From Christendom times to apostolic times

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.

Featured Photo by Robert Nyman on Unsplash

COMING UP: Sin, suicide and the perfect mercy of God

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I love my hair stylist. 

She’s a devoted Christian. So, when I see her, we tend to have much deeper discussions than the usual gossipy hair stylist sessions. And, because it’s a small shop, the discussions often branch out to the other people within earshot, waiting for their appointments or waiting for their color to process. Because she tends to attract a smart and faithful clientele, the discussion is always interesting. 

Yesterday, at my bimonthly appointment, we somehow got onto the topic of suicide — specifically, the insidious way that it spreads among teenagers. One suicide often leads to another, which leads to another. I made the comment “It is demonic.” 

At that point, a woman in the waiting area chimed in. “I disagree. I’m Catholic. It used to be a mortal sin, but they changed it. It’s not any more. It’s mental illness.” 

If a nice Catholic lady at my hair salon could be confused about this, I figured perhaps some of you out there may be as well. Which made me think perhaps it’s time for a little review on the nature of sin — both in general, and specifically as it applies to suicide. 

First, sin in general. The fundamental point here is that the Catholic Church has no power to decide what is a sin and what isn’t. It’s not like there’s a committee that meets periodically to review the list of sins, and decide if any need to be promoted from venial to mortal, or demoted from mortal to venial, or dropped from the list entirely. 

Sins are sins because they are outside of God’s will. And they are outside of God’s will because they have the potential to do tremendous damage to people created in His image and likeness, whom He loves. We know they are sins because it was revealed to us in Scripture, or it has been handed down from the time of Christ in sacred tradition. Sometimes the Church must apply these timeless, God-given principles to new situations, to determine the morality of technologies undreamt of in ancient times. 

The Church has the authority to do that because she received it from Christ, her bridegroom. And once she does declare on a subject, we believe it is done through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. So the Church isn’t going to change her mind. Something can’t be a sin, and then suddenly NOT be a sin. 

“But,” you ask. “What about eating meat on Friday? That was a sin, and now it isn’t.” This is an example of a discipline of the Church. Eating meat has never, in itself, been an objectively sinful behavior — on Fridays or any other day. But the Church was calling us, as Jesus calls us, to do penance. And the Church selected that penance as something we could all, as a Church, do together. The sin was never in the ingestion of the meat. It was in disobeying the Church in this matter. This particular discipline has been dropped. But it doesn’t change our obligation to in some way do penance for our sins and the sins of the world. 

Now, on to suicide. It is obvious that something must have changed in the teachings of the Church. Because, in the olden days, a person who committed suicide couldn’t be buried with a Catholic funeral Mass. And now they can. So what gives? 

Here’s the situation. Taking innocent human life is always a grave evil. (I add the “innocent” qualifier to distinguish this discussion from one about self defense, or about the death penalty — which in a sense is self defense. But those are separate discussions.) God is the author of life, and it is He who decides when our lives will end. To usurp that power always has been, and always will be, a grave moral evil. 

But there is an important distinction we must understand. There is the objective gravity of the sin — the nature of it, and the great damage done by it. Then there is the question of the individual’s moral culpability of that sin. In other words: a great evil was done. But is the person who did it liable to judgment for it? Or were there extenuating circumstances that mean that, while the evil was indeed done, the person who did it was somehow functioning in a diminished capacity that reduces or eliminates their moral responsibility? 

For a person to be culpable for a mortal sin, three conditions must be met. First, the objective act must be gravely sinful. Second and third, the person committing the sin must do so with full knowledge of the sinfulness of the act, and full consent of the will. In the question of suicide, we have learned to much about the psychological condition of a person driven to such a horrible deed. The instinct to self preservation is strong. In order to overcome it, the mental and/or physical suffering is frequently very intense. There may even be, as my friend at the salon mentioned, mental illness involved. All of this can drastically reduce a person’s mental and intellectual capacity to make rational decisions. 

And so, while an objectively horrifying act has occurred, God may very well have tremendous mercy on that person’s soul, given the extreme states of agitation and pain that led up to the act. 

Know that I write all of this as someone who has lost one beloved relative and several friends to suicide. And I am tremendously optimistic in my hope that they are with God. Not because they didn’t do something terrible, or that what they did was somehow justified. But because the God who loves them sees their hearts, and knows that pain and suffering can drive people to acts they wouldn’t possibly consider while in their “right” minds. 

And this is why the Church offers the Rite of Christian Burial to those who die by suicide. Because they need the prayers. And their families need the comfort. And because the Church, too, believes in that the God who embodies perfect justice also embodies perfect mercy. 

And we live in great hope that they are with Him.