Emmitsburg Council of Churches

The Church, Culture and Christ

Father John J. Lombardi & & Stephen Quinn

Does Mass on Sunday inspire you to go forth and affect culture or does the materialistic, pleasure-seeking culture find its way into your Christian life? There was a time when Christianity and Catholicism blended with the culture so much—and, mostly, so well—that this European society was called “Christendom”. Some theologians today believe the height of Christendom occurred during the Middle Ages. In fact, Bishop Fulton Sheen has suggested that we have reached the end of Christendom, but not Christianity. What did he mean?

Christendom, as discussed here, is the political, legal and moral structure of a nation as influenced by the Gospel values. Are the governments of the world using the Gospels as their foundation or are their policies derived from something or someone other than Jesus Christ? When Pope John Paul opened the Jubilee Doors of St Peter’s Basilica at the dawn of the New Millennium, he held high and presented the Book of the Gospels—Jesus’ saving News—toward the world—and has encouraged all to receive Him. Are we really following Christ, or culture?

The Holy Father has said, “We must be confident that this time of trial will bring a purification of the entire Catholic community, a purification that is urgently needed if the Church is to preach more effectively the Gospel of Jesus Christ in all its’ liberating force. Now you must ensure that where sin increased, grace will all the more abound (cf. Rom 5:20). So much , so much sorrow must lead to a holier priesthood, a holier episcopate, and a holier Church.”( Pope John Paul II, Homily April 23, 2002.) Eleven years previous, the Pope prophetically announced, “A new missionary age will arise, a new springtime for the Church.” ( Homily May 11, 1991)

Where do we fit into this “New Springtime”? How can we help to usher in a more purified church? Gideon asked a similar question, “How can I save Israel?” (Judges 6:15) The answer to this and our question can be found in the Old Testament, Judges 7. “How can I save Israel?” (Judges 6:15).

When Gideon, a leader of the Israelites, was to do battle with an opposing army, his army numbered 30,000 men while the opposing army numbered 50,000. God said to Gideon, “You have too many men, send the cowards home.” Two out of every three men left. God said, You have 10,000 men left, if you were to win the battle, some would think it was of your own power, take them to the river and watch them drink. All but 300 men drank leisurely and to the full. God said, Send those 9,700 men home that drank without regard. You will go to battle with 300 men who care and I will be with you. God thins His ranks!

Jesus said in the Book of Revelation, “I know your works; I know that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth” (3:15-16).” Are we lukewarm or are we willing to trust in God even in the face of seeming absurdity like Gideon and his 300 believers?

Whereas Gideon and Israel’s battle was physical, ours (in most cases) tends to be more spiritual. The question we must ask ourselves is: Are we going to follow God completely-- with total trust-- or will we become secularized-spiritualists, following the ways of the world? Did we rush out to battle with the 30,000 men only to leave before the conflict? We’re sure Gideon would have accepted them back if they repented and re-sworn allegiance. Did we stay with the 10,000 and drink leisurely at the waters before battle or do we stay with our leader (the Pope) and follow and practice the true Gospel values?

Pope John Paul the II recently issued an apostolic exhortation--“Ecclesia Europa”---an inspiring letter to the Church of Europe which can be viewed similar to the battle Gideon faced. Although addressed to the Churches in Europe, we believe we in the USA can relate to the message. He starts his address: “This message is also addressed today to the Churches in Europe, often tempted by a dimming of hope. The age we are living in, with its own particular challenges, can seem to be a time of bewilderment. Many men and women seem disoriented, uncertain, without hope, and not a few Christians share these feelings. There are many troubling signs which at the beginning of the third millennium are clouding the horizon of the European continent, which “despite great signs of faith and witness and an atmosphere undoubtedly more free and unified, feels all the weariness which historical events – recent and past – have brought about deep within the hearts of its peoples, often causing disappointment.

