For those of us in the Catholic tradition, today is the feast day of Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini. Frances Cabrini was born near the city of Milan, Italy in 1850. Fascinated as a young girl by the stories of missionaries, she was determined to join a religious order. She would eventually found the Institute of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
Originally hoping to go the China as a missionary, Pope Leo XIII rather, sent her and her sisters to New York, to help the Italian immigrant population that was swelling there. Cabrini would teach the faith to Italian immigrants, but also would build hospitals, establish schools, and build orphanages. When one thinks of the missionary work of the early Sisters, is their work reflective of what we would call missional work today?
Missional and Its Meaning
Alan Hirsh, in an article for Christianity Today, tried to make sense of this missional language, speaking of the nature of God as a “’sent one’, who takes the initiative to redeem his creation.” He speaks of the mission Dei—the sending of God—that we are a “sent” people, instruments of God’s mission in the world.
Hirsh does not stop at just an evangelism of proclamation. A missional theology impacts the “whole life of every believer.” We are to carry this mission of God into “every sphere of life.” It is an active faith that engages the world, by “going out rather than reaching out.” God could have sent more prophets to reach out to the world. Yet, in Christ, we see God going out and walking about, communing with people in their unique settings.
Missional Work and College Students
When I think of missional communities within higher education, I believe we are called to go far beyond proclamation, but to what we would call “transformation” in the Holy Cross charism of our religious order here at St. Edward’s University. I am reminded of Brian Walsh’s Transforming Vision, an IVCF title that was foundational in my intellectual development as a Christian. Walsh addresses a Reformational worldview so important in our work with college students, and reflective of Hirsh’s view of missional work.
As we minister to the hearts of our college students, are we not also called to assist in their intellectual development as people of faith. Imagine the impact for the Kingdom of God our students could have in this world. I hope that my students give to the poor of their resources, earned through their profession. I hope MORE that they use their academic development to eliminate poverty and the need for charity. Which would be the greater witness of the Kingdom.
Sr. Francis Cabrini was not content with just witnessing to the hearts of these early Italian immigrants. She became aware of their social condition as well. By going out—sent—she witnessed those things that break down our ability to enter into relationship with God, poverty, ignorance, poor health, and many other conditions. Was her work an example of missional work that we can learn from today? I think so!
More than Church-based Work
A missional theology is not content with mission being a church-based work. Rather, it applies to the whole life of every believer. Every disciple is to be an agent of the kingdom of God, and every disciple is to carry the mission of God into every sphere of life. We are all missionaries sent into a non-Christian culture.
Missional represents a significant shift in the way we think about the church. As the people of a missionary God, we ought to engage the world the same way he does—by going out rather than just reaching out. To obstruct this movement is to block God’s purposes in and through His people. When the church is in mission, it is the true church.
Dr. James Puglisi is the Associate Director of Campus Ministry at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas. He received his Bachelor of Arts (1984) from Allegheny College, Meadville, PA in Anthropology of Religions. He holds a Master of Arts in Higher Education (1996) from Geneva College, Beaver Falls, PA, and a Master of Arts in Applied Theology (2002) from Wheeling Jesuit University. He was awarded a Doctor of Ministry from Catholic Theological Union (2008) in the area of Practical Theology. His doctoral writing was titled “Shalom: The Role of Truth Telling in Creating Communities of Racial Reconciliation within Institutions of Christian Higher Education.” He is actively involved in interfaith and ecumenical work at St. Edward’s University and in the larger Austin Community. In addition to his work in campus ministry, he teaches courses in the cultural foundations curriculum in the area of migration, culture, and diversity. He has presented at conferences on racial reconciliation and inter-religious dialogue. He is originally from Pittsburgh, PA.