Posted by: Titus Presler | October 11, 2015

“Love Is Our Mission” – An effective papal motto

Pope Francis’s visit to the USA in late September has come and gone amid great crowds and remarkable media adulation.  The now common wondering will continue for some time: “It was great, but what difference will it make?  Will it change anything in society?  On Capitol Hill?  In the Roman Catholic Church?”

En route home, Francis himself sought to moderate people’s expectations with a reflection on how anyone’s ability to make an impact on the world is transitory and that he is trying only to do what he can in the window of time available to him.

Missiologically interesting is the motto chosen by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) for the papal visit to the USA: “Love Is Our Mission.”  This appeared (and continues to appear) on the website for the visit alongside an appealing sketch of Francis lifting his hand in blessing over an urban landscape with the explanatory wording: “Pope Francis 2015 / United States of America.”*

“Love Is Our Mission.”  Not: “Our Mission Is Love.”  Beginning with the word “mission” might have put the emphasis on the wrong syl-la’-ble, as it were, making the concept of mission prior to the reality of love, rather than the other way around.  In effect, the USCCB is saying on the pope’s behalf, “The first reality is the love that God has for the whole human community.  Whoever we are and whatever we do, God’s longing is for the love of God to be revealed to and known by the whole human family.”

Given such a vision of God’s love, it was natural for mission to be the conceptualization chosen for the role of Christians in the world in relation to that love of God.  Not “Love is our task,” or “Love is our responsibility,” or even “Love is our gift,” though task, responsibility and gift are aspects of the mission.

The capacious mutuality of the concept of mission is operative in the motto.  Love is undefined and undifferentiated in such a simple motto, but, coming from the pope, it evokes both God as the source of the love and the infinite number of decisions by which Christian people and the church express the impulse to share the love of God with the human community.

“Love is our mission” implies both that the “we” involved in “our” mission have received a mission from God – and hence, really, the mission is not ours but God’s – and that “we” are on mission to and with the human community.  Again, coming from the pope, the motto does not need to mention God, but God is assumed and implied as the source of the love that is the mission.

It’s a truism that love has long been trivialized in popular culture and continues to be so, whether in the faux love of movie star hookups and breakups or in the current Subaru ad: “Love.  It’s what makes a Subaru a Subaru” (cringe!).  Given that trivialization, we can see the crafting of the papal visit motto as boldly proclaiming love as the whole of God’s relationship with the world and, derivatively, the church’s relationship with the world.

The love in “Love is our mission” is the agape about which we hear from Jesus in the New Testament: “You shall love the Lord your God . . . and your neighbor as yourself.”  “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you.  Love one another.  As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”

Missionally, that love encompasses humbly serving others, proclaiming the gospel, working for justice and, overall, seeking to catalyze reconciliation within the human community and between humanity and God.  In other words, when rightly understood love includes the works, the whole ball of wax.

The blessing in Francis’s visit is that when people see this motto they will have a pretty clear idea of what Francis meant by love during his visit: Care for the poor who suffer at the margins of society.  Prophecy against the depredations of global capitalism.  Compassion for the disabled.  Prophecy on behalf of the earth’s ecology and against the current of environmental destruction.  Nothing vague and gauzy there.  No clichés.

Yes, the pope did not come out as strongly as we might wish on behalf of the inclusion of women in all orders of the church, nor on behalf of the divorced, nor on behalf of sexual minorities – both because his own views are evolving and because those urgencies require years and perhaps decades of change agency within the hierarchy of the church.

Yet in what Francis did do and say on these shores the love of God was made manifest not only within the church but, more important, to society at large.  That was a very good thing, for which we can be thankful.  Love is indeed our mission.

* The statement “Love Is Our Mission” was picked up from the “Preparatory Catechesis for the World Meeting of Families,” the title of which is Love Is Our Mission: The Family Fully Alive.  Francis presided over the World Meeting of Families during his visit to the USA, and that was a prelude to the meeting of bishops that followed shortly thereafter in Rome.  The USCCB’s use extended the statement as an overall characterization of the pope’s visit.

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