The Pope continues , “Among the aspects of this situation.  I would like to mention in a particular way the loss of Europe's Christian memory and heritage, accompanied by a kind of practical agnosticism and religious indifference whereby many Europeans give the impression of living without spiritual roots and somewhat like heirs who have squandered a patrimony entrusted to them by history.”
You may ask: Why is this letter important to us in the USA? Why read “other people’s mail?” Let’s be honest and ask the question this way: When the president of the United States addresses a group of people, aren’t his comments pertaining to current events adapted and applied to other situations? If in addressing a group of environmentalists, the president makes a comment about the war in Iraq, is the comment intended only for the group he is addressing or is it meant for others to hear as part of that pubic forum? Let’s hear the Pope’s message and examine our individual and national conscience prior to dismissing it and “pointing the finger” at Europe.

The Pope uses a very interesting and provocative term in this letter to characterize a phenomenon in Europe: “silent apostasy”. By this tantalizing term perhaps he means that many Catholics are idly standing by, watching, sometimes even wishing, for the Christian Faith to be swallowed by a strangulating secularism. Are we hoping this situation gets worse and “forces God to do something supernaturally,” or are we praying, fasting and working toward a more Christ-centered world? The effects of the silent apostasy are hurtful to and His Church. The sins of omission can sometimes be greater than the sins of commission. How so?

In the Holy Bible, Jesus Christ mentions sins of omission more often then sins of commission:--St. Matt. 25: “Lord, When were you naked and I did not cloth you? Lord, when were you hungry and I did not feed you? Lord, when were you thirsty and I did not give you something to drink?” Let us not forget the story of Lazarus and the rich man from the Gospel of Luke: The rich man did not do evil to Lazarus, but was punished simply because he neglected to do good (Luke 16:19). Are we guilty of neglecting to do good?

Bishop Fulton Sheen proposed this analogy, “If I am poisoned and am given the antidote, it does not matter if I throw the antidote out the window or simply neglect to take it, death is surely imminent.”

Perhaps we should examine our conscience in the following areas, as the Pope encourages Catholics in Europe, to ensure we are not participants-as-bystanders during the silent apostasy:

  • Practical agnosticism— Are we someone who claims the title of Catholic Christian but do not practice the Faith in our deeds? For example: some politicians—and others-- say they are personally opposed to abortion or contraception but continuously endorse them. Other people say they want to live simply and help the poor but continuously choose complex and materialistic lifestyles.
  • Religious indifference—Some in Europe and the USA do not care to acknowledge God, the Catholic Church or a faith-life in general. They are, for the most part, de facto materialists—they may subtly believe in God but do nothing about it and so really become worshippers of Mammon—material possessions and earthly things or trappings.
  • Diminishing number of births: A well known fact in Europe is that birth rate is too low to replenish the elderly as the pass away. The USA has similar problems, though less dramatic. Did your last social security statement highlight the fact that the American work force is not being replenished and that Social Security will be bankrupt by 2042 at the present course? Causes: contraception, materialism, loss of family roots, individualism, etc.

Upshot: How can you avoid divorcing your Faith from your lifestyle, relationships and work? Do you ever fail to speak up for truth, ethical behavior, God and our Catholic Church? Is the “contraceptive culture”—being against life, whether in babies, giving to the Church or the poor, or thru euthanasia—affecting your choices and life?

In the USA, our past culture was characterized by what was described as a pioneering spirit: great discoverers with beautiful virtues forged a nation of the Many into One. Has the silent apostasy now sabotaged this ? The explorers Lewis and Clarke exemplified the pioneering spirit by braving the wilderness, weather, and terrain to chart new lands. Now some Americans darkly pioneer the frontiers of exhibitionism, pornography, and lewd culture in “media ventures”. So many of the natural virtues our country once used for good have degraded. The virtue of patience, for example, is now promoted deviantly as the acceptance of crude behavior. Do we challenge this culture that denigrates the human person and human dignity or does it poison us who have the antidote of Christ, but neglect Him? Do we share the antidote with others, thus helping to change our culture?
Poet William Butler Yeats wrote, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” Do we Catholics even know there is a battle, or are we too comfortable with the culture? We all need a supernatural shot in the arm and to arise from complacency to join the raging battle. We need Our Lord and the rallying battle cry of Gideon to know and defend just who we are: Catholics in America not American Catholics. We are followers of Christ, not worldly Christians accommodating to the culture by embracing the niceties of religion (Christ without the Cross ).

The Pope