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“Being With” vs. “Being Sent”: Missionary Discipleship in the Writing of Pope Benedict XVI

Authored by Brad Bursa in Issue #3.2 of Catechetical Review

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Ascension of Christ by Pietro PeruginoAre not the words “missionary” and “disciple,” in reality, opposites? It seems, on the one hand, that “disciple” implies remaining with, being with: passivity, contemplation, learning, etc. On the other hand, “mission” seems to imply just the opposite, a being sent, going out, going forth: activity, work, doing, etc. Pope Benedict XVI also comments on this apparent contradiction, saying, “Being with Jesus and being sent by him seem at first sight mutually exclusive...”[1] Can these words legitimately stand together? If so, how?

This article, though unable to provide a comprehensive study, will survey the main lines of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger to Pope Benedict XVI’s teaching on discipleship in order to further draw out the contours of missionary discipleship, the reality highlighted by Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium (nos. 119-121). This brief study will first trace the basic elements of Benedict’s understanding of discipleship, before exploring the connection between discipleship and spiritual christology made possible in Jesus’ filial communication (i.e. prayer), and the implications of what Ratzinger calls “pro-existence” on discipleship.[2]

Who is the Disciple?

Benedict XVI dedicates an entire chapter to “The Disciples,” in Jesus of Nazareth. The chapter is essentially an extended reflection on Mark 3:13-19 (cf. Lk 6:12-16), the calling of the apostles. Mark introduces this account by noting that Jesus “went up the mountain.” Elsewhere, before significant moments in his ministry, Jesus departs to gardens or mountains to pray. We also know that the covenants given in the Old Testament are nearly all associated with a prophet and a mountain. Mountains signify a place of intimacy between man and God, and here in Mark 3, Jesus stands as the communion between God and man, abiding in prayer. Therefore, Benedict XVI concludes:

The calling of the disciples is a prayer event; it is as if they were begotten in prayer, in intimacy with the Father. The calling of the Twelve, far from being purely functional, takes on a deeply theological meaning: Their calling emerges from the Son’s dialogue with the Father and is anchored there....You cannot make yourself a disciple - it is an event of election, a free decision of the Lord’s will, which in its turn is anchored in his communion of will with the Father.[3]        

The first point to note about discipleship, therefore, is that we do not make ourselves disciples on our own power. The initiative, so to speak, is on the side of God. Discipleship is borne from the prayer of the Son—his dialogue with the Father.

By way of a second point, Benedict XVI notes that the Twelve are tasked with a dual responsibility: being with him and being sent by him to preach with authority (cf. Mk 3:13-15). Here, we again confront our question, but in different terms. The pope says:

Jesus appoints the Twelve with a double assignment: “to be with him, and to be sent out to preach.” They must be with him in order to get to know him; in order to attain that intimate acquaintance with him that could not be given to the “people” ­– who saw him only from the outside and took him for a prophet, a great figure in the history of religions, but were unable to perceive his uniqueness (cf. Mt 16:13-ff). The Twelve must be with him so as to be able to recognize his oneness with the Father and thus become witnesses to his mystery...One might say that they have to pass from outward to inward communion with Jesus.[4]

The “being with” is distinctly described here in terms of an intimate knowledge that sees in Jesus what the “people” could never see. Being with Jesus means coming to know Jesus, as if from the inside. In this sense, it is proper to identify the disciple as the witness. Benedict describes the disciples as those who become witnesses to his mystery, namely his oneness with the Father. Discipleship requires witnessing, and for one to be a witness, he must have first-hand experience or direct knowledge of the event. In this case, we are talking about a first-hand experience or knowledge of the Christian event—Jesus Christ. In being with Jesus they see Jesus, and in seeing Jesus, they see God (cf. Jn 14:9). The disciple, then, is one who is called by God through Jesus Christ, to intimately know God through Jesus Christ.

