From Christendom times to apostolic times

George Weigel

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: From rare books to online resources, archdiocesan library has long history of service to students

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National Library Week, observed this year from April 4 to April 10, is the perfect occasion to highlight the essential role of libraries and library staff in strengthening our communities – and our very own Cardinal Stafford Library at the Archdiocese of Denver is no exception.  

Since 1932, the library has served as a religious, intellectual, and cultural resource for seminarians and students at St. John Vianney Seminary in Denver.

As the library of the seminary, we are always responsible for the four dimensions of the priestly formation of our seminarians. The library is charged with being responsible to all the divisions of the Seminary: the Lay Division (Catholic Biblical School and Catholic Catechetical School), the Permanent Deacon Formation Division, and the Priestly Formation Division, said Stephen Sweeney, Library Director. 

In addition to being one of the main resources to the seminary, the Cardinal Stafford Library serves the needs of other educational programs in the Archdiocese of Denver, including the St. Francis School for Deacons, the Biblical School, the Catechetical School and the Augustine Institute. While the library is currently closed to the public due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was previously open to anyone, giving people access to more than 150,000 books, audios, and videos. 

The Cardinal Stafford Library was named after Cardinal J. Francis Stafford, Apostolic Penitentiary at the Vatican and former Archbishop of Denver from 1986 to 1996. He was a dedicated advocate of the library and of Catholic education.

In 1932, the library was established by two seminarians, Maurice Helmann and Barry Wogan. While they were not the first seminarians to conceive the idea of establishing a library, they are considered the founders for undertaking its organization.  

Since its founding, the library has grown and compiled a fine collection of resources on Catholic theology, Church history, biblical studies, liturgy, canon law, religious art, philosophy, and literature. Special collections include over 500 rare books dating back to the early 16th century and many periodicals dating back to the 1800s. The oldest publication in the library is a book on excommunication published in 1510. The Cardinal Stafford Library is also home to various relics and holds bills personally written by some of those saints.  

Over the past few years, the library has undergone a process of beautification through various renovations that include improvements in lighting, flooring, and even furniture restoration. During these difficult times, libraries are doing their best to adapt to our changing world by expanding their digital resources to reach those who don’t have access to them from home. 

The Cardinal Stafford Library provides a community space; we subscribe to about 200 print journals and have access to literally thousands more through online resources available on campus computers, Sweeney added. “I have been the Library Director for almost 11 years. I absolutely love my work, especially participating in the intellectual formation of the faithful from all of the dioceses we serve”.  

For more information on the Cardinal Stafford Library, visit: 

Featured photo by Andrew Wright