Editor’s Note: In celebration of our 25th year of preparing and supporting lay missioners, we look back to our archives at a World Care newsletter from 1990 in which our founder, Fr. Anselm Moons, OFM, describes the importance of lay missioners and the challenges they face.
On 22 September 1990, after many months of paperwork and phone calls, the first group of lay missioners finally arrived at Franciscan Mission Service: Meg, Mary, Mark, Mike, Angela and Ted. Two days later they started their ten weeks of intensive training for a three-year overseas service.
A lay missioner embarks on an ambitious project: to live among and to be one with the people of the “Third World.” Obviously, this option is not one of fame and fortune, but rather one of service and solidarity. More likely, their frequent companions for the next three years will be the poor and the marginalized of our global family.
The call to mission is a call to conversion, and echoes the message of Francis of Assisi to the Church and World: the radical follow of Christ seeks neither privilege nor power, neither worldly wealth nor ecclesiastical status.
Missioners in Their Own Right
One might think that the Church is now turning to the laity only because priests and religious are hard to find these days! Such an opinion ignores the fact that the call to witness is not based on ordained ministry or religious vows, but on a life touched by Jesus’ Spirit and the Church’s Baptism.
Franciscans often make a similar mistake. They most often describe the role of the missioner as a minister of sacraments. History confirms this view in the sense that the large majority of their missioners were ordained friars. The lay-friar missioners always were a minority group in the Order.
In short, lay missioners are not substituting for the lack of priests and religious but are fulfilling their own call. Nor do Franciscans serve as missioners just because they are ordained.
Francis Addresses the Laity
Francis visualized a specific future for his followers. He had called them to conversion—not to the priesthood. If he also welcomed priests among the brothers, it was not for their sacramental powers: they too, like other people, needed conversion.
Nor did Francis make religious vows the condition for his dream of building a brotherhood. He invited all to a new world without separate classes for the rich and the poor, the mighty and the powerless. In this new world, God would take center-place as the true owner of all Good who gives abundantly to everyone.
Francis found no better strategy to convey this conviction than by quietly and peacefully leaving his city of power and wealth, Assisi, and taking up with the have-nots of society. Among them the lepers were the first to open his eyes. The Muslims came next, after the crusaders had chosen violence to marginalize them and cast them out from places over which the Christians claimed ownership.
Where is Francis’ World Today?
What happened to his new world if Francis which he named a “brotherhood”? His followers spread out over the whole earth, and also reached the American shores as early as 1493. They did carry with them Francis’ ideals and looked for the less fortunate of society. Yet, there is no denying the fact that with the change of times and circumstances ideals got stained and even distorted. To stay close to home: in North America today we will find few lepers or Muslims. But we will find the poor, whose number among us is growing. Many of us know this, but from statistics rather than from experience.
The better school to learn about the poor and the global dimension of poverty is undoubtedly the place which the large majority of poor people call their home today: the “Third World” of Asia, Africa and Latin America. If they were asked, the poor of the “Third World” would answer that Francis was born among them instead of Assisi. He would indeed be more at home in their world than in ours.
Not all of us can enter into this world of the poor to hear their cry and share their joy. But we can learn about their experiences from those who do go in our place. They are going “on our behalf” as it were, and we can hear their tale when they return to us. Telling this story of life in the “Third World” is a major challenge for the Francis lay missioner today.
Joining Hands in the Project
if not everyone can pack her/his bags and take off for the “Third World,” everyone can play a vital role in the whole process/ Francis of Assisi Cared very much that people discern their own, personal vocation. There are so many different tasks, and different people with different talents. Only a joint effort can make this project a success.
We distinguish three equally necessary groups in the lay missioner project:
1) Most important are the support groups, both at the home front and in the mission territory.
2) Crucial to the project are, of course, the financial resources needed for the three years the missioner intends to serve.
3) And, finally, the project needs suitable candidates called to serve overseas in a Franciscan spirit. FRANCISCAN MISSION SERVICE provides a process of discernment and training for those who feel they are called to serve.
This Lay missioner project challenges the Franciscans in more than one way. Their experience of “Third World” poverty and joy is a contemporary model of Francis’ own options. Secondly, the fact that lay persons carry this Franciscan message home reinforces Franciscanism as a lay movement. And, finally, when these lay missioners build bridges between peoples of the “First” and “Third” World, they are in fact working at a worldwide “Brotherhood” in which people around the globe are like brothers and sisters of one family.
Franciscan may welcome these challenges. After all, in the efforts of these lay missioners they will easily recognize the model that Francis left behind as a road to world peace and global justice.