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Catholic mission: Properly shaped through our humanity

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Oct 13, 2020

One of the most delightful Biblical texts illustrating the role of human creativity in doing God’s will is found in Exodus chapter 17, where Jethro offers advice to Moses on a better human way to fulfill his Divine commission. For those of us who are not good at building organizations, the text is also a cautionary tale. The idea of extending what we perceive as a Divine calling through the action of a number of persons operating in a well-ordered manner—that is, the idea of developing an organization—is often foreign to the lone apostle. But it is not at all foreign to human work, and when we look more closely, we will find that an assessment of the human components appropriate to any particular Catholic mission is of vital importance.

Because I am engaged in what has become a small institutional apostolate (CatholicCultlure.org), I think more frequently now about the problems associated with continuation and expansion than I do about how to get started. So let me begin in the middle, so to speak, by emphasizing that expansion of a mission is implicit in Our Lord’s parable of the talents (Mt 25:14-30; cf. Lk 19:12-28). In that parable, different servants are entrusted by their master with various amounts of money, so that they might use it skillfully while he is away. The servants who increase the value of the initial entrustments are commended, and set over greater things. But the one who fears to attempt to multiply the fruits of his commission is rebuked, and stripped of what he has been given.

Even if the unsuccessful servant had bought something different with his funds, he would not have won any praise. Rather, the parable teaches us that good servants are not to be satisfied with preserving what they have been given, nor with exchanging it for something else. Rather, they are to use their own human ingenuity and their own personal abilities to increase its value—to multiply it.

So too in the order of grace. We must adopt the overall strategic intention of using our own human insights and abilities to make the graces and the mission entrusted to us as fruitful as possible. Our goal must be to use the natural gifts developed over a lifetime, enriched and guided by grace, to generate an ever-increasing return on whatever the Master has entrusted to us. This means not only working wisely and well in the personal, individual sense, but also, as circumstances warrant, attending to the possibility of increasing the results by participating in an organization, even through our own organizational planning.

Think of this as another aspect of the multiplication of the loaves, applied neither to material sustenance nor to the Eucharist itself, but to grace and virtue and mutual assistance more generally. In my own apostolic work, it took me a long time to see how to multiply God’s gifts through anything other than harder and harder work, a deficiency that led to many problems. Even with CatholicCulture.org, my organization-building skills are minimal; but at least I have been “smart” enough to welcome collaborators who wish to share and extend the mission. I think both our users and everyone involved in the work would agree that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Jethro speaks

It is precisely this organizational problem of fulfilling God’s will that was addressed by Jethro—Moses’ father-in-law—when he saw how hard Moses was working to hear the grievances and disagreements among the people God was leading to the Promised Land. Jethro is described as a priest of Midian, but not, of course, a priest in the Jewish sense, for God had as yet revealed very little of Himself. Nonetheless, Jethro was experienced, shrewd, and spiritually receptive. He rejoiced that the Lord had used Moses to bring the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt, saying: “Now I know that the Lord is greater than all gods, because he delivered the people” (Ex 18:11).

Jethro was a competent leader in his own right, and this explains why, as recounted in Exodus 18:13-27, he was appalled at how his son-in-law was exhausting himself, surrounded by the people and dealing with their problems day after day, “from morning till evening”. When Jethro questioned Moses about this, Moses explained that the people came to him to inquire of God, and that when they have a dispute, he must decide between them, “and I make them know the statutes of God and his decisions”. But Jethro replied point blank: “What you are doing is not good. You and the people with you will wear yourselves out, for the thing is too heavy for you, you are not able to perform it alone.”

This to Moses! In no uncertain terms, Jethro gave Moses the benefit of his own administrative experience, much as a good spiritual director today might caution Moses against the sin of presumption, in relying too much on himself. Moses must certainly bring the problems of the people before God and teach them God’s statutes, but he must do this in a humanly possible way. Thus Jethro told Moses he must do the following:

[C]hoose able men from all the people, such as fear God, men who are trustworthy and who hate a bribe; and place such men over the people as rulers of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties, and of tens. And let them judge the people at all times; every great matter they shall bring to you, but any small matter they shall decide themselves.

