At the annual celebration of World Mission Sunday at Divine Word College Seminary last month, guests were probably expecting a homily from a Divine Word Missionary priest. Instead, they were met with a relatable reflection after the Gospel that was presented by National Vocation Director Len Uhal.
Some people in the pews may have been wondering, “what’s this layperson going to tell me that I don’t already know?” It turns out that his mere presence was part of the message. We are all missionaries.
Pope Francis’ theme for this year’s Mission Sunday was “Hearts on Fire. Feet on the move.” Len started by telling guests about what set his heart on fire at a very early age. He talked about his grandmother, who spent most of her life in a wheelchair due to polio. Friends and family alike simply called her “Ma.”
When her husband died and left her a single-parent to a five-year-old, she worked as a seamstress to support them. Later, Ma lived with Len and his mother. When he was just a boy, Len recalls his grandmother volunteering as a cook at his school. If neighbors needed help with sewing projects, Ma was quick to lend a hand and share her skill.
“She helped be an example to me of how to be dedicated to raising a family, but she didn’t just leave it there. Ma was a service to community, as well,” he said.
Through his upbringing and later in his years as a seminarian, husband, father, grandfather, substance abuse counselor and now as the National Vocation Director for the Society of the Divine Word’s Chicago Province, Len has learned a thing or two about mission.
“We have great examples of missionaries here in the chapel with us today in our priests, brothers and sisters. But we lay folks, we’re not off the hook. We’re missionaries too. Our church teaches in the Vatican II document “Ad Gentes,” that the Church is mission by its very nature. That doesn’t just mean the institution of the church but we, as individual people who make up the Church, are also called to mission. By virtue of our Baptism, we are all called to be missionaries.”
While lay people aren’t the ones pouring holy water over a child’s head at Baptism, they are the ones bringing generation after generation to the church and continuing that faith. Parents and grandparents start most faithful young people on that path.
There was a time when the term “mission” evoked images of faraway lands with indigenous people. Len challenged that concept.
“We’re not all going to have the opportunity to travel across the world to do something grand in another part of the world,” he said. “Mission does happen in other parts of the world, but it’s also very local. It happens in your homes, in my home and right here at Divine Word College.”
While Len’s personal story is unique to his family, he noted it’s not special – that everyone has a unique family story of how the faith is passed from one generation to the next. There are many families in this world that are mission minded.
Some people share their time and talents through volunteer work. Some select a profession that serves their community. Some give of themselves week after week in church as cantors, sacristans and lectors. There are endless opportunities to serve God’s people and most of them don’t require a plane ticket.
There’s no special academic degree required to be a missionary. No training needed and no formal interview process. As Catholics, we’re called to do what we can to serve.
Divine Word College President Fr. Tom Ascheman, SVD says missionary fathers, mothers, grandfathers and grandmothers are an important and influential aspect of the church. He emphasizes that the Catholic Church is made up primarily of lay people. Those in religious life depend on an active lay community to help sustain the church and educate young people by their daily examples.
Len and his wife did their best to raise their three children to be good stewards. One works as a pastoral associate at five churches, another was the youngest person elected to serve on her church’s parish council. Len’s youngest son works at a local grocery store and always has a smile for customers and is helpful to all. Now as grandparents, they’ve been touched to witness the baptism of their family’s next generation.
After Len’s reflection at the Mission Sunday celebration, Fr. Tom wrote in a message to the school community that the example Ma set for Len truly helped set his heart on fire.
“He came to understand that mission is for everyone, everywhere, and it is not complicated. Though her feet were not moving, Ma was definitely a missionary grandmother who helped form a missionary grandfather,” Fr. Tom wrote.