We live in a world where volunteerism is becoming fashionable. In any poor place, we can see hundreds of volunteers serving in that area. I have seen youngsters staying in a Catholic centre - helping children living on the streets. These youngsters are Catholics by birth but don’t practice their faith - they don’t go for Holy Mass even on Sundays - but they are whole heartedly involved in the work of charity. Is this the kind of charity that the Church looks for? I recently came across a few people from one of the parishes in Kerala who had made a visit to a mission centre in North India - their Facebook pages were full of photographs of them posing with helpless, struggling faces. I thought then that their compassion might last for just a few days. In the Jesus Youth movement, we have been using the phrase ‘Every Jesus Youth, a Missionary’ for the last two years. How can we distinguish between a visitor, a volunteer and a missionary especially in the context of the beautiful Lenten reflection written by our Holy Father on faith and charity?
First of all, a missionary’s work flows out of his relationship with God. It is not a project that needs to be completed; it is not for his satisfaction that he works; the fundamental reason is the love of God - as St. John states, “We have come to know and to believe in the love God has for us” (1 Jn. 4:16). “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction… Since God has first loved us (cf. 1 Jn. 4:10), love is now no longer a mere command’; it is the response to the gift of love with which God draws near to us” (Deus Caritas Est, 1). “Faith is knowing the truth and adhering to it (cf. 1 Tim. 2:4); charity is ‘walking’ in the truth (cf. Eph. 4:15). Through faith we enter into friendship with the Lord, through charity this friendship is lived and cultivated (cf. Jn. 15:14ff). Faith causes us to embrace the commandment of our Lord and Master; charity gives us the happiness of putting it into practice (cf. Jn. 13:13-17). In faith we are begotten as children of God (cf. Jn. 1:12ff); charity causes us to persevere concretely in our divine Sonship, bearing the fruits of the Holy Spirit (cf. Gal. 5:22). Faith enables us to recognise the gifts that the good and generous God has entrusted to us; charity makes them fruitful (cf. Mt. 25:14-30)” (Lenten reflection by the Holy Father for Lent 2013).
A volunteer is often more concerned about providing for the physical needs of the people, bringing a temporary solution to their sufferings. But a missionary is concerned first of all about the souls of the people that he is serving. Being with the poor and caring for their physical needs are means to fulfil this genuine concern of love. That is where the Holy Father warns us in his Lenten message, “Sometimes we tend, in fact, to reduce the term “charity” to solidarity or simply humanitarian aid. It is important, however, to remember that the greatest work of charity is evangelization, which is the “ministry of the word”. There is no action more beneficial – and therefore more charitable – towards one’s neighbour than to break the bread of the Word of God, to share with him the Good News of the Gospel, to introduce him to a relationship with God”.
For a missionary, the mentality is not “us and them” but only “us” because we are the Body of Christ - we share the brotherhood of Christ with them.
Volunteering often brings satisfaction to the self that comes from serving others - the self satisfaction of doing good for others. Often, this can happen without truly getting involved in the sufferings of the poor. On the other hand, for a missionary, work involves suffering and a painful stripping off of vices.
Once, during the course of a meeting I was attending, a young man who had just returned from a mission trip told us of the beautiful ways in which God had used him to touch the lives of the many poor and suffering people there. When his sharing was over, an elderly gentleman in the group who had been working for decades as a lay missionary said, “Son, I’d like to hear about the change that has come about in you as a result of this mission experience”. In the brief silence that followed, when the young man was struggling for words, I was convinced of an essential characteristic of a true missionary. For when a missionary returns home, his reflections mainly focus on how the trip transformed him internally. A volunteer, on the other hand, is more prone to talking about how the people and place changed as a result of his/her service.
The Holy Father beautifully shows how the relationship of faith and charity resembles the relation between the two fundamental Sacraments of the Church: “Baptism and Eucharist. Baptism precedes the Eucharist, but is ordered to it, the Eucharist being the fullness of the Christian journey. In a similar way, faith precedes charity, but faith is genuine only if crowned by charity. Everything begins from the humble acceptance of faith (“knowing that one is loved by God”), but has to arrive at the truth of charity (“knowing how to love God and neighbour”), which remains forever, as the fulfilment of all the virtues (cf. 1 Cor. 13:13)”.
I am sure that the Jesus Youth movement is looking only for missionaries – knowing that the journey can begin with a visitor who becomes a volunteer and then proceeds to the real call as a missionary. This, then, is the question we should all ask ourselves - “Am I a visitor, a volunteer or a missionary?”