Jethro concluded: “If you do this, and God so commands you, then you will be able to endure, and all this people also will go to their place in peace”. Note that Jethro knew Moses must submit this approach to God in prayer (“if you do this, and God so commands you”). Apparently Moses did so, after which he decided to take his father-in-law’s excellent advice and quickly put it into practice. The point here is simply this: Before Jethro’s intervention, this very human solution had simply never crossed Moses’ mind. Instead, by relying overmuch on himself, he was courting failure.

God makes use of what is human

For many of us (and here I raise my hand), this is a difficult lesson. There can be a tendency to think only in terms of what God is inspiring “me” to do directly; in fact, I would say that this is how most clearly-felt missions begin. But even for those well on their way, there are at least two other important questions to be asked about any personal apostolic work. The first is whether or not God wants me to engage collaborators in this same work; and the second is whether God is calling me to expand the work beyond my original conception of my own role in it. Obviously the answers to both questions must be discerned prayerfully. As I have mentioned often recently, “Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it” (Ps 127:1).

Of course God can do anything through us that He chooses to do, assuming our cooperation. But a great part of the answer to these mission questions lies in an honest assessment of our own particular gifts, our own particular abilities. For those in the midst of apostolic work or Catholic mission, an objective analysis of such things must be one of the most important steps in discerning whether: (a) We are on the wrong track or overloaded; (b) We could be more effective in some specific way; and/or (c) We might be called to some change or expansion in our current “operations”. Is there a fine organization I can join to better fulfill this mission? If not, do I have the organizational gifts to extend the work beyond the scope of my own energies (including the scope of my own life)? Am I able to find these gifts in one or more collaborators? Whom shall I trust to advise me?

Jumping from the middle of things back to the beginning, such human questions are probably even more important in the decision to get started at all. It is not for nothing that Our Lord says He is sending us out as sheep among wolves, so that we must be not only innocent as doves but “wise as serpents” (Mt 10:16); nor that he tells us “the sons of this world are wiser in their own generation than the sons of light” (Lk 16:8). Catholic mission is not only a matter of Divine inspiration, but also of human talent, good sense, and ingenuity offered ever more wholeheartedly to God in response to our universal baptismal call. And since every single Catholic is called to mission, close practical attention to how we can “missionize” the human abilities God has given to us goes with the territory.

I do not say that every Catholic is called to mission beyond his or her natural circle. Consider, for example, the parents of a large family. But when it comes to apostolic activity, our reflection is not always about whether we discern a call to some specific work. More often, I think, our sense of mission develops by asking fundamentally human questions about what we can do. Hopefully we are aware that God has called us to know, love and serve Him, and aware too that we are spiritually infantile as long as we think this means only the need to avoid committing certain sins. Therefore, we ought to realize, even without being aware of a specific, personal call, that every Christian is called to participate in the harvest.

From the outset, simply remembering to do ordinary human things out of love for God creates a conduit of grace for ourselves and those we serve, and this always remains the core of the apostolate. But other human questions ought to arise: How I can use my human gifts to serve God best? How can I maximize that service within the context of my state in life? Or, if I am already engaged in a specific form of apostolic work, how can I use my human gifts to be more effective, or to do the work on a larger scale?

Christian responsibility is always human

As with Jethro’s advice to Moses, everything must go to God in prayer, and every Catholic apostolate must be rooted in Christ. “Fear not, for I have redeemed you,” the Lord tells us through Isaiah. “I have called you by name, you are mine” (Is 43:1). And Jesus Christ says: “No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all I have heard from my Father I have made known to you” (Jn 15:15). Friends love the same things; friends lament the same failures and rejoice in the same successes. Friendship is quintessentially a human thing, and friends know how to question each other—and even to prod each other into action.

God has given us the ability to formulate our own questions, and so to take our own human steps to learn what He has in mind for us. Joining His life to ours in Christ, God invites our questions. The mistake is not that we might feel no specific call; the mistake is to forget the call we received in our own baptism. We are at fault if we do not use our human gifts to press the point.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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Show 2 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Oct. 14, 2020 9:15 PM ET USA

    james-w-anderson8230: Well, clearly I'm thinking a great deal about this type of thing right now. I think if our Fall Campaign is successful, so that we are financially stable at the end of this very difficult year, we'll begin to make some administrative moves to free me for the things I do best, unless I start getting younger again!

  • Posted by: james-w-anderson8230 - Oct. 13, 2020 11:00 PM ET USA

    I thought that this was building up to an announcement about a major change. Should we stay tuned for the rest of the story?