University challenge: Pope Francis's call to missionary discipleship

As students prepare for the start of a new academic year, friend of the Catholic Chaplaincy at Queen's University, Fr Stephen Langridge, offers some thoughts on the important role chaplaincies play in forming 'missionary disciples'
October 21, 2021

HE age range 16 to 25 is sometimes called the Golden Decade. It is the time when individuals shape their outlook and values and when they make decisions that will affect the rest of their lives.

Those values and those decisions will also affect the future of society. So whether you find the prospect daunting or thrilling, the truth is that before too long many of today's undergraduates will be among the world's most influential people and the Church needs to ask how she is investing in them.

Pope Francis likes to shake things up. It's not just that he has his own style and breaks with centuries-old protocols, or that he acted to stop mafiosi laundering their money through the Vatican Bank, or built showers and dispensaries for the homeless next to St Peter's Square.

Those are the things that make newspaper headlines but his real revolution is something much more fundamental. By calling us to become missionary disciples, the Holy Father is issuing a direct challenge to each one of us.

It's a call to consider the quality of our Christian faith and way of life which for many, the Pope fears, has been reduced to a comfort blanket.

Statistics from the United States suggest some 80 per cent of young Catholics are lapsed by the time they start university. In the UK it is almost certainly worse. Pope John Paul II once said: "The number of those who do not know Christ and do not belong to the Church is constantly on the increase." Whether we are at work, at university, or at Sunday Mass we can see that this is true.

Benedict XVI put it even more starkly: "In our days, in vast areas of the world the faith is in danger of dying out like a flame that has run out of fuel. God is disappearing from the human horizon and with the dimming of the light which comes from God, humanity is losing its bearings, with increasingly evident destructive effects."

When we lose sight of our dignity as men and women created in the image and likeness of God, we are open to exploiting or being exploited.

It is no coincidence that the greatest atrocities of the 20th century were carried out by regimes who rejected belief in God. If human life is no longer considered an absolute value the way is opened up to totalitarianism.

With that in mind, the question to practising Catholics in the Golden Decade, and particularly to university students, is simple: Do you really want to make a difference with the life that God has given you?

To be called to 'missionary discipleship' presumes, first of all, that we are called to be disciples. A disciple is someone who learns from the Master.

Sometimes as a Church we have allowed Christianity to be reduced to the observance of a set of commandments. Those Commandments might reflect and embody our human dignity, but they are not Christian life.

Christian life isn't the perfect fulfilment of the Shema Israel, of the Law. Christian life is to live in a growing relationship with God so that we can say with St Paul, "It is now no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me."

Speaking to the US bishops, Pope John Paul II said: "Sometimes even Catholics have lost or never had the chance to experience Christ personally: not Christ as a mere 'paradigm' or 'value', but as the living Lord, the Way, the Truth and the Life."

And to the German bishops he said: "It is necessary to awaken again in believers a full relationship with Christ, mankind's only saviour. Only from a personal relationship with Jesus can an effective evangelisation develop."

For many young people university is right at the heart of their most formative years. Simply to state that should be enough to demonstrate the inestimable importance of a well-run chaplaincy with a clear understanding of its role and potential.

A university chaplaincy is not a 'safe space' for Catholics challenged by ideas expressed elsewhere on campus. Of course it has to be a place of welcome and friendship, a place of formation and of prayer, but it also has to be as a place from which students are encouraged to go out and make a difference.

This is what Pope Francis means when he speaks of the need to become missionary disciples. Students aren't to stay in safe groups. They are to go out to the margins and make Christ known there. He says each one of us needs to learn how to communicate Christ wherever we are.

Imagine what would happen if every Catholic student took seriously the call to be a missionary disciple with a heart able to feel for the needs of a stranger, and equipped to evangelise in the ordinary circumstances of their daily lives.

Chaplaincies can be busy places. Many of them are effective and offer lots of initiatives to help students experience an encounter with Christ. But it is not enough to expect people to come to us.

A chaplaincy, like a parish, exists not simply for those who attend but for the sake of those who do not yet attend. And so it is worth asking whether chaplaincies and associated Catholic societies are simply a holy huddle or truly a hub for the evangelisation of the whole university?

Are they equipping young people so that they can share their faith with their friends, enabling them to become missionary disciples?

Pope Paul VI called evangelisation the Church's "deepest identity". The Church exists to evangelise. Once we truly encounter Jesus it is impossible not to share him with other people. It is the natural expression of our faith.

Pope John Paul II said that the universal call to holiness is inseparable from the universal called to mission. A follower of Christ is called to breathe in holiness and to breathe out mission.

So what would happen if we were to inspire students to move out from the chaplaincy and really become a leaven in the university, to be missionary disciples in the lecture hall and the lab, on our playing fields and at the bar or in the halls of residence afterwards?

This is what Pope Francis is asking for. He is calling young people to be formed and equipped so that they can share their faith with their friends wherever they live and work so that through them Christ's love will be proclaimed to all levels of society.

It is not about organising big events but about dedicating time to the individual so that he or she can grow in an apostolate of confidence and friendship. That is why the choice of chaplain and the team he has around him are so critical. Every individual is different and the shepherd has to know his sheep if he is to facilitate a personal encounter with, and conversion to, Christ in each one of them.

The formation offered by a chaplaincy can help students who have encountered Christ become more and more anchored in their relationship with him. It can help deepen their knowledge and understanding of the faith, nourish and restore them through prayer and Sacramental grace, and encourage them through the witness and support of friends embarked on the same journey as they seek to orientate their lives towards God: turning away from sin and selfishness and opening our eyes and our hearts towards the needs of our neighbour.

Only when we have Christ within us can we show him to others. A follower of Christ recognises that discipleship and mission go together. Mission begins with friendship but also recognises that it is always "God who gives the increase".

Mission, therefore, is about the quality of our friendship and the integrity of our lives. A missionary disciple has lots of friends and tries to pass on the only thing that matters.

He or she knows it is not about having all the answers but gently challenging their friends in the questions they ask and the example they give. A missionary disciple has that love St Paul speaks of: caritas Christi urget nos - a love for souls that is stronger than our fear of rejection.

Pope Benedict XVI, speaking to young people, said: "Each one of you must have the courage to promise the Holy Spirit you will bring one young person to Jesus Christ, in the way you consider best, knowing how to give an explanation to anyone who will ask you for a reason for your hope, but to do it with gentleness and reverence."

It is not about proselytism, or schemes, or techniques or quick fixes. How many students have thought about who that 'one person' is? How many have written down their name and committed themselves to praying for them every day? That would be a great exercise at a chaplaincy retreat.

University challenge: Pope Francis's call to missionary discipleship
Fr Stephen Langridge

Fr Stephen Langridge is parish priest of St Elizabeth of Portugal Church, Richmond and an associate of the Divine Renovation parish renewal network.

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