Holy Envy: What This Catholic Learned About Missionary Work from Mormons

Holy Envy: What This Catholic Learned About Missionary Work from Mormons

Brian Grim

“Where did you serve your mission?” That’s a typical question Mormons ask each other. And it’s one I can relate to. I served missions in China, the Soviet Union, and the Middle East, and converted from Baptist to Catholic along the way.

For a married Catholic like myself with four grown kids, that is perhaps a one-of-a-kind personal history. And even Mormons might view it as an unusual mission background. But I think it’s one that many members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day can relate to.

On occasion I’ve been asked what I might say to Pope Francis next time I meet him. If given the opportunity, I’d ask him a simple question: “How different do you think the world would be if every Catholic young person aspired to serve a two-year mission like Mormon young people do?”

It’s not just the time young adults spend serving a mission and the lives they impact that makes a difference. It’s also the years of spiritual, financial, and psychological preparation supported by friends, family and congregations that make a difference. This all adds to the spiritual and temporal strength of the LDS Church itself.

It’s not that Catholics don’t have mission programs. They do – FOCUS Missionaries (Fellowship of Catholic University Students), the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, and Maryknoll Mission Volunteers to name a few. The difference is that serving a mission tends to be the exception for Catholics rather than the rule.

Of course, there are aspects of the Mormon approach to spiritual and temporal affairs that make it more possible for them than for Catholics to field a global lay missionary force.

First, Mormons don’t have professional clergy. Their operations depend on volunteer lay leadership at the local level. LDS local pastors (what they call bishops) devote scores of hours each week to attending to the needs of their congregation, or “ward.” And at the stake level, what the Catholics might call a diocese, the leadership is also voluntary.

Second, they have special callings for people to take a break from their careers, often mid-career, and travel to different parts of the world at subsistence pay to head up the work. These mission presidents answer a call that requires them to put their professional lives on hold for three years in order to supervise hundreds of young Mormons getting their feet wet as missionaries. Catholics don’t have a parallel.

And third, active Mormons by-and-large tithe. They give 10% of their incomes as offerings to the LDS Church, which helps make the global missionary endeavor possible.

It’s not that Catholics couldn’t rise to the challenge – they do in countless ways – but such an endeavor would require a paradigm shift in how they approach missionary work.

Nevertheless, one potential advantage Catholics have is that their missionary endeavor is not centralized – not all mission callings need to go through the Vatican. That might seem like a disadvantage to many Mormons, but the closer an initiative is to the local beneficiary, the more likely people are to wholeheartedly support it. Just think of the tremendous benefit of Evangelical Christian missions such as the Gospel Rescue Missions. Their billion-dollar impact stems from the legion of volunteers that help in each city without any central coordination.

These days I’m not working as a missionary. Or, to be more precise, my mission is to promote freedom of religion and belief for all. In that task I’m happy to say there is more direct similarity between Catholics and Mormons.

The Mormon Prophet Joseph Smith said that anyone who “would trample upon the rights of the Latter-day Saints would trample upon the rights of the Roman Catholics.” In that sense, Joseph Smith was prophetic. We’re all in this together. In the 1960s the Vatican declaration on religious freedom – DIGNITATIS HUMANAE – acknowledged that it is the agency and response of each individual to promote salvation in Christ rather than rely on the government to defend what it deems to be “orthodox” beliefs.

Today, I’m heading the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation, which helps businesses, governments, and civil society see the pragmatic benefits of religious freedom. It’s another area where Catholics and Mormons have a lot in common. But that’s an essay for a different day.

Brian Grim is a member of the Roman Catholic Church. As president of the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation, he interacts with people of many different faiths around the world.

Editor’s note: This essay is part of an ongoing series on Holy Envy. People of various religions explain what they admire in other faiths. The purpose is to increase understanding and solidarity between believers.

Holy Envy: A Muslim Woman Celebrates Her Catholic Heritage

Holy Envy: A Muslim Woman Celebrates Her Catholic Heritage

Amira Alsareinye

Since birth I was exposed to two different, beautiful worlds — Catholicism and Islam. Likewise, my parents gave me two wonderfully distant cultures — Mexican and Syrian. To add to this curiosity, my parents met in Texas and raised me right there in the heart of the Bible belt. So, to say that I’m unique is an understatement. But I love my heritages in all their cultural and geographical variety.

