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From Christendom times to apostolic times

The Catholic Church of the 21st century is being called from maintenance to mission.

"St. Paul Preaching at Athens" (1515) by Raphael [WikiArt.org]

Thirty years ago, on January 22, 1991, Pope John Paul II’s eighth encyclical, Redemptoris Missio (The Mission of the Redeemer), was published. In a pontificate so rich in ideas that its teaching has only begun to be digested, Redemptoris Missio stands out as a blueprint for the Catholic future. The vibrant parts of the world Church are living the vision of missionary discipleship to which the encyclical calls us. The dying parts of the world Church have yet to get the message, or, misunderstanding it, have rejected it – which is why they’re dying.

Redemptoris Missio posed a forthright and formidable challenge to comfortable Catholics: look around you and recognize that ours are apostolic times, not Christendom times. Christendom, as Fulton Sheen said in 1974, is over.

“Christendom” connotes a situation in which society’s cultural codes and the manner of life they endorse help transmit “the faith once delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3). Places like that existed within living memory; I grew up in the last, fleeting moments of one, in the urban Catholic culture of 1950s Baltimore. That form of “Christendom” is now long gone. Throughout the western world today, the cultural air we breathe neither transmits the faith nor is neutral about the faith; the culture air is hostile to the faith.

And when that hostility captures the commanding heights of politics, it aggressively seeks to marginalize the faith. (That, for example, is what happens when governments seek to impose LGBTQ and gender ideology on society by penalizing those who, for reasons of conviction, will not kowtow to the harmful notion of humanity’s infinite plasticity – the biblical and Christian idea of the human person is criminalized. Those who imagine “it can’t happen here” should read the Executive Order on “gender identity” signed by President Biden a few hours after his inauguration.)

“Apostolic times” call us to relive the experience of the early Church, vividly described in the Acts of the Apostles. There we find the friends of the Risen Lord Jesus aflame with a passion for mission. The “good news” that Jesus proclaimed before his death had been confirmed beyond question by his resurrection from the dead and his appearances to his friends in his transformed, glorified humanity. This was not good news for a select few; this was good news that demanded to be shared with everyone.

So a ragtag bunch of nobodies from the margins of what imagined itself to be the civilized world set out to convert that world to faith in Jesus Christ as Lord. They faced ridicule; some thought them drunks, “filled with new wine” (Acts 2:13). Others dismissed them as babblers, as St. Paul discovered on the Areopagus of Athens (in Acts 17:18). Still others thought them crazy, as when the Roman governor Festus exclaimed to Paul, “your great learning is turning you mad” (Acts 26:24). But they persevered. They manifested a nobler, more compassionate way of life. Some died as martyrs. And by 300 A.D. they had converted to Christ a considerable part of the Roman imperium.

In Christendom times, a “missionary” is someone who leaves a cultural comfort zone and goes to proclaim the Gospel where it’s not been heard before. In apostolic times, Redemptoris Missio teaches, every Catholic is a missionary who has been given the mandate to “go, make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). In apostolic times, “mission territory” is not an exotic travel destination; it’s everywhere. Mission territory is the kitchen table, the neighborhood, and the workplace; the mission extends into our lives as consumers and citizens. Lay Catholics, John Paul wrote, have a particular obligation to be missionaries to culture, business, and politics, for lay witness in those venues carries special credibility.

In being a Church of missionary disciples, we are to use the method of freedom. As John Paul II wrote in Redemptoris Missio, italicizing his words for emphasis, “The Church proposes; she imposes nothing.”  But we must propose, we must invite, we must bear witness to the great gift we’ve been given – friendship with the Lord Jesus Christ and incorporation into his body, the Church. As the Lord himself said in Matthew 10:8, because we have freely received, freely we must give.

The Catholic Church of the 21st century is being called from maintenance to mission, which means the transformation of our institutions into launch pads for evangelization. The quality of our discipleship will be measured by how well we answer that call to share the gift with which we’ve been blessed.


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About George Weigel 353 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform. His most recent books are The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (2020), and Not Forgotten: Elegies for, and Reminiscences of, a Diverse Cast of Characters, Most of Them Admirable (Ignatius, 2021).

15 Comments

  1. Great article, as always, George. Thank you.

    Our biggest challenge today, though, is more than the need for faithful Catholics to become missionaries where they live, work, and play; it’s the need for the leadership of the Church – the priests, the bishops, the Pope – to be missionaries of Christ, true missionaries of the Truth that confronts the father of lies, the only Way to the Father that challenges the ways of this world, the only Life that stands in stark contrast to a godless life of hedonism and the rule of sin. Of course we know that Truth, that Way, that Life is Jesus Christ. Our biggest challenge is being a missionary of the Church where we live while leaders of the Church continue to speak and do things that counter the effort.

