“…whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant…”
Today the church celebrates World Mission Sunday. Every year on this Sunday, I’m reminded of my experience of missions in Mexico when I was a teenager. I remember specifically the first day we arrived in our village. We were going to spend two and a half weeks out there in the mountains of southern Mexico serving the poor, and when we got there we were assigned chores. I have never forgotten that when we sat down to divvy up the daily chores, one of our young college missionaries named Jimmy was the first one to raise his hand to volunteer to clean the toilets every morning. I was 15 at the time and thought this kid was crazy. Why would he want to do such a disgusting chore every single day? Little did I know at the time that he was teaching me a great gospel message that we hear in today’s gospel. Greatness lies in total service to others without thinking of one’s self. Jimmy was hard on me that first of three summers that we spent together on missions. I never realized how self-centered I was as a teenager until one night that Jimmy basically spelled it out for me. No one except my father had ever been that harsh with me but at the same time, he did it with great love. Here I was thinking I was going to Mexico ready to set the world on fire by preaching God’s word but it was in the little things that God really made himself present: in taking care of children so their parents could go to Mass, in doing my own laundry by hand in a bucket, in drawing water from a deep well for the other missionaries, in walking miles just to bring the presence of Christ to someone who may have felt forgotten by their Church. It was in the selfless examples of my fellow missionaries, it was in the great faith of the poor people we were called to serve, and in my long and sometimes difficult talks with Jimmy and seeing his dedication to our mission that this young teenager slowly started to discover his priestly vocation.
Next summer it will be 20 years since I went on missions to that place that I once called an “oasis of Christianity” because you see the gospel come to life in the love and the faith of the poor. They rely solely on God and not on anything of this world. It is there that I met some of the poorest people I have ever known, but at the same time some of the greatest and most powerful. Christ reminds us that to be the first, to be truly powerful, we have to be the slave of all. Being able to experience this first hand at such a young age set the tone for the rest of my life. These people who we were coming to serve delighted in serving us! They would constantly be giving us food that more often than not meant that they were depriving themselves and their families of food so that the missionaries would could eat from their harvest. The priest that accompanied us always said that the bread that these poor people gave us was as sacred as the bread that we broke on the altar. It was such a joy to be a missionary, and I carry that spirit now as a priest. World Mission Sunday is supposed to remind us that not only are we called to remember those who are preaching the gospel and helping the poor around the world, but also that we don’t necessarily need to travel to foreign lands to be a missionary: we are called to be missionaries right here in our homes, our work, and our schools. We are called to serve and be a slave to all even if it means doing something as menial as cleaning toilets so that somebody else doesn’t have to. For it is in the small tasks preformed with great love that we truly achieve greatness.