My experience with two contrasting religions has enriched my spiritual life. Growing up I would mimic my Muslim father in his daily prayers, and my mother would come to my room at night and ask me to recite the “Our Father.” When we visited my grandmother at Christmas time, her house smelled of tamales and spices and her tree was covered in ornaments and candy canes. Oh, how I wished I could have a tree, or at least help decorate it. We didn’t celebrate Christmas at home, much less have a tree, so when we visited my Abuela it felt special.

The decorations, the family, the food, and of course the presents, all celebrated the Spirit of God, or as Muslims say Rooh-Allah. In more traditional Catholic circles, Christmas celebration lasts forty days and ends at the Feast of the Purification of Mary in February.

Muslims celebrate Eid at the end of Ramadan when gifts are exchanged with family, similar to Christmas. But the sharing was incomplete because my father’s side of the family lived far away in Syria, a place I wouldn’t see until I turned ten. I always felt so isolated from the other children. My family was different, my holidays were different, my culture was different, and my fellow Texans thought I was so odd. But surrounded by family who loved me, Christmas at Abuela’s made me feel accepted, even if they didn’t understand why I couldn’t eat the tamales (though they were pork-free).

Though I often felt conflicted by these two religions, I eventually decided Islam was the right path for me. How ironic, then, that years later I ended up at a Catholic university. Who would have thought the Muslim girl who wears hijab and prays five times a day would be hanging around the school chapel almost every day? Not me, that’s for sure. In my sophomore year at The University of the Incarnate Word (UIW), I discovered an interfaith student organization and was able to learn more about the Catholic faith, as well as many other faiths. I began inviting friends to the group and attending events with excitement.

At that time, the leader was nearing graduation and the organization asked me to take her place. I felt overwhelmed at first, but after careful consideration accepted. Not only did I become president of the organization, but I also began working as the interfaith intern in campus ministry. I went from a shy, quiet person to laughing and joking every day. My colleagues were like an extended family to me, so even if I wasn’t on the clock organizing events, I loved to just stick around.

When I wasn’t in the offices I helped the sacristan in the Chapel. He often cared for the place alone so I would go in and ask if he needed assistance. I helped raise the banners behind the altar, water the plants, and set up the area near the door of the chapel. When Advent season came, that little girl wishing to decorate at her Abuela’s suddenly emerged within me. So I rummaged through the closet and found pink and purple candles to put on the wreath.

I asked many questions about Catholicism and always learned something new. Decorating was one thing, but feeling comfortable enough to converse with an officer of the church gave me gratitude. And though I can’t speak for all Muslims, this experience made me wish Muslim clerics were as open. There are many Sheikhs willing to answer my questions, but the dignity of their position seems to require a certain reserve.

The opportunities I had to decorate this Catholic chapel prompt me to ponder the relationship between creativity and faith. God is the ultimate Creator. So when we, as His creations, use our resources to create something artistic, we move closer to Him. As Muslims we say that nothing resembles God — Laysa Kamithlihi Shay — but we strive to keep righteous actions to near ourselves to His presence. Surrounded by divine inspiration to create, we in turn can inspire others.

Mosques, brocaded with geometric shapes and beautiful calligraphy, are examples of this artistic inspiration. But I sometimes secretly wish that Islamic holidays came with the same kind of decoration and festivity as Christmas. This is okay because learning about the religious practices of others only helps me grow in my own faith.

I am proud to be a Muslim woman, but the Catholic heritage I received from my mother and grandmother continue to broaden my appreciation for humankind. Having lived between two worlds, I still feel the personal pull of both Islam and Catholicism and wish others could experience the beauty that I have.

Amira Alsareinye holds a Bachelor of Arts in biology from The University of the Incarnate Word (UIW). While attending UIW, she worked as the Interfaith Student Ministry Intern for Campus Ministry. She is currently busy caring for her two children. Her passions include art, science, and writing.

Editor’s note: This essay is part of an ongoing series on Holy Envy. People of various religions explain what they admire in other faiths. The purpose is to increase understanding and solidarity between believers.