    May God have mercy on us and deliver us from all evil.

  2. On 10 February the Catholic Church in Malta celebrates the feast of St Paul’s shipwreck. If anyone wants to learn more on the conversion of the first Maltese inhabitants who became Christian by St Paul, I suggest going to the source of this conversion as found in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, Chapters 27 and 28. Briefly, the narration is the following:

    St Paul insisted to be tried in Rome for his alleged wrongdoing because he was a Roman citizen. So he was ordered to board a ship from Lycia because here there was an Alexandrian ship leaving for Italy. On the way storms arose and Paul told the centurion that the navigation would be terribly hazardous. Paul’s warning was fulfilled between Crete and Malta.

    But God’s providence was at the back of what was happening.

    Chapter 27, verse 21 reads: “Then, when they had been without food for a long time, Paul stood up among the men. ‘Friends,’ he said, ‘you should have listened to me and not put out from Crete. You would have spared yourselves all this damage and loss.

    But now I ask you not to give way to despair. There will be no loss of life at all, only of the ship.

    Last night there appeared beside me an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I serve, and he said, “Do not be afraid, Paul. You are destined to appear before Caesar, and God grants you the safety of all who are sailing with you.”

    So take courage, friends; I trust in God that things will turn out just as I was told; but we are to be stranded on some island.’”

    Then Chapter 28 starts: “Once we had come safely through, we discovered that the island was called Malta.”

    So, in God’s providence, Malta had to become Christian almost right at the start of Christianity and, to consolidate this conversion, its acceptance of the Faith is narrated in the inspired book of Acts of the Apostles. St Paul came to Malta around AD 60 and with him, among others, there was also St Luke, the author of this account.

  3. “Mission territory is the kitchen table”. A mug of favorite morning brew in hand shaved and showered early to catch the wife and kids as they rush around can be challenging. Another option is to be like those annoying, persistent Evangelicals. Neither is appealing to me, as a priest I don’t have a family at home and I refuse to mimic Evangelical invasion of privacy. Then there’s the Saint Francis adage preach but use words when required. Most of us are aware of the wisdom of the adage especially in today’s world. No one [that is most] want’s to be preached to and down to no one wants to be perceived as a religious nut job. Now we all in our own way and circumstances can be Apostolic, and indeed not should but must be in daily witness to Christ. It can be simply a prayerful life at home when warranted and outdoors among others. Kindness, deference to others goes a long way, words and conversation leading to good things, the spiritual, may flow naturally and unobtrusively. It’s certain the Holy Spirit will devise opportunities when we live a contemplative life at home, and when most difficult yet most efficacious when among others. For a contemplative life read Saint John of the Cross The Living Flame of Love.

  4. Our greatest need is for unity in our Church leadership. The constant bickering among the so called “leaders” should be put to rest by papal leadership. Instead of commenting on insignificant matter such as the hymn “All are Welcome” or the omission of the word “One” in the opening prayer our “leaders” should be united in the Apostolic teachings of Christianity and Catholicism.

  5. “The Catholic church of the 21st century is being called from a maintenance to mission.” If it has been in a maintenance mode in recent decades it has done a poor job, as the reduction in practicing Catholics would indicate.
    If we wish to return to apostolic times, it would seem that the bishops, successors to the apostles, would lead us in this endeavor. Do we see any signs of this?
    “Redemptoris Missio posed a forthright and formidable challenge to comfortable Catholics.” In practice, I don’t think so. I don’t know if Mr. Weigel knows what is going on with Catholics outside his sphere of friends and acquaintances. I would say that 99% of catholics have never heard of this encyclical, and have no idea what it said. From my experience, I would guess that 90% of parish priests have not read it. Given that St. John Vianney had such a difficult time in seminary, he probably had not read many encyclicals, but he had a great apostolic effect on his parishioners. We need more St. John Vianneys. This is not to say that we are not all called to apostolic work. But we need leaders.

  6. God needs to give his church more. The secularists and the wicked have plenty of resources. The church nothing. When I am weak, then I am strong? That’s not my experience. The wicked strong are formidably strong and the church’s weak can barely do anything.

    • It is fair to point out how many bad eggs ascended to positions of power under the papacies of the recent popes starting with St. Paul VI. Some of the people who were promoted are the very ones who have been working to undermine St. JPII’s legacy. We need to learn from our mistakes if anything is to improve.