The Son at Prayer

How does the witness actually come to see, or to know, intimately, this Jesus? Benedict answers this question by noting that the disciple, the one who sees Jesus from the inside and not the outside, sees him at prayer. Gospel passages that speak of Jesus’ withdrawing to pray, “give us a glimpse into Jesus’ filial existence, into the source from which his action and teaching and suffering sprang. This ‘praying’ of Jesus is the Son conversing with the Father.”[5] However, there is more. The one called by Jesus, the disciple, not only witnesses Jesus pray, as if from a distance (e.g. the agony in the garden), but is actually invited to enter into Jesus’ prayer. In fact, Cardinal Ratzinger explained that this is the way one comes to know the Son most intimately: from the inside. He says, “Only by entering into Jesus’ solitude, only by participating in what is most personal to him, his communication with the Father, can one see what this most personal reality is; only thus can one penetrate to his identity [see his face]. This is the only way to understand him and to grasp what ‘following Jesus’ means.”[6] He clarifies this further, saying, “Since the center of the person of Jesus is prayer, it is essential to participate in his prayer if we are to know and understand him.”[7] The “being with” or “witnessing” that is inherent in discipleship is, in essence, nothing short of an entry through, with, and in the Son and his self-communication with the Father. Here, the disciple learns who God is and what love is. In Jesus’ prayer, “Jesus’ human consciousness and will, his human soul, is taken up into that exchange [of love], and in this way human ‘praying’ is able to become a participation in this filial communion with the Father.”[8] Discipleship, in this sense, has its origin in the Son’s prayer, and is, so to speak, a participation in the Son’s prayer.

The Identity of the Son and the Eucharist

In a rather simple and beautiful way, Ratzinger often characterizes the Son via two prepositions: “from” and “for.” For example:

To John [the evangelist], “Son” means being from another; thus, with this word he defines the being of this man as being from another and for others, as a being that is completely open on both sides, knows no reserved area of the mere “I.” When it thus becomes clear that the being of Jesus as Christ is a completely open being, a being “from” and “toward,” which nowhere clings to itself and nowhere stands on its own...This fundamental statement about Christ becomes, as we have seen, at the same time the explanation of Christian existence. To John, being a Christian means being like the Son, becoming a son; that is, not standing on one’s own and in oneself, but living completely open in the “from” and “toward.” Insofar as the Christian is a “Christian,” this is true of him. And certainly such utterances will make him realize to how small an extent he is a Christian.[9]

According to Ratzinger, John “puts his whole Christology into the context of the idea of relation.”[10] The Son is pure relation. The Son is entirely from the Father and for the Father, and in the incarnate Word, the Son is revealed as entirely “for the many”—for humanity. In theological terms, this “being for,” or “existence for,” is known as “pro-existence,” which highlights the gift-nature of the Son. Therefore, Jesus-at-prayer reveals his Sonship as “being from” and as “being for,” with the climax of his prayer revealed in Jesus’ “hour,” the whole Paschal Mystery from the institution of the Eucharist to the ascension. That the Eucharist reveals this highest point of Jesus’ prayer, and at the same time is the highest expression of his Sonship (i.e. his “being from” and “being for”), becomes evident in his words at the last supper, the words of consecration: “for this is my body, which will be given up for you...for this is the chalice of my blood...which will be poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.”

The Eucharistic core of pro-existence now becomes clear. In the Eucharist, the Christian enters into and participates in Jesus’ prayer, by being drawn into the Event itself. This explains why Ratzinger can say, “To John, being a Christian means being like the Son, becoming a son; that is, not standing on one’s own and in oneself, but living completely open in the ‘from’ and ‘toward.’”[11] This is precisely how discipleship is missionary, because the disciple (the witness of and participant in Jesus’ prayer) with Jesus is “for the many.” Now the deeper dimensions of “witness,” in the Christian sense of the word, become apparent. Not only does the Christian witness see Jesus as he really is but also enters into the Son’s prayer; and through this participation, the witness gives testimony to this mystery through his person, his speech, and his suffering with Christ “for the many.” This fact allows Pope Benedict to address the apparent contradiction between “missionary” and “disciple” by saying, “Being with him includes the missionary dynamic by its very nature, since Jesus’ whole being is mission.”[12] The disciple is at once with Jesus, and in so being, is on mission “for the many” (i.e. the personal gift-nature of evangelization). Both “being with” and “being sent” properly characterizes Christian discipleship.


