Missionary work is a cooperation with the Holy Spirit to bring people to Christ; it does not benefit from overcomplicated programs or fancy advertising campaigns, Pope Francis said Thursday.

In a message to the Pontifical Mission Societies May 21, the pope said “it has always been the case that the proclamation of Jesus’ salvation reaches people right where they are and just how they are in the midst of their lives in progress.”

“Especially given the times in which we live,” he noted, “this has nothing to do with designing ‘specialized’ training programs, creating parallel worlds, or constructing ‘slogans’ that merely echo our own thoughts and concerns.”

He urged the Pontifical Mission Societies, a worldwide group of Catholic missionary societies under the jurisdiction of the pope, “to facilitate, not complicate” their missionary work.

“One must provide answers to real questions and not just formulate and multiply proposals,” he advised. “Perhaps concrete contact with real-life situations, and not just discussions in boardrooms or theoretical analyses of our own internal dynamics, will generate useful insights for changing and improving operating procedures…”

He also pointed out that “the Church is not a customs office.”

“Anyone who participates in the mission of the Church is called not to impose unnecessary burdens on people already worn out or to require demanding programs of formation in order to enjoy what the Lord gives easily, or to erect obstacles to the will of Jesus, who prays for each of us and wants to heal and save everyone,” he said.

Francis said that during the coronavirus pandemic “there is a great desire to encounter and remain close to the heart of the Church’s life. So seek new paths, new forms of service, but try not to complicate what in reality is quite simple.”

The Pontifical Mission Societies help to support more than 1,000 dioceses, mainly in Asia, Africa, Oceania, and the Amazon.

In his nine-page message to the group, Pope Francis gave several recommendations and warned of pitfalls to avoid in their missionary service, especially the temptation to become self-absorbed.

Despite the good intentions of individuals, sometimes Church organizations end up devoting much of their time and energy to promoting themselves and their own initiatives, he said. It becomes an obsession “to continually redefine their own importance and their own bailiwicks within the Church, under the guise of relaunching their specific mission.”

Referencing Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s speech at the ninth Rimini Meeting in 1990, Pope Francis said this “can foster the misleading idea that a person is somehow more Christian if he or she is occupied with intra-ecclesial structures, whereas in reality nearly all the baptized are daily living lives of faith, hope, and charity, without ever participating in Church committees or concerned for the latest news about ecclesiastical politics.”

“Do not waste time and resources, then, in looking at yourself in a mirror... break every mirror in the house!” he appealed.

He also advised them to keep prayer to the Holy Spirit at the center of their mission, so that prayer “may not be reduced to a mere formality in our meetings and homilies.”

“It is not helpful to theorize about super-strategies or mission ‘core guidelines’ as a means of reviving missionary spirit or giving missionary patents to others,” he said. “If, in some cases, missionary fervor is fading, it is a sign that faith itself is fading.”

In such cases, he continued, “strategies and speeches” will not be effective.

“Asking the Lord to open hearts to the Gospel and asking everyone to tangibly support missionary work: these are simple and practical things that everyone can readily do…”

The pope also emphasized the importance of taking care of the poor. There is no excuse, he said: “For the Church, a preference for the poor is not optional.”

On the topic of donations, Francis told the societies not to put their trust in bigger and better fundraising systems. If they are dismayed by a diminishing collection plate, they should place that pain in the hands of the Lord.

The missions should avoid becoming like NGOs, with their focus on funding, he said. They should look to all baptized people for offerings, recognizing Jesus’ consolation at even “the widow’s mite.”

Francis argued that the funds they do receive should be used to advance the Church’s mission and to support essential and objective needs of communities, “without squandering resources in initiatives marked by abstraction, self-absorption or generated by clerical narcissism.”

“Do not yield to inferiority complexes or the temptation to imitate those super-functional organizations that collect funds for good causes and then use a good percentage of them to finance their own bureaucracy and to publicize their brand name,” he advised.

“A missionary heart recognizes the real condition of real people, with their own limits, sins and frailties in order to become ‘weak among the weak,’” the pope encouraged.

“Sometimes this means slowing our pace in order to lead a person who is still by the wayside. At times this means imitating the father in the parable of the prodigal son, who leaves the doors open and looks out each day awaiting the return of his son.”