The apostles’ mission remains evergreen – and it’s ours too

The apostles’ mission remains evergreen – and it’s ours too

One of the nicer aspects of life in lockdown – for me at least – was having a bit more time to read. I got around to reading some long-shelved books about St Dominic, for example, and I fell in love all over again with the founder of our Order.

What struck me most of all as I read was the fact that Dominic refused merely to maintain the structures of Christendom. Instead, he spent all his energy reaching out to those in Europe who had drifted from the orthodox Faith, especially the Cathars, and he harboured a lifelong desire, fulfilled by his brothers, to go beyond the bounds of Christian Europe and to preach the Gospel to people who had never heard it. Unbelievers, heretics and sinners: these were Dominic’s first love and constant concern.


Dominic, of course, could have been a decent priest without this missionary mindset. He could have lived out a very good life in his native Spain, caring for the Faithful flock there. But what drove him away from this comfort zone, and what led him to found an entirely new brotherhood of mobile evangelists, was the example of the apostles. ‘Go’ was the command the risen Jesus gave them, ‘go’ – not ‘stay’: “go into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature”. Dominic’s order of preachers was simply a timely way of fulfilling that timeless commission.

Revisiting all this made me wonder what the Irish Church would look like if we adopted St Dominic’s preference for unbelievers. How would that change parish life? Imagine, for example, if the first item on the annual parish budget was titled ‘Evangelisation’, itemising what would be spent in efforts to share the Gospel with lapsed Catholics, atheists, the indifferent and other religious believers. Imagine parish social events aimed not primarily at regular worshippers, but at welcoming those who don’t usually come to Church.

Imagine church porches equipped with free or cheap resources for seekers. Imagine planning the parish year around outreach events, like Alpha courses. Imagine new faces being gently welcomed by parishioners, and shown ways to deepen their Faith and practice. Imagine a parish where priest and people are not seen, respectively, as ‘service provider’ and ‘service user’, but as apostles with a shared mission.

Only those parts of the Church that become missionary will survive and thrive”

It’s easy – and exciting – to imagine all this but, given that morale and energy is low in many Irish parishes, it will take a lot of work and imagination to build this missionary culture from where we currently are.

And yet, that’s exactly the hard work the Holy See is asking parishes to do. In a document published by the Congregation for Clergy a fortnight ago, a vision is outlined for parishes based on the principle of ‘missionary conversion’.

The document is a call for parish communities to ‘go out of themselves’, and to examine and repurpose everything they do in order to reach out more effectively to people who do not know Jesus.

The document makes predictions too. Parishes that do not become thoroughly missionary will “become self-referential and fossilised…of interest only to small groups”.

I’m convinced this prediction is accurate, and that only those parts of the Church that become missionary will survive and thrive. The required missionary conversion will make us uncomfortable, it will sometimes be painful, and it will require great Faith and charity, but it is not something newfangled or untried: it’s the way of St Dominic and countless other saints, it’s the way of the apostles sent out by Jesus, and it’s the way of Jesus himself, whose mission is evergreen.


St Dominic’s missionary mindset wasn’t just that of an activist. If it was, he wouldn’t have lasted very long. The source of all his missionary energy was, of course, prayer, especially the prayerful reading of Scripture. As he read the Bible, he would appear, as his contemporaries wrote, “as if he were arguing with a friend; at one moment he would appear to be feeling impatient, nodding his head energetically, then he would seem to be listening quietly, then you would see him disputing and struggling, and laughing and weeping all at once, fixing then lowering his gaze, then again speaking quietly and beating his breast”.

While Church institutions require a great ‘missionary conversion’ , such institutional change will only bear lasting fruit if it has at its heart the personal meeting between God’s Word and individual souls. Whatever the state of our parish, that’s a task to which we can commit ourselves daily.