From Christendom to the New Apostolic Age

Homily by Fr. Kurt Nagel – Holy Family Parish in Kirkland, WA Inspired by the book “From Christendom to Apostolic Mission” 

 From Christendom to Apostolic Mission! 

In 1429 St. Joan of Arc was about to set out on her mission to save France from the invading English armies. She was just a young girl with no military experience, but she had somehow convinced French leaders to follow her inspiration and call. As Joan was leaving Vaucouleurs some women from the crowd asked her if she was not frightened to be heading through the countryside filled with enemy soldiers. She replied, “I am not afraid. God is with me. I was born for this.” 

I am not afraid. God is with me. I was born for this. Joan of Arc lived in a time of chaos and danger, but she recognized that she must not regret the times she lived in. She was born for her times – to change them. So were we. We, too, live in gathering chaos and much that we are familiar with is passing away. But it is not an accident that these are our times. We were personally chosen by God to be alive as members of His Catholic Church here and now. 

In the Parable of the Tenants. At one level Jesus is, of course, directing the parable to the Chief Priests and Pharisees because they were rejecting that in Him, Jesus, the Kingdom of God had come to full fruition. He quoted Psalm 118 as a prophecy of his own rejection and vindication. “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” And after His resurrection from the tomb the Kingdom of God would be taken from those who refused to believe and be given to all peoples and nations. But this failure to recognize in Jesus the Kingdom of God would be a recurring pattern for the duration of human history. And here we are again in our days with the rejection of the kingdom and the chaos surrounding us. 

The book, From Christendom to Apostolic Mission offers Catholics a vision of how to think about and act in the times we live in. The central thesis of this book is that there are two kinds of eras for the Church. “Christendom” is the name for those places and times when the foundation of a society is Christian. The laws and customs assume the basic pattern of Christian doctrine and vision of the world. This is an advantage in raising children in the faith. It is easy to practice one’s religion. But the danger is complacency, hypocrisy, and lukewarmness. The very cultural strength of the faith tends towards people leaning on the externals and institutions. Bishops and priests are focused on maintaining what’s already there, because it’s substantial! The faith is respectable and widespread, but often not very deep. If a Catholic wants to get serious about holiness he or she tends to “leave the world” for religious or priestly life. This means there can be a two-tiered spirituality where the laity are comfortable, but not asked for much. We in the West lived in Christendom from the fourth century until the mid-twentieth century, but the faith has been slowly fading and we now live in a post-Christian, and in some ways, anti- Christian, society. 

Therefore, we live in an “Apostolic Age”. An Apostolic Age is when the surrounding society and culture are oblivious or hostile to the faith. (Think again of the Gospels passages of the rejection of Jesus and His kingdom). In an apostolic age the Church is not a major influence on the culture and sees herself as very different from the world around her, needing -- and wanting -- to swim upstream, so to speak. Since the faith is not respectable, in fact, is looked down upon, it takes more commitment and courage to be Catholic. In an Apostolic age not only the clergy, but especially the laity, are called to be witnesses. Lay holiness emerges as necessary for the Church to survive. The blessing of such an era is that there is a higher standard of holiness among the clergy and laity since there is no social and economic reason for the lukewarm to remain in the Church. P a g e 2 | 4 Homily by Fr. Kurt Nagel – Holy Family Parish in Kirkland, WA Inspired by the book “From Christendom to Apostolic Mission” 

The downside to an Apostolic age is that error is widespread, seeping in from the surrounding non- or anti-Christian culture. Apostasy, leaving the faith, is easy and rewarded socially. And it’s really hard to raise kids in the faith during these times. This can lead to discouragement and a doubting of the power of the Gospel and the Church. Because of the high cost of discipleship, the great danger of an Apostolic age is, not hypocrisy, but cowardice. And that is here we are now. Christendom is gone. We live in an Apostolic Age. 

How are we to think about our faith and the faith of our families in such a time as we now live in? Remember St. Joan of Arc’s words? 

“I’m not afraid. God is with me. I was born for this.” From the book “Christendom to Apostolic Mission” it says, imagine a meeting of the Apostles’ first “Evangelization Committee” and Peter says, “OK, Jesus told us to go and make Disciples of all nations.” He continues… 

What are our resources? The check-list: 

➢Bishops? Eleven.

➢Priests and Deacons? None.

➢Theologians? None.

➢Seminarians? None.

➢Seminaries? None.

Christian believers? A couple hundred.

➢Church buildings? None.

➢Schools? None.

➢Money? A few denarii.

➢Experience in missionary activity? None.

➢Influential people in high places? Very Few.

➢Societal attitude toward us? Ignorant or hostile.

If the Apostles had thought in Christendom mode, they would have given up before they started. But they weren’t. They were filled with hope and the Spirit – and knew they were sent – on an Apostolic mission. God would grow what He wanted to grow. “I’m not afraid. God is with me. I was born for this.” 

We each need to check our attitude. Are we thinking as x`? Apostles are meant to be different from other people – weird, even, in their eyes. If we’re not, we’re failing. In an Apostolic Age, such as we now live in, Catholics, “need to be convinced that Christ is . . . the solution to every human problem, the only hope for a dying race. They need to be convinced of the bad news; that the human race has by its own rebellion brought a curse upon itself and has sold itself into slavery to the prince of darkness, and there is nothing we can do under our own power to save ourselves. At the same time, they need to be equally convinced of the Good News: that God in his mercy has come among us to set us free from our sins and from slavery to the devil, and for those who turn to their true allegiance, the nightmare of life apart from God can be transformed into a dawn of eternal hope. They need to know, from their own experience, that obedience to the Gospel is perfect freedom, that holiness leads to happiness, that a world without God is a desolate wasteland, and that new life in Christ transforms darkness into light.” 

