What is a missionary disciple in Renew My Church?

By Elizabeth White | Contributor
Thursday, March 7, 2019

Lorrie Walls and Angela Cope smile during discussions following a break-out session as Vicariate VI parishes met for Evangelization Day at St. Katherine Drexel Parish at the St. Ailbe worship site on Jan. 26, 2019. (Karen Callaway/ Chicago Catholic)

The renewal we are undergoing through Renew My Church is encouraging us to be creative and to sometimes use distinct words or phrases to capture a new concept or to provide a different way of looking at something otherwise familiar.

Through Renew My Church gatherings, the term “missionary disciple” is being used quite a bit. If you don’t know what a missionary disciple is, you are not alone.

The term is relatively new, originating in 2007 in the Aparecida document — the final document of the V General Conference of the Episcopate of Latin America and the Caribbean authored by then-Cardinal Jorge Bergolio. The universal church was introduced to this term in the apostolic exhortation, “Evangelii Gaudium” (“The Joy of the Gospel”), written by Pope Francis in 2013.

In using the words “missionary disciple,” Pope Francis stretches our thinking about the call to discipleship.

A disciple is a student, like an apprentice, who learns directly from a particular teacher. The student spends a lot of time with the teacher and develops a personal relationship with her or him, observing the work. Then the student tries — through trial and error — to capture what the teacher has taught.

Eventually the disciple becomes a master through her or his ongoing training, practice and development.

A missionary is a person of faith who travels to a territory within his or her own country or outside of it to bring the Gospel message and resources to those in need; the missionary shares faith through words and actions. 

So, when Pope Francis put these two words together, what did he have in mind?

As Catholics, we have the potential for discipleship by our baptism. But discipleship requires our participation in the process. We have to want to get to know the teacher, Jesus, to build a personal relationship with him and to learn from him — to ultimately follow him.

For some people, a decision to follow Jesus is a lifetime process of getting to know him through prayer, engaging Sacred Scripture and participating in the sacraments. For others, it is a moment-in-time encounter that changes their lives — an illness, a retreat experience, a time of prayer in front of the Blessed Sacrament, a sunset. It brings about a realization that God is real, and God loves them unconditionally.

Regardless of how it happens, a disciple encounters Jesus and experiences God’s overwhelming love in a way that brings about a desire for forgiveness and a conversion of heart. Through this experience of repentance and conversion, a disciple chooses to align his or her life to Jesus and to follow him wherever he leads.

This is just the beginning. This encounter brings about a hunger and desire to learn more and grow in relationship with Jesus and his church through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Reading Sacred Scripture and spiritual writers, learning more about the faith, taking up prayer more faithfully, participating in the life of the community, sharing regularly in the Eucharist and being drawn to the sacrament of reconciliation are all signs that this apprenticeship has begun.

A disciple seeks not just to know about Jesus, but to know Jesus intimately, to experience Jesus’ way of life and fulfill his or her baptismal call to holiness.

After spending time with the teacher (Jesus), learning, practicing and growing, the disciple naturally wants to share Jesus with others. The joy, the love, the incredible story, has to be shared.

They are ready to go outward — out from the parish into their homes, neighborhoods and communities — to share the story of how Jesus transformed their lives. They are ready to fulfill the mission of the church, Jesus’ mandate to, “Go … and make disciples” (Mt 28:19). They introduce their family, friends and neighbors to the teacher who will then apprentice these new disciples.

Pope Francis wants us to think differently about our call to discipleship. He invites us to become a missionary disciple, a follower and friend of Jesus, who has spent so much time with him, that we naturally and joyfully bring him into our daily lives, sharing stories of his love, fulfilling the mission of the church, to share the Good News.

The next Evangelization Days will focus on “Hospitality: Creating a Welcoming, Inviting and Engaged Community.” This three-part series will begin in early summer. For more on Renew My Church, visit


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