Ongoing Formation 2/2020

God speaks, and mission is born
David Glenday

In the last of this series of confreres’ reflections on mission and the Word of God, Fr David Glenday shares in letter-form his thoughts on how God’s Word has formed him as a missionary.

“Your words became to me a joy
and the delight of my heart”
Jeremiah 15, 16

Dear Alberto,

Thank you very much for inviting me to contribute to FAMILIA COMBONIANA, sharing something of what it has meant for me personally to experience the Word of God as forming my call to be a missionary. I find it easier to respond like this, in the form of a letter, addressed first to you, but with you to the confreres who may find themselves reading these very simple considerations. Thank you and all for your understanding.

As I have mulled over your invitation, it has become clearer and clearer to me how deeply and inextricably my life has been shaped and moulded by the call to be a missionary, and how this call has been, and remains, in the words of our Rule of Life, my reason to exist. Another way of putting this would be to say that to respond fully to you would mean writing my autobiography, but I think we can all agree that this would certainly not be desirable, so let me just focus on some areas where I have particularly experienced the joy and the delight of God’s forming and transforming Word.

In the beginning was the Word (Jn 1,1)

I cannot remember a time when I did not experience God as speaking his Word to me: God has always been there, real and alive, interested and involved in me and the world, and always available and willing to enter into conversation.

My Mum, a well-travelled Irish Catholic, loved the Mass, and I found that I loved it too, and so from an early age I was involved in the Eucharist close-up as an altar-server: it was all in Latin at the start, of course, but there was no doubt that God was speaking there through the words and gestures of the liturgy. My Dad, a Scottish Prebyterian till he became a Catholic at the age of seventy-one, loved the Scriptures, and his interest and fascination encouraged my own: I remember his enthusiasm for the television talks and books of William Barclay, a biblical scholar of the time at Glasgow University, whose commentaries on the Gospels, lively and straightforward, are still in print, and still worth reading and praying.

Against this background, it is perhaps not surprising that, to the best of my remembrance, the first time I felt I wanted to be a missionary was at Sunday Mass, when a White Father (Missionary of Africa) was doing a mission appeal in my parish in Scotland. I suppose I must have been only around eight or nine years old at the time, but this missionary’s words lit a flame in me which, by God’s grace, still burns.

As the years have passed, reflection on this powerful and life-changing presence of God’s Word in my childhood has gradually led me into the awe-inspiring realisation expressed so marvellously by Jeremiah: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you… I consecrated you… I appointed you” (1,5). It’s the same realisation articulated for us by John: “All things came into being through (the Word)” (1,3). In other words, it is in the Word that I live and move and have my being; as Pope Benedict says, “each of us is a thought of God”. The more, the deeper, I hear and respond to the call to be a missionary, the more and the fuller I become my true self. My very existence began with a call, a Word, and I am most alive when I let that call lead and shape me.

You shall go to all to whom I send you (Jer 1,7)

And that, too, has been part of my experience: the Word of God does indeed lead. It is a Word that longs to be shared and communicated, to be passed on, to be savoured together. This communicating Word creates communication across culture and language and generation; this Word sends me and makes me go to persons and communities whom I do not know, and who are different from me in many and important ways.

I can only marvel at the variety and wealth of the persons and places to which the Word has led me. It gives me joy to recall, for example, my time at Gulu Cathedral with Fr Paolo Ottolini, when, using the LUMKO materials from South Africa, we could witness God’s Word being discovered, lived and proclaimed in Acholi by the Small Christian Communities of our parish. Part of this experience for me was getting to know some outstanding women and men catechists and community leaders, who deeply loved the Word, as well as being in touch with confreres like Frs Vincenzo Pellegrini and Simone Zanoner, with their infectious passion to know and take full account of the Acholi language and culture in the passing on of the Gospel.

Then there was LEADERSHIP Magazine and Kampala. In this urban, multi-ethnic setting, my predecessor as editor, Fr Joe Bragotti, had identified the need to offer a rounded and balanced approach to the Scriptures, as an alternative to the unhelpful fundamentalism being aggressively offered by the sects, and in this effort we found willing and competent allies among the White Fathers and the Sisters of St Paul. In our parish of Mbuya, there was a great hunger for the Word, and we were able to respond together with a series of Sunday afternoon courses, which buzzed with the excitement of shared discovery and renewed commitment to mission.

I was very fortunate, too, in the Philippines. The Salesian parish at Mayapa, not far from Metro Manila, where I went to practise my Tagalog, was engaged in an energetic journey of renewal based on listening to the Scriptures in community, and provided a context where the terror of my first homilies in the Filipino national language gradually became the joy of communicating and sharing across what might have seemed well-nigh insurmountable cultural boundaries. Then, thanks to the open-heartedness of the Claretians, there were the years of working with one of the poorest communities in their inner-city Manila parish, with the weekly Eucharist and the Wednesday evening Bible sharing groups.

But these are just examples, and I know that all of us could offer many, many more of our own. The point here is to recognise, celebrate and joyfully re-commit to the true wonder of our call as missionaries; to recognise with gratitude the basic human enrichment it brings; to see that the Word does not turn us first into talkers but above all into listeners; to welcome the marvellous opportunities to hear the Gospel announced to us in so many different languages and out of so many various cultural experiences.

