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Father Nicholas Nelson: Passing on the Faith today, in a new apostolic age

I recently read the book “From Christendom to Apostolic Mission: Pastoral Strategies for an Apostolic Age.” It is from the University of Mary in Bismark, North Dakota. It is a short but good read. It can help us understand how we are to pass on the faith and live the faith today. I’d like to share a few important points from the book.

Father Nick Nelson
Handing on the Faith

It argues that cultures and societies have prevailing ways of seeing reality. They have a prevailing vision. This vision is taken for granted. Most people don’t consider it, much less describe it or argue for it. From this vision, people act. The way people live depends on this vision of reality. So when we speak of Christendom, we don’t only mean a time when the majority of people were believing and practicing Christians but a time when the Christian vision — the Christian narrative or story — was the prevailing one. It was backdrop and foundation from which people lived.

It is obvious today that we don’t live in Christendom anymore. Not only are a minority of people practicing Christians, the prevailing vision and narrative of existence is not that of the Christian faith.

In Christendom, believers are generally at peace with the wider society. Nevertheless, there is the great temptation to become lukewarm in one’s faith. There is less of a demand for radical Christian living. In Christendom, the church as a whole can become less spiritual and supernatural and become more worldly and material, especially because being Christian is seen as positive to the wider society.

When we consider the apostolic time before Christendom, before Christianity became the prevailing vision of the Western World, we see that things were much different. In the Apostolic Age, Christians saw themselves different from the rest of the world. Because the demands of the Christian faith are radically different from the rest of society, there was less room and opportunity for mediocre Christians. It was all or nothing. In the Apostolic Age, Christians understood the supernatural call. They appreciated the otherworldliness of the Faith. They were less corrupted by the material and worldly ambitions.

It is clear that in the year 2021, we are no longer in Christendom. We are in a post-Christian world, one that is more similar to the Apostolic Age. Unfortunately, many in the church are acting as if we are still in Christendom. “The children of Catholic parents often leave the Faith; Catholic schools and universities do not graduate serious Catholic believers; parishes do not produce vocations to priesthood and religious life; religious orders shrivel” (p. 32). The problem is that the ruling vision in the world is no longer a Christian one. And so we and our Christian institutions have been infected and compromised with a non-Christian vision and anti-Christian principles. And therefore, we can no longer afford to think and act as if we are still in Christendom. That is the premise of the book.

They argue that we need an apostolic attitude, meaning that we must live as if we believe that Christ is the answer to every problem. That we need to be convinced of the bad news that we are enslaved by the evil one through our own rebellion and we can’t save ourselves. But that we also need to be convinced of the Good News, that God has entered our fallen world to save us, and that he is owed our total allegiance.

They argue that we need to use our institutions such as the family, parishes, charities, and schools differently. This means today our Christian institutions can only maintain their identity by “energetic resistance to conformity with the wider atmosphere” (p. 43). Because even if it is not decisively anti-Christian, that is where it will end up if it isn’t intentionally resistant to the cultural forces. To sum this up, they said, “In a Christendom setting, ‘he that is not against you is for you” (Luke 9:50) …. But in an apostolic situation, ‘he who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters’” (Luke 11:23).

They argue for establishing and strengthening practices that incarnate the Christian vision. In Christendom, our society was visibly ordered towards Christ. Now the visible is ordered away from God. This means we have to avoid some of the secular practices. We need to order our time, our homes, our use of technology, all towards incarnating the Christian vision of the world.

They argue that our influence in the world will be primarily through our witness. In Christendom, we influenced society from the inside. Now it will be from without. They say we can’t be as concerned with what the world thinks of us, but rather be concerned with heroically and radically pursuing holiness and remaining always faithful to Jesus Christ. Then seeing us, they will want what we have!

Finally, they end by saying, “The Holy Spirit is at work in every age, ours included. If it is true, as we are assured by St. Paul, that grace is more present the more the evil abounds (cf. Rom 5), we might expect an especially abundant action of the Holy Spirit in our own time. Our task is to understand the age we have been given, to trace out how the Holy Spirit is working in it, and to seize the adventure of cooperating with Him” (p. 90).

Father Nick Nelson is pastor of Queen of Peace and Holy Family parishes in Cloquet. He studied at The Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Rome. Reach him at [email protected].