Those Catholics who know this or who can come to believe it in their bones through the Holy Spirit and our ministry will change the world even in these times. Those who don’t know and believe this will soon P a g e 3 | 4 Homily by Fr. Kurt Nagel – Holy Family Parish in Kirkland, WA Inspired by the book “From Christendom to Apostolic Mission” disappear from the Church – just fade away. Can you see why I spoke about St. Joan of Arc? She had her mission given her by God, so do we. It won’t be easy, but it will be glorious for those of us who want to live as Catholics in this Apostolic age we were born into -- and for. The Chief Priests and Pharisees of Jesus’ time could reject Him and His Kingdom, but they couldn’t defeat Him. The same goes for the chief priests of our culture. Jesus lives through death to resurrection, so can we. We must not be afraid. God is with us. We were born for this. 

In a Christendom society, Catholics exercise influence from the inside. Her leaders are part of the cultural elite. Her teachings are respected (at least outwardly). Much can be accomplished via institutions, the cultivation of the powerful, through arts and media. That has been the Church’s mode of operation in America. Even during the worst years of anti-Catholic prejudice in America there was still a basic acceptance of general Christian ideas that linked the Protestant establishment and Catholics. The real problem in such an historical era is to guard against being corrupted by the wealth and power that come with being part of the establishment. 

In an Apostolic Age the influence of Catholics on society cannot be exerted by political and cultural influence (there is little or none), but only by a living witness to the Gospel that captures the outsider’s imagination. The ancient Romans despised what they thought was the Church’s teachings but were eventually impressed by the courage of the Church’s martyrs, her care for the poor and sick, and the moral virtue of her uneducated believers. We are now back in that position of cultural and political impotence, even if many Catholics don’t grasp it. 

It’s like the parable Jesus tells about a king who sends out invitations to the great wedding feast. But the people refuse to come. In fact, they treat the King’ messengers harshly, even violently. That’s where we’re at today. As the King’s messengers, we’ve experienced the rejection of the invitation but don’t understand yet what it means. We in the West are still trying exercise influence using Christendom ways of thinking -- from inside the corridors of power. But we’re finding diminishing returns and the attempt is increasingly corrupting of our faith. The secular powers have no need, or desire, to share power with us. And those Catholics who think they can operate within the (secularist) system are actually being used and co-opted by those whose interests are often opposed to the Church’s. 

In an Apostolic era, such as this one, we must give up thoughts of political influence and be unconcerned with what the wider society thinks of us. That’s really hard. We American Catholics of a certain age are so used to living in Christendom, in a culture that is majority-Christian, that we take our status as insiders as normal. In fact, it’s the only way we’ve known for the Church to interact with society. We take for granted that our job is to keep people in the pews no matter what. 

If numbers are dropping and people are leaving the Church under the influence of the non-Christian vision of the surrounding culture; or if, while remaining members, they’re complaining about doctrines or moral teachings that don’t square with that surrounding culture; then we must “adjust” the hard parts of the Gospel, because in Christendom the worst possible situation for the Church is to find herself out of the majority. If numbers drop it’s a crisis, we must do whatever it takes to remain “relevant” in the world’s eyes. 

This attitude is understandable. Who doesn’t want as many people in the Church as possible? But in an Apostolic Age trying to be relevant simply won’t work (not to mention the matter of not being faithful to the Gospel). That desire to conform is basically a mistake in identifying our historic situation, that we’re P a g e 4 | 4 Homily by Fr. Kurt Nagel – Holy Family Parish in Kirkland, WA Inspired by the book “From Christendom to Apostolic Mission” still living in Christendom. In an age when the society is oblivious or hostile to the faith the only path to Church growth is to be, not less, but more demanding of members. Remember, the King desperately wanted guests, but cast outside the man not wearing the wedding garment. Our job is not to keep people in the pews. It’s to proclaim faithfully the Gospel (which is often rejected). Everyone is invited – the rich and poor, good and bad, alike, but you have to actually change to enjoy the feast. In an Apostolic Age the distinctive nature of the Catholic life needs to be drawn more clearly against the surrounding society, not blurred, because a distinctive witness is the only way for the Church to impact outsiders. She has no worldly power or attraction to draw on, only the Holy Spirit. But it’s also true that in an Apostolic Age such as are now in, just as the Church must expect more from her own members, she should expect less from those outside the Church. The Church can’t expect those outside her membership to believe or even understand her teachings. That’s Christendom thinking – that everyone around me is a Christian deep down. They are not!

Most Americans now believe an ideology that is very different from, and in many ways opposed to, Christianity. That’s why we Catholics keep losing the cultural battles over abortion, gay marriage, physician-assisted suicide, etc. The world has moved on from Christian beliefs and moral principles. This isn’t Christendom anymore. Our arguments don’t register (without long explanations, if then) because our society’s understanding of the human person is so different from the Church’s that we seem to them to be speaking a foreign language. We must still fearlessly speak the truth to the world. As good citizens we must continue to seek office, vote, and claim the civil rights we have -- to accomplish what we can: for our spiritual growth as much as other’s. But the Church’s only real power to convert this unbelieving world (because it is a question of conversion now) is not through political means, or proposing laws which assume a knowledge and belief the outsiders don’t have; but to show them what the Gospel looks like, what love for every human life, no matter how weak, what love for the poor, what chastity, look like and produce in our own lives. That radical, lived witness is the only language we still have that can get through to the world. The only way to change our culture in this Apostolic Age is to invite, by our lives, all those who don’t know Christ to come to His wedding feast – and into a relationship with Him that will make our strange way of life and its laws understandable – and liberating. We will either be Apostles now – or nothing. 

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