This grace-filled experience, of course, shapes and forms us in so many ways: for example, as our Rule of Life says, it means that the Word of God becomes our fundamental prayer; that we commit ourselves to learning with love and respect the language of those with whom we minister and live; that we grow in attentiveness to how God is speaking in persons and events; that we are culturally curious and aware; that we read, study and reflect on the Scriptures with a passion which grows and matures over the years. In one way or another, we learn the truth of what Jeremiah was once to exclaim: “Within me there is something like a burning fire… I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot” (20,9).

I have set before you an open door” (Rev 3,8)

“The Gospel is not merely a communication of things that can be known – it is one that makes things happen and is life-changing. The dark door of time, of the future, has been thrown open. The one who has hope lives differently; the one who hopes has been granted the gift of a new life” (Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi, 2).

“For you should not think that a renewal of life which is said to be once and for all is enough; but the very newness itself, if I may so speak, must be renewed continually, day by day. For, as the Apostle says: ‘Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed every day’ (2 Cor 4,16). For just as the old gets older and older… so too is this new nature continually renewed. It is possible, then, to pass over from old age and wrinkles to youth; and what is wondrous in this is that while the body progresses from youth to old age, the soul, if it comes to perfection, changes from old age to youth” (Origen).

The Word of God creates us; the Word of God sends us out; and the Word of God gives us life – always. In one way or another, at different times and places, this is surely the experience of all of us: the Word, with which we might be tempted to think we are familiar, flames anew into life; opens up new avenues of reflection, prayer and commitment for us; challenges us to keep growing, to become aware afresh of our potential; reveals new depths; bears new fruit in us; offers new delight; infects us with new joy; sees us through difficult times; keeps us humble and grounded when things go well.

Little by little it dawns on us that the call, the missionary call, is, surely, to know God’s Word, and to witness and proclaim and live it; to hear and receive and share it; to give it form in this world and at this time – all of these, yes, but in the end the call is to become oneself a word in the Word: one’s life, one’s way of being and relating, these become the place where the Gospel is made present and proclaimed. As Gregory the Great remarked, “the Word grows with the one who reads it”.

For my own part, I have gradually been discovering three particular spaces where this growth, this ongoing formation, is especially offered. The first of these spaces is the silence of personal prayer in a spirit of liberality and generosity, in the living memory of the Jesus of the Gospels who began his days of mission by listening to and conversing with the Father, and who because of this could say: “I can do nothing on my own. As I hear, I judge” (Jn 5,30). Jesus’ words and deeds, his very being and mission, issued again and again from his Father’s Word.

The second space of growth that has continued to nourish and encourage me in listening to the Word is the Sacrament of Reconciliation celebrated regularly. It seems to me that it is in the grace of this sacrament that the Lord offers us that “disciple’s ear” of which the prophet Isaiah speaks. The peace that accompanies the forgiveness offered by the Lord is an opportunity to listen more deeply to the Word he is constantly speaking in our lives and in the lives of the people we encounter as we live our mission. I especially love Luke 5,1-11, where Jesus’ response to Simon Peter’s confession is: Do not be afraid, I will make you a fisher of people. Mission is reborn from the word of mercy.

The third space I have been finding increasingly helpful in recent years has been regular spiritual direction. I am deeply grateful to the patient men who have accompanied, challenged and encouraged me to discern where and how the Lord is leading me as a disciple and missionary.

Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking” (Rev 3,20)

If, at this point of my life, I were to look for one word to express my personal experience of the way God has dealt with me and communicated with me, that word would be: courtesy. I find this experience beautifully expressed by Pope Benedict in his second book on Jesus. “It is part of the mystery of God,” he writes, “that he acts so gently, that he only gradually builds up his history within the great history of mankind; that he becomes man and so can be overlooked by his contemporaries and by the decisive forces within history; that he suffers and dies and that, having risen again, he chooses to come to mankind only through the faith of the disciples to whom he reveals himself; that he continues to knock gently at the doors of our hearts and slowly opens our eyes if we open our doors to him”.

Gently, gradually, slowly: yes, that’s the way I read the work of God’s Word in my story so far. I find a joyful recognition of my own winding way in the story of the disciples walking to Emmaus. Jesus, God’s Word, walks with their disappointment and fragility first of all in silence: how often his Word to me has been this patient, compassionate and merciful silence. And from silence he moves to asking them about what concerns them: how often the Word has made space for my words, for my perplexities, for my fears, and so has led me into a deeper awareness of what I have lived and am living. Then there is the word of challenge and explanation: how often the Word has indeed been the key to understanding life and living it to the full.

That great English woman of prayer, Julian of Norwich, once asked the Lord what, in the end, he was trying to tell her. “I was answered in inward understanding,” she would write. “Would you know your Lord’s meaning in this? Learn it well. Love was his meaning. Who showed it you? Love. What did he show you? Love. Why did he show you? For love. Hold fast to this”.

Thus might we say that, for us missionaries too, God’s Word to us elicits two small but powerful words of our own: thank you, and yes – words more than enough to fill a life.

With thanks and in fraternal communion,

Fr. David Glenday