This brief study, highlighting the theological principle of “pro-existence,” not only engages the question of opposites but also draws out the Eucharistic core of missionary discipleship. The disciple is the witness who is borne from Jesus’ prayer and who participates in it. Jesus’ prayer reveals his Sonship as “being from” and “being for”—his very person is mission. Participating in Jesus’ prayer, then, means entry into his Sonship, his mission. Hence, Christian discipleship is mission.

These basic conclusions can provide direction for programs dedicated to forming intentional and missionary disciples. In a culture marked by consumerism and a process-driven, production-oriented mindset, programs of formation can easily adopt similar patterns. The Church ought to guard herself from launching programs that simply feed Catholic consumers with on-demand content, without inviting and accompanying the disciple into mission. Ratzinger’s emphasis on pro-existence should challenge formators to emphasize “for” as much as “with”— “missionary” as much as “disciple.”[13] Additionally, it must be noted that, for Ratzinger, the Eucharist is the core, the locus of missionary discipleship. As its source and summit, the Eucharist, and deeper entry into its celebration and mystery, must be central to any program of formation.[14] This emphasis will guard against the temptation to “mass-produce” missionary disciples for the sake of “saving the Church” or over-strategizing to reverse negative statistical trends. Perhaps, here, Ratzinger’s own words can draw this article to a fitting conclusion:

We might rather understand the Eucharist as being (if the term is correctly understood) the mystical heart of Christianity, in which God mysteriously comes forth, time and again, from within himself and draws us into his embrace... In order for mission to be more than propaganda for certain ideas or trying to win people over for a given community – in order for it to come from God and to lead to God, it must spring from a more profound source than that which gives rise to resource planning and the operational strategies that are shaped in that way. It must spring from a source both deeper and higher than advertising and persuasion. Is not the exhaustion of the missionary impulse in the last thirty years the result of our thinking only of external activities while having almost forgotten that all this activity must constantly be nourished from a deeper center? This the Eucharist.[15]

Brad Bursa is the Director of the Office for Youth Evangelization and Discipleship for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati.


[1] Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2007), 172.

[2] “Pro-existence” is a central theological principle to Ratzinger’s Christology, though it has been little developed in the scholarly circles. The term refers to one whose entire being is given for the many, whose existence is gift. For an overview, see Christopher Ruddy, “‘For the Many’: The Vicarious-Representative Heart of Joseph Ratzinger’s Theology,” Theological Studies 75, no. 3 (2014): 564-584.

[3] Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, 170.

[4] Ibid., 172.

[5] Ibid., 7.

[6] Joseph Ratzinger, “Taking Bearings in Christology,” Behold the Pierced One (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1986), 19.

[7] Ibid., 25.

[8] Jesus of Nazareth, 7.

[9] Joseph Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2004), 186-87.

[10] Ibid., 185.

[11] Ibid., 187.

[12] Jesus of Nazareth, 172.

[13] See Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et Spes, arts. 22 and 24.

[14] See Benedict XVI, Sacramentum Caritatis, art. 64.

[15] Joseph Ratzinger, “Eucharist and Mission,” Pilgrim Fellowship of Faith (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2005), 121-22.


Art Credit: "Ascension of Christ" by Pietro Perugino, public domain image at

This article first appeared on pages 6-8 of the printed edition of this April-June 2017 issue.




This article is from The Catechetical Review (Online Edition ISSN 2379-6324) and may be copied for catechetical purposes only. It may not be reprinted in another published work without the permission of The Catechetical Review by contacting [email protected]

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