Start It Up, Then Ask Permission. What We Can Learn from Mother Teresa and Francis of Assisi

The Catholic Church is quite approachable when it comes to organizing new mission enterprises.

The Catholic Church is famously centralized in Rome, yet is surprisingly open-minded toward members who start their own ministries. For example, when Francis of Assisi heard the Lord say, “Repair my church.” he came upon a church that had fallen into ruins and began rebuilding its walls. He later realized that God was telling him to repair the spiritual church, not its buildings. Francis persuaded 11 men to join him. Their simple vow: “To follow the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to walk in His footsteps.” Then he went to Rome where, by a kind of miracle, the pope agreed to meet with them. The pope recognized “The Franciscans” after they had been active for some years. The order numbered 5000 by the time of Francis’ death.

The Catholic Church authorizes two kinds of organizations, one for regular worship, administrated by priests and bishops, the other for extraordinary mission enterprises conceived by freethinking lay men and women for some good purpose. Ralph D. Winter called the reciprocity between them “the enviable Catholic synthesis.” A respectful relationship between the administration of the parish and the administration of mission enterprises has been fairly well achieved in the Catholic Church. This is in some contrast to the hurt felt by Protestant leaders when church members start or join mission efforts that did not originate in the boardroom of the church. It is a puzzle to me why our Reformed tradition appreciates the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, yet retains a sense of injury when ordinary church members start new organizations for the purpose of some good deed. We could learn from the Catholic model, since it is nearer to two administrations of the gospel recognized by Paul and Peter in Galatians 2, as we wrote about here. Paul and Peter sealed it with a handshake.

Catholics approve of the fact that untrained people start many good missionary enterprises. Francis never was ordained as a priest. Nor was Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits. Many famous Jesuit missionaries brought Christianity to “the regions beyond.” Francis Xavier sailed for Japan, Matteo Ricci went to China, and Eusebio Kino founded the first Catholic churches where I live in Arizona. The largest of all Catholic missions, Opus Dei, is organized completely by lay men and women. Opus Dei runs just fine without clergy.

The most interesting thing about the Catholic orders is that their founders started them and then asked permission. For example, Mother Teresa established the Missionaries of Charity in 1948. Two years later, in 1950, she received permission to do what she was already doing. That is the correct order; first get started, then ask permission to do what you have already begun to do. In 1968 the Catholic church in Rome asked Mother Teresa to establish a home for the poor there. Mother Teresa staffed it primarily with nuns recruited from Calcutta.

The Catholic Church, then, is actually quite de-centralized. Untrained members are free to start new mission enterprises. Missionary orders are the expression of entrepreneurs who set their ideas in motion and then asked permission to carry on with their work. How does the reader feel about that?