The week before classes started at UT this January, nearly 80 Longhorn Catholics came back to town early – to go out in mission. This is the 4th year of Austin CARITAS (Catholics Answering the Redeemer’s Invitation to Authentic Sanctity), where UT students give up a week of their winter break to serve those in need in their own city. “It was amazing to think that acting as a volunteer could also make me a missionary. I didn’t even have to leave my own city to serve on a mission. I didn’t have to move across the world to spread the Gospel, or even really use my words to do so. My actions of caring, listening and even helping with seemingly menial tasks made me a missionary,” said Ellen, one of the CARITAS organizers and a Senior at UT.
And this year, 2016, the students gave a whole new meaning to that mission.
The CARITAS missionaries were inspired by Pope Francis’ call to create a culture of encounter, and especially in this new Year of Mercy. Of the culture of encounter, Pope Francis said:
In this “stepping out” it is important to be ready for encounter. For me this word is very important. Encounter with others. Why? Because faith is an encounter with Jesus, and we must do what Jesus does: encounter others. We live in a culture of conflict, a culture of fragmentation, a culture in which I throw away what is of no use to me, a culture of waste…Yet on this point, I ask you to think — and it is part of the crisis — of the elderly, who are the wisdom of a people, think of the children… the culture of waste! However, we must go out to meet them, and with our faith we must create a “culture of encounter”, a culture of friendship, a culture in which we find brothers and sisters...” ( Pentecost Vigil, May 2013)
These Longhorn Catholics responded to his call to go out to the peripheries – but not just those far away countries you might first think of, but to the peripheries of our own city, which really aren’t on the outskirts at all. Jonathan, one of the students who helped to organize this year’s mission, and a 4th year biomedical engineering major, put it this way:
“Pope Francis has called on us to create this culture of encounter within our own communities. We did this by forming authentic attachments with people by going out and serving the most vulnerable groups, the poor, disabled, homeless, and the elderly at no benefit to ourselves. Cardinal Francis George said, “If we encounter Christ we will therefore encounter those that Christ loves.” There is one thing that the world and more specifically, the city of Austin, needed, and it was an encounter with Christ – a real experience of Christ’s love and mercy. I was surrounded by university students who wanted to experience God’s true presence in their own backyard.”
And the spirit of Pope Francis was with them! Indeed, as our Pope promised to the US Bishops in his visit last September, he really did walk
“Whenever a hand reaches out to do good or to show the love of Christ, to dry a tear or bring comfort to the lonely, to show the way to one who is lost or to console a broken heart, to help the fallen or to teach those thirsting for truth, to forgive or to offer a new start in God … know that the Pope is at your side and supports you. He puts his hand on your own, a hand wrinkled with age, but by God’s grace still able to support and encourage.” (Read more…)
Here are a few short stories of the beauty and connection born of these encounters, these two-way dialogues and meeting of hearts:
Jocelyn, a senior at UT and one of the CARITAS 2016 missionaries:
“Throughout the various ministries that we worked with- Chicon Pregnancy Resource Center, Street Youth Ministry, Mobile Loaves and Fishes, and others, we discovered a central mission. Each ministry valued the dignity of the human person. They valued choices and honored one’s needs and “pickiness” as we were once told. This ideal within the many ministries we worked with gave us the desire to follow in this mission and value each person we met. We chose to not just hand a bag with chips, water and a sandwich, but instead sat in conversations with people and listened to their personal histories, present desires, and what brings them joy!”
Kay, 3rd year social work major:
“Before or after every volunteer experience, the one in charge of us at the ministry would give us a run down on the people they serve and begin telling us a bit of their own involvement with the organization. Almost every single one of them teared up. Either they were reflecting on Jesus’ love in their own life or how they saw Jesus in the people they served. By coming in and asking them questions about themselves, it was like we were able to reignite that fire within them to continue their passion, to remember why they started in the first place. It was so powerful to keep in mind that we can have an encounter anyone and everyone: those being served as well as those serving”
Ellen, Pre-Med, Senior:
“I feel like most of the time we didn’t even need to tell anyone that we were Catholic students on a mission trip, or expressly bring up the Gospel through our words. I think it was clear to those we served that our hearts were filled with Christ and that we truly found joy in encountering and dignifying them, just as He would. I think we’ve really learned how to live like Jesus and bring Him to our communities.”
Throughout the mission trip there was also a strong Marian presence. Each morning, the students took small wooden framed images of the Blessed Mother and Jesus out on the mission. They’re called Pilgrim Mothers. As the students received their Pilgrim Mother, the priest said: She is the great missionary! And the students responded, “She will work miracles!”
This active Marian faith was alive in the spiritual talks, the songs in adoration, and the deep atmosphere throughout the week. And it was Marian in a truly unique way – in the spirit of Mary as the woman at the foot of the cross, the one who God called to cooperate with her Son in the redemption of the world! It is in this spirit of active cooperation with the will of God that the missionaries echoed Mary’s fiat. Jonathan shared that “I grew in my faith through the example of the Blessed Mother, the first great missionary. Her “Yes” to God’s call was a resounding answer to his will and her example demonstrates how to bring Christ into the world. The mission was a transforming experience of sharing in and living Christ’s love.”
So just as the missionaries went out into the world to encounter others, they also built a deep community with each other, and themselves had a chance to encounter God in their own hearts. It is this harmony of inner life connected to the external giving of self to others that really makes CARITAS a unique religious experience.
“One of the talks on the first night of CARITAS, Fr. Jesus mentioned that we can only give what we have. If we don’t have the love of Christ within us, how can we give that love to others? When he said that, I had a realization that if I was going to wake up at 6:30 every morning that week, serve people on the streets or those in lonely situations, and participate in team building activities until 11pm, I needed some love of Jesus in my own heart, desperately. I needed to re-establish that relationship. I needed to feel personally loved by Him before I could give that experience of a genuine encounter with others. The entire week I made little sacrifices to spend some personal time with Jesus in our adoration chapel. It was so worth it. I noticed that even through the lack of sleep, I was able to give all my love to those in the ministries we served. Because I had first felt what that merciful love meant to me, I could try my hardest to bring that to others.” – Kay
May we encounter though the witness of these UT students our own call to live out this Year of Mercy in an extraordinary way. How is Christ calling me to a deeper encounter with Him? In this encounter, we discovery the symphony composed of our own smallness and the immense greatness of God’s mercy. And the merciful Father will never disappoint, for when we seek His will we find our true dignity, and from that place of dignity in God, we can give that gift of dignity to one another.
Dear Blessed Mother, teach us to give an active YES to God’s will! And help us discern – towards whom is God calling us to step out? To our brothers and sisters most in need? Perhaps to talk to that quiet girl in the back of the room, or that guy who always seem to be in a bad mood at work? Perhaps to my own estranged family members? Wherever you are called, let us take up that call together, and live out the Gospel as we heard it yesterday in Mass, that we may become what we are: one body in Christ.
Indeed, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker
are all the more necessary,
and those parts of the body that we consider less honorable
we surround with greater honor (…)
But God has so constructed the body
as to give greater honor to a part that is without it,
so that there may be no division in the body,
but that the parts may have the same concern for one another.
If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it;
if one part is honored, all the parts share its joy. (1 COR 12)