Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time - February 7, 2021
My friends in Christ, I am going to tell a story of the sorrow of a modern-day grandmother, and it is not a particular person whom I have in mind in telling this story, but I have heard this same story many times, from many different people – mostly grandmothers; but grandfathers, too; as well as mothers and fathers with children still living at home…. The story of the sorrow of the modern-day grandmother begins like this – usually in confession, but not always: “Father…I do not know what happened…. I mean, I raised my kids Catholic. We went to Mass, as a family, every Sunday; we sent them to Catholic school; we prayed the Rosary together every day; we ate dinner together every night. But now…they do not go to church at all – none of them. And I am not even sure if they even believe in God anymore…. And my grandchildren – they are not even baptized…. And they do not even know Who Jesus is…. I do not know what happened.” And then, at this point, usually mingled with uncontrollable sobbing…the inevitable question: “What did I do wrong?”
And you know what…Job wonders this, too. Today, we are given a Scripture text from the Book of Job. And the vast majority of the Book of Job basically is this: Job keeps asking, again and again: “What did I do wrong?” Job is a man of constant sorrow. And one of his sorrows (which, I think, is clearly the worst) is this: all of his kids have died…. And for the modern-day grandmother, her kids are still alive, sure enough…but with regard to the faith, there is a certain death there…and, therefore, a constant sorrow. Like Job, the man of constant sorrow.
For Job…for the modern-day grandmother…it sure does seem like everything had been going just so well, and they themselves had been doing everything just perfectly right – and yet…it just ended up so horribly wrong. And so the inevitable question, in tears and sobbing and hopelessness: “What did I do wrong?”
Last Sunday, we concluded our reflections where I said we would pick it up again today, and that cliffhanger was comprised of a statement of four convictions…the last of which, we remember, was an observation of history that there have been times and places of a Christendom context, as well as times and places of an Apostolic Mission context. Today, we shall attempt to define those terms in greater clarity and detail, outlining the strengths and challenges proper to each context. Then I will endeavor to connect that definition of terms with the sorrow of the modern-day grandmother, and that connection hopefully will bolster my argument that we are no longer in a Christendom culture but are swiftly moving toward an Apostolic Mission culture.
By “Christendom,” what I mean is this: Christianity settled and established. By “Apostolic Mission,” what I mean is this: Christianity on the march.
A Christendom culture would look something like this: a particular human culture has been guided toward, and at last delivered unto, a greater, rather than a lesser, alignment with the Beauty and the Goodness and the Truth of God. It can only ever be fitting that the Lord of Heaven and Earth would be acknowledged as such, that signs of the Lord’s presence as well as demonstrations of His sovereign rule necessarily be formative for human life and flourishing. And any human culture that is divorced from God cannot possibly attain to the highest measure of life and flourishing – it simply cannot! Therefore, to the extent that a particular culture is established on Christian truth and ideals and the members of that particular culture have embraced that truth, those ideals…and also to the extent that their vision of the cosmos (their worldview, in other words) is in concert with the way that God sees everything…then that culture and the members of that culture will have overcome ignorance and will have aligned themselves to reality – and again, the uttermost reality of Beauty, and Goodness, and Truth.
And then, the primary need for that Christendom culture would be maintenance. And these times have seen the Church “baptizing,” as it were, many societal institutions, founding others, and all the while endeavoring to maintain (and perhaps, God-willing, even deepen) her overall influence in the goings-on of the wider culture. Now, certainly that task has never been easy – even maintenance is difficult, let alone the creation, the construction, and the foundation of something new; after all, we are talking about the Church here…and Christianity is not natural to a fallen, broken world. But all in all, a Christendom culture makes many things about the Christian life much easier in the context of the wider culture: for example, we may be sure reasonably that television, movies, and so forth will not show anything overtly harmful to our children (or for ourselves even, given our constant need for vigilance with regard to near occasions of sin); also, we can be fairly certain what our teachers are teaching and what our school curriculum contains, that there will be nothing there that would undermine our Christian values taught and reinforced at home. In a bygone era, it once upon a time was totally acceptable that a private Catholic church, a private Catholic school, would have a statue of Saint Junipero Serra, for example, and we could reasonably expect that manic mobs and draconian city councils would not demand the removal and demolition of said statue.