  7. St. John Paul the Great said so many things, he presented us with treasures of knowledge but he wasn’t listened to. I’m glad that what he said is now being given the importance it deserves. I would really like to see a book with all his Angelus talks and his general audience speeches. It would be a treasury of anti-Modernism. St. John Paul the Great condemned every Modernist error that had and has popped up. We didn’t listen to him then, we must listen to him now. It would drive away “the smoke of satan that has entered the very house of God”.

  8. Dr. Chapp’s essay was closer to diagnosing the problem with the institutional Church than Weigel is. There can be no credible and sustainable missionary activity until Roman Catholics do something about the institution.

    • You’re correct Sol, especially in respect to what the Church definitively teaches on the moral issues and theological doctrinal issues heaven and hell, purgatory, justification. The CDF is relegated to an opinion forum with real authority placed with Propaganda Fide. That prefect is Cardinal Tagle. Then we have Amoris Laetitia, various opinion and skewed instruction on reception of the Holy Eucharist by Am bishops as well as globally. Doctrinal permanence has disappeared during this pontificate with little hope of correction. Experience is that there are extremely few who have anything approaching comprehensive knowledge of the faith, and who are prepared to convey that faith held by the Apostles. What Catholicism requires is a leader like the two Alexandrians Athanasius and Cyril.

    • I think Georges point was that, as lay people and Catholics, we can effectively spread the beauty, truth and power of Gods love ourselves day by day by both words and actions without waiting around for the Church administrators to reform anything. People often mistake the Church itself with the mortals that operate and administer the Church. The Church and its teachings NEVER change in their perfect message of Gods love and for that there is always time and opportunity. First and foremost, TEACH YOUR CHILDREN to love and trust in Gods unconditional love for them and all of us.Then they will carry it forward, and on and on….what other purpose do we have on earth?

  9. The Church’s mission is to save souls, and the Church now has a Pope that disdains what he trivializes as proselytism. His defenders merely claim he is being critical of heavy handedness, but they are exercising the usual damage control and ignoring that Francis’ idea of a missionary Church is very syncretistic.
    With all the endless debate about whether there was enough wrong with some particulars in Vatican II documents to justify regarding the whole event, and its manipulations, as a dark moment in Church history, no one disputes the gravity of the Church’s more than half century long moral and theological crisis.
    With every new Church scandal we’ve acted like delinquent teenagers with phony empty promises to do better in the future. This current pontificate and this Vatican clearly embodies many of the disturbing tendencies of the last half century. During the post VII era, sober voices tried to warn theologians, unsuccessfully, when they were acting like teenagers, that their inclinations to accommodate secular values and remain oblivious to how they damage rather than ennoble what God has endowed to His creation. The futility of getting through to them was largely due to assuming good intentions on the part of progressives rather that pride. When a theologian assumes he can prove he has greater insights than God allowed the peoples of the past to live moral lives, you have more than a clue there is massive pride involved and bad intentions. Countering bad theology as if merely innocent mistakes were made never punctures pride.
    Many of us thought under the pontificates of JPII and Benedict that dissident liberal theologians were discredited once and for all. Under this current pontificate their influence, including a few outright pro-abortion moral theologians from the past, has had a rebirth, and in Francis’ plans for a restructuring the Church into more of a synodal magisterium, the Church is grave danger of losing its coherent moral voice for good.
    Yet Weigel continues to act as though everything is as it was twenty years ago with hopes that the next pope, like it’s certain there’ll even be a next pope, will be one who will personify and restore Catholic orthodoxy. Why would it be necessary? Weigel can never fault Francis for anything beyond being “puzzling.”
    No need for any sense of missionary urgency to deal with the crisis within the Church, like actually converting Catholics to Catholicism again. It’s considered not sporting or some such nonsense to question the Catholicism of any Catholic even when the Catholic might happen to be a blatant venomous anti-Catholic bigot.
    We are expected to just go on ignoring such things like seventy-five percent of Catholics REJECT the real presence, and the vast majority of self-identified Catholics are pro-abortion, a larger percentage than the general population, as if many are intentionally acting like rebellious teenagers. Of course, no one disputes Mass attendance declines over fifty-five years, but watch what the post Covid numbers are going to be. Was your Christmas Mass as sparsely attended as mine? We can even ignore the fact that George Weigel went on TV in 2016, on The World Over, and emphatically told Catholics not to vote for Donald Trump, and today he is dishonest about it and claims he merely opposed his nomination as the Republican candidate.
    If we’re honest about our missionary obligations, we have a perfect right to say that Catholics are not all that Catholic anymore and that we bear an equal missionary obligation to convert Catholics, even if this means those already in the consecrated life, even if this might mean prelates.

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