“The death of Christendom.” In his recent pastoral letter, Sharing the Gift, Bishop William Wack, Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee, uses this statement to make the point that Christian values are no longer the cultural norm. Gaudiem et Spes and Lumen Gentium are the Church documents that describe how we engage the world around us and remind us that our purpose as Church is to glorify God and announce the Good News. Bishop Wack notes the acrimony and division in our families and in the Church, and emphasizes the need to evangelize in order to move forward.
What is Christendom anyway and why has it become such a focus? Christendom is the term used to describe a societal norm, where Christian ideals, beliefs and morals are generally accepted and guide our behavior. The United States and western Europe have existed as Christendom society for centuries. As Monsignor James Shea describes in From Christendom to Apostolic Mission: “Christendom comes about due to the success of the Church’s missionary activity in winning converts and in vivifying the wider culture.” He goes on to say that a Christendom society fosters great cultural achievements.
Shea also says that in Christendom culture the primary need is maintenance. This is all very good until we become too comfortable in the culture and lukewarm in our Faith. We start to equate Church with the culture and take Church institutions for granted. As a result, we lose our sense of why the Church is important. We no longer see mission as imperative. Sound familiar?
This is not new news. In1974 Archbishop Fulton Sheen said, “We are at the end of Christendom.” This message has been stated in various ways from Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis. Covid has amplified it and made it visible to each of us. We can see that for a number of us, faith and Mass attendance was a habit with little underlying fire. Our lukewarm faith that was carried along by our culture has been doused by the torrent of the pandemic.
So what is needed now? In Contextual Intelligence, by Leonard Sweet and Michael Adam Beck, the authors explore why some churches are prospering missionally. Their premise is that each of our parishes exists “in context” with the realities of our location, demographics, and history. To thrive the organization must be relevant to the context of people and place. “To contextualize the gospel is to bring the content of the gospel and the character of Christ into the conversation with the homegrown cultures of humankind in the past, present and future.” This is not suggesting we change the Church to the current cultural norm, but rather emphasizing that we know our community. It is evangelization.
Monsignor Shea offers pastoral strategies for an Apostolic Age: “because the Church is not the major influence in the society’s overarching vision, the need is not mainly for maintenance, though this comes into play; it is rather for apostolic witness and the building of a distinctly Christian cultural vision and way of life.” We have moved to a time where our Church must revive our “missionary impulse.”
Shea also provides a warning that because the Church is different from and likely at odds with the broader culture, there is a tendency to become too rigorous and moralistic, and even to “abandon the task of engaging and confronting the wider culture with the Gospel.”
Fr. James Mallon explains that we must proclaim the whole truth and the richness of life in Christ, but at the same time realize the listener does not think as the Christendom Church does. The missionary impulse changes our vocabulary, language and how we communicate the Gospel while maintaining the “unchanging dimension of our Tradition.” He explains it this way: “if we want to live as missionaries and engage the people we meet where they are, we will have to commit to and persevere in this translation, even if isolationists believe, incorrectly, that this will introduce impurities into the faith.”
Pope Paul the VI wrote: “Evangelization loses much of its force and effectiveness if it does not take into consideration the actual people to whom it is addressed, if it does not use their language, their signs and symbols, if it does not answer the questions they ask, and if it does not have an impact on their concrete life. But on the other hand, evangelization risks losing its power and disappearing altogether if one empties or adulterates its content under the pretext of translating it.”
What next? Bishop Wack says we must focus on awakening faith in people’s hearts. We can do it by continuing to learn about our faith, living a good example, sharing the gospel message, and inviting the Holy Spirit to work through us. The way forward then is a return to our core mission as Church. Go and make disciples (Mt 28). Father Mallon says “if we want to bear fruit, we must become a Church that is willing to change its model in order to dwell fruitfully with those to whom we have been sent.”
Will your parish move past the maintenance of a lost culture, and past the expectation that people will come to you because you are the parish? It’s time to embrace an apostolic mission where you are aware of the context of your parish, parishioners and surrounding community. Pay attention to your particular environment including your ministries, your hospitality, and your Mass celebration including music. Make the environment and parish a place that your parishioners are so inspired by that they want to invite people to be part of it. Encourage personal and intentional prayer, and give parishioners confidence to share their faith with others.
This apostolic time means change, which is difficult. We will likely resist the change. Yet this is an exciting time when our faith can come alive! Jesus’ message to his disciples is also meant for us today: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Jn 20:21
Terry Poplava is a multi-disciplined executive with extensive sales, product marketing, strategy and leadership experience in supporting faith organizations. Terry’s professional experience includes organizational leadership, corporate development and growth, consulting with and training church leaders, and leading strategic and priority planning for churches and dioceses. He currently serves on the advisory board for the National Shrine of Our Lady of La Leche in St. Augustine FL, as cantor at St. Andrew parish in Myrtle Beach, SC. and recently as Chairman of the Finance Council at St. Mary the Virgin Mother parish in Hartsville, SC.