp to try and persuade the soldiers not to fight, but rather to go home in peace. He was unsuccessful. Then he wished to visit the Muslim city of Damietta which was being besieged by the Crusaders. The Christian commander at first denied him permission, but eventually gave in to the saint’s wishes. Francis and a companion walked into Damietta during hostilities and, instead of being killed on the spot, were taken to the sultan, Malek al-Kamil. We do not know the content of what they discussed, but we do know that Francis stayed for some days and the two engaged in friendly discussion. Although no conversions took place, Francis was able to show the sultan that there was at least one Christian who was a man of peace. The Sultan offered to give Jerusalem back to the Christians if they would leave him in peace in Damietta, a Muslim city which was held as a sacred spot. The Crusader commander refused. It was to be a fight to the death. The Sultan’s final words to Francis were: “Pray that I may be divinely inspired to be able to cling to the religion that pleases God the most”.

Francis was deeply moved by his visit to Africa. He arrived back in Italy in 1220 and a year later wrote what has become known as his First Rule. He was the first founder of a religious order to include a chapter on mission in a Rule. The chapter is headed: “Those Going Among the Saracens and Other Nonbelievers”. Francis writes:

Let any brother, who desires by divine inspiration to go among the Saracens and other nonbelievers, go with the permission of his minister and servant. …If he sees they are fit to be sent, the minister may give them permission and not oppose them, for he will be bound to render an accounting to the Lord if he has proceeded without discernment in this and other matters.

As for the brothers who go, they can live spiritually among the Saracens and nonbelievers in two ways. One way is not to engage in arguments or disputes but to be subject to every creature for God’s sake and to acknowledge that they are Christians. The other way is to announce the Word of God, when they see it pleases the Lord, in order that [unbelievers] may believe in almighty God.

Wherever they may be, let all my brothers remember that they have given themselves and abandoned their bodies to the Lord Jesus Christ. For love of him, they must make themselves vulnerable to their enemies, both visible and invisible (1st Rule XVI).

Mission Today
There are a few points that Francis can teach us today about mission. Firstly, mission is God’s mission and not ours. It is under the inspiration of the Spirit that one feels moved to take the gospel to another culture. Thus, the would-be missionary friars need the permission of their minister (Francis never uses the word “superior”). It is not everyone who can accept being “subject to every creature” and to live within the confines of a “foreign” culture. Engaging in mission ad gentes is a serious business and requires earnest discernment and inter-cultural sensitivity.

Secondly, Francis writes of going among the Saracens, not against them, as did the Crusaders. While one confesses that one is a Christian, the first task of mission is to live spiritually within another culture. One does not carry any attitude of superiority, nor a message of condemnation. The missionary does not judge others, nor enter into disputes with them. Christian witness is firstly to be one of life style.

Thirdly, it is only when they discern that the time is ripe and that it seems to be God’s will, that missionaries then witness also in word. Now it is their duty to preach the Good News of God’s life given to humanity in Jesus Christ. Francis took preaching seriously and laid upon his friars certain conditions for preaching. Those who give themselves as ministers of the word of God are to give themselves to the study of spiritual things. “For these…have been chosen by a certain great king to deliver to the people the edicts that proceed from his mouth” (2C 163). According to his biographer Celano, Francis said: “The preacher must first draw from secret prayers what he will later pour out in holy sermons; he must first grow hot within before he speaks words that are in themselves cold.” Preaching is “an office to be revered” and preachers “are the life of the body” (2C 163).

Finally, missionaries must be ready for persecution and even martyrdom, for they have “given themselves and abandoned their bodies to the Lord Jesus Christ” (1st Rule). In his instruction to preachers, Francis warned them to “be patient in trials, confident that the Lord will fulfil his plan and promise. …Bless those who persecute you. Give thanks to those who harm you and bring false charges against you, for because of these things an eternal kingdom is prepared for us” (1C XII).

Ramon Lull
A further important contribution to the Franciscan understanding of mission was made by Ramon Lull (1232-1316). Born in Majorca only six years after the death of Francis, he spent the second half of his life (44 years!) as a member of the Secular Franciscan Order, working tirelessly for the conversion of “infidels”. He went about this work, not only by preaching, but by writing dozens of books through which he hoped to offer a theological basis for those engaged in mission. In Majorca he founded a school for the teaching of Oriental languages and the formation of missionaries whom, he emphasized, must study indigenous philosophy and theology in order to dialogue with and understand others. He wanted Western universities to institute chairs for the study of Greek, Hebrew, Arabic and Syriac because of his insistence that missionaries learn the languages of those among whom they were to live. He outlined a vast programme for the conversion of “infidels” and sent his theological treatise to Pope Nicholas IV (Buono 2002:34). He rejected every attempt at forcing Muslims and pagans to convert to the Catholic faith (thus rejecting the Crusader movement of his time) (Bosch 1991:219.236) and under his inspiration, some friars travelled in the company of nomadic Muslims, using their carts as portable altars for the celebration of Mass. Lull, inspired by Francis of Assisi, helped towards the building of the Franciscan view of mission, particularly through his emphasis on the necessity of study. He was to suffer the consequences of the fourth principle of Francis’ “Missiology” when he was martyred at the age of 84. He had already anticipated that:

Missionaries will convert the world through the proclamation of the gospel, but also by shedding tears and blood and through much suffering, as well as a bitter death” (quoted by Bosch 1980:113).

For St. Francis of Assisi, then, mission in the name of Jesus Christ is based on four principles: that it is missio Dei, that one witnesses first by one’s way of life and only later by word of mouth, and that one must be prepared for rejection and martyrdom. Ramon Lull added a fifth principle: the need for study as a basis for inculturation. There is much here for Christians to reflect on as contemporary theologians debate subjects such as inculturation, ecumenical dialogue, inter-religious relationships and contextual theology. Franciscan theology has a contribution to make.


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Early Documents. Vol. I. New York: New City Press.
Bosch, D. 1980. Witness to the World: The Christian Mission in
Theological Perspective. Atlanta: John Knox Press.
Bosch, D. 1991. Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology
of Mission. New York: Orbis Books.
Buono, G. 2002. Missiology: Theology and Praxis. Nairobi: Paulines.
Daniel, E. 1975. The Franciscan Concept of Mission in the High
Middle Ages. Kentucky: University Press.
Manselli, R. 1988. St. Francis of Assisi. Chicago: Franciscan
Herald Press.
Oborji, F. 2006. Concepts of Mission: The Evolution of Contemporary Missiology. New York: Orbis Books.
Peers, E. A. 1946. Fool of Love: The Life of Ramon Lull. London: SCM Press.


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