Now, those are examples of just some of the strengths of a Christendom culture. But there are challenges, too. Yes, the Church experiences peace in such a culture…but that peace, when the High Call of Jesus Christ to be His active and intentional disciples constantly fades away…that peace easily becomes complacency. A complacent Christendom culture makes it very hard to distinguish who is truly a disciple of Jesus Christ…and who is just going along to get along; and many folks in a culture such as this become lukewarm in the pursuit of Christian faith, reducing themselves more or less simply to going along for the ride. Christian devotion becomes conventional, losing its radical character and thus its dynamic attraction for others – professing a Christian faith is the norm; actually living the Christian faith as a genuine disciple becomes the exception. The Church overall, in such a culture, is tempted to lose its character and core of authentic spirit and other-worldliness, and thus, she becomes too much of this world. Her institutions – yes, strong and well-founded – tend to be taken for granted and soon lose their original Christian spirit. And as for bishops and priests: the clergy tend to become conflict-avoiding administrators rather than bold and intrepid apostles; and the Christ-mandated imperative for mission sadly just…fades away.
An Apostolic Mission culture basically is the exact opposite: the primary need here certainly is not maintenance; it is apostolic witness and the foundation of a distinctly Christian cultural vision and overall way of life. But that means inevitable conflict and confrontation with the wider culture, such that there is a very serious price to pay simply in being Christian. There is no more going along for the ride, for the ride is a long and bumpy one, fraught with peril at every turn. And it is not easy now – probably no longer even possible – simply to go along to get along because if one is lukewarm in his or her faith, and one is forced to choose between either renouncing the Christian faith or risk being doxed, and cancelled, and all the rest…well then, the lukewarm inevitably (always) will choose the former. And it all will be explained away with that classic, weak-sauce justification, “Well, I am sure that God understands. Because as Pope Francis said: ‘Who am I to judge?’” These are a few other examples of the many challenges of an Apostolic Mission culture: benefits of being Christian are not obviously apparent; it is very hard for Christians to sustain a spiritual and moral worldview without pressure and harassment from the wider culture; the wider culture tempts Christians to be lured away from their faith in the false spirit of “playing nice” with the non-Christian powers-that-be; there are many enticing lures of a hedonistic sort in the non-Christian worldview; and for all of this, it is just way more difficult to raise children in the Catholic Christian faith.
So…when that modern-day grandmother of constant sorrow comes up to me and asks me, in tears and sobbing, “What did I do wrong,” the honest and true answer is this: “nothing.” Then, she will ask me: “Then what happened?” Well, what happened is this: the cultural context shifted, and we did not shift with it. We are caught off-guard and totally unawares. Or, as that gloomy 90s band Weezer sang about back in the day: “The world has turned and left me here.” And if we did anything wrong, it is simply that we allowed ourselves perhaps to become complacent; we took it all for granted…and I guess it could be said that we should have known better…. Well…now we do! And now, here is the argument: we are not a Christendom culture anymore. Far from it! And what is my strongest proof to confirm that bold and outrageous claim? Why, have we not paid any attention today? It is the modern-day grandmother of constant sorrow, of course! And anyone who doubts her as the best proof there is for this claim – well…you can go ahead and take a turn hearing confessions Friday evenings and Saturday afternoons, and then you will know! So, I say it again that we are not a Christendom culture anymore. Rather, we are quickly moving full-steam toward an all-out Apostolic Mission culture. And I have plenty of obvious proofs for that claim. For starters: the entire year of 2020 comes to mind! We have a certain Australian cardinal who was forced to spend over four hundred days in solitary confinement for a make-believe, fake-news crime that any casual observer would immediately recognize as false, that said crime never actually happened. (And thanks be to God, truth prevailed, and he is free now!) Meanwhile, we have a certain American cardinal who apparently feels that it is more important for the pope to worry about plastic straws floating in the ocean than to figure out how in the world a child-abusing former cardinal rose so darn high in the ranks of the Catholic hierarchy.
The Church and her Christian faith is being assaulted from without…and from within! And that is my proof for the claim that we are quickly shifting toward an Apostolic Mission culture. Now then…what are we to do about it? Well…that is what we shall endeavor to address in our reflections next time. So stayed tuned! (Cliffhangers! They are just the best! Ha!) For now, we must always – always! – remember that remaining close to Christ is our one and only sure and certain hope to endure any suffering, to weather any storm, to persevere through every trial, come what may. And we are close to Christ – and Christ is close to us – most especially in the Eucharist, Whom we beg God’s mercy to come forward and receive humbly, worthily, and well.
on Monday, February 8 at 9:27AM