Andrew Hamilton SJ
That Pope Francis asks us to pray for a missionary ‘spring’ in the Church in the same month as he canonises John Henry Newman may not be coincidental. Newman’s most famous sermon to a Catholic audience was preached at the first Catholic Bishops Synod since the Reformation. In it he spoke of a Second Spring after the long winter of persecution and discrimination that followed the Reformation. Despite the marginal place of the church in English society of the time, his hearers found encouragement from the sermon to imagine a new beginning and splendid future for the Catholic Church in Great Britain.
The image of the changing seasons helps understand what Pope Francis means by a missionary spring. We are accustomed of thinking of great missionaries as people, mostly men, who went into foreign countries and preached the Gospel, as a result of which thousands were converted to Christianity, were baptised and became members of large and thriving churches. We honour people like St Paul, St Francis Xavier, Sts Cyril and Methodius, St Boniface, and other famous missionaries who travelled huge distances and saw the fruits of their labours.
But the image of Spring invites us to imagine a longer and more humble process. A missionary church is one in which Christians are engaged across the seasons in clearing, gathering seeds, digging, planting, pruning, watering and manuring the garden of the church, going out of the comfort and security of a warm home in winter, and waiting on the spring to come. Missionaries who in winter time work hard and unnoticed in the garden may never see the flowering of spring. The value of their work can never be measured by the number of flowers that we see grow.
Three things follow from Pope Francis’ image. First, the flowering of a missionary spring is not the direct result of the missionaries’ work of planting, watering and so on. It depends on seeds to grow, on plants to take root and survive frosts and pests, and on rain through spring. Pope Francis prays that the breath of the Holy Spirit will yield a spring in which there is rich growth and variety, a delight to the eye and a blessing.
As we are now experiencing in the case of climate change, however, sometimes all that we can do is to keep alive stunted shrubs and to gather seeds for when the rains come. Missionary work is not primarily about devising new methods and winning prizes at flower shows. It is about spending time on your knees in the garden in good weather and bad.
The image of Spring also suggests that a missionary church is not about great preachers and managers of programs going out into the field with great resources and with well researched methods. It is about the whole church going out into the public places away from their homes. It is about contemplatives like St Therese of the Infant Jesus, whose imagination was caught by needy people both in distant nations and in her own. She kept them continually in her prayers even when she felt herself totally distanced from God. It is about the people who live out their faith generously and hospitably in workplaces where Christians are few.
Above all the image of Spring recalls the little miracle by which what is apparently dead comes to rich life, soil that is hard grows soft and flowers grow unsown. Spring echoes the large miracle of God’s grace by which a sleeping faith can wake, an inert community finds life, timidity can give way to courage and through friendship, hope and faith can stir in the most resistant hearts. Spring and grace are wild. Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ is a Jesuit priest who has contributed widely to theological and religious journals. He is currently editorial consultant of Eureka Street and a policy officer with Jesuit Social Services.