When I was working as as a lay missionary in Ecuador, prior to coming to Mississippi, I hosted a group of high school students from Cincinnati, Ohio for a two week long mission experience. In this jungle province of Ecuador, there were more than 100 missionaries doing all kinds of work - not just ministry in parishes, but running schools, health clinics, orphanages, and community outreach projects. I had arranged for a canoe to bring the youth and their leaders to a village where I did a lot of work as a missionary. The canoe ride was about 4 hours away from the mission site where I lived. As the canoe was speeding down the huge river - a river that was about as wide as the Mississippi River, with the immense rain forest jungle all around us - one of the high school students in the canoe turned to me and said: “I feel like we’ve been transported to one of the pages in National Geographic Magazine.” And I think that is how a lot of us see this mission field - as this exotic location thousands of miles away from us in the United States. However, in recent years, our Church has been trying to educate the faithful with the reality that whole world is a mission field, that all of us are missionary in spirit as disciples of Christ.
We have been celebrating Respect Life Month during the month of October. In addition, this month, we have been celebrating the month of the rosary. Today, we also celebrate a special Sunday during the month of October - World Mission Sunday. This marks the 90th year in which our Catholic Church celebrates World Mission Sunday, as it was first declared by Pope Pius XI & the Pontifical Society for the Propagation for the Faith in 1926. How the mission world has changed since that year. Back then, many of the priests in our diocese in Mississippi, which at the time was the named the Diocese of Natchez, came from Ireland. Now, with no more priests coming from Ireland, we have priests in our Diocese from the Congo, India, Vietnam, Mexico, and Indonesia, places that used to be thought of as the mission field. We are working hard to cultivate home-grown priests from the parishes within Mississippi to provide the priests we need. Since we are still celebrating the Year of Mercy, Pope Francis chose this as the theme for World Mission Sunday this year: Missionary Church - Witness of Mercy.
Humility is the common theme in our readings today. And humility plays an important role in how we pray to God, in how we live out our life of discipleship, in how we bring the message of Jesus Christ to the world as missionaries of his Good News. We hear of a Pharisee who is praying to God in today’s parable. In actuality, what the self-righteous Pharisee said is not really a prayer to God. Instead of thanking God, the Pharisee brags about himself. In fact, he really says this prayer to himself. The Pharisee looks down at others, labeling them “sinners”. The Pharisee actually does a lot of good things in his life, but he is very arrogant and proud. God calls us to humility and compassion toward our brothers and sisters, very different from the attitude this Pharisee embraces.
The prayer of the tax collector is very different from the prayer of the Pharisee. The tax collector stands at the back of the Temple, rather than assuming a position of power and honor up in front. The tax collector is so humble that he will not even lift up his eyes to God. He confesses his sins and asks for forgiveness, praying out of the deep recesses of his heart. The tax collector has done many bad things in his life, but he possesses the virtue of humility, which leads him to repent and to ask forgiveness from God, the merciful Father. The Pharisee prays as someone who feels that he does not need God’s forgiveness, but the tax collector prays as someone who knows that he needs forgiveness, and he receives that forgiveness from God. How do we approach prayer? Out of our pride and power and self-righteousness? Or out of our humility and obedience? According to the 19th century existentialist philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, “Prayer does not change God, but (prayer) changes him who prays.” And according to scripture scholar Father Raymond Brown from University of Notre Dame, “If no change occurs as a result of prayer, then one has not really prayed.” Out of our humility and repentance, like that which was shown by the tax collector in today’s Gospel, we can be open to change and transformation in our prayer life. The tax collector surrenders himself to God’s grace in his humility and openness. The Pharisee thinks he had all the answers; God’s grace has no room in his life. The spirit of today’s Gospel, of humility, repentance, and faith, can be found in the prayers in the Chaplet of the Divine Mercy: “Eternal Father, I offer You the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity, of Your dearly beloved Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ, in atonement for our sins and those of the whole world. For the sake of His sorrowful Passion, have mercy on us, and on the whole world.”
We here in the Diocese of Jackson are a missionary diocese - we reflect the missionary nature of our universal Church, our desire to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus throughout the world, and to share our Catholic faith with others. Last Thursday, we had our deanery meeting in Northeast Mississippi. There are six deaneries in our diocese. Our deanery - Deanery 5 - stretches from Corinth and Ripley in the north, over to Oxford and Bruce, and all the way down to Starkville and Columbus to the south of us - quite a large area. Our deanery is very rural and is comprised of mostly small parishes. It has the most developed Hispanic ministry in the diocese. Our deanery has the most lay leaders in charge of parishes as well. We try our best to work together, to help each other out. It is not always easy. It is sometimes frustrating and exhausting. But our collaboration in the missionary spirit of our Church is what we are called to as brothers and sisters in Christ. At that deanery meeting on Thursday, one of the lay ministers remarked how appreciative she is of the way we all try to help each other in the neighboring parishes in Northeast Mississippi, of how we collaborate in ministry, trying to give each other understanding and support. As we celebrate the universal call we have to be missionary, we acknowledge how that call begins on the parish level. We want all of you to be a part of our mission here at St James. As we reach out to our fellow parishioners, our children, and our youth, as we reach out to the community and beyond, all of us can be a part of this missionary mandate. That is one of goals here at St James - to fulfill this call to be a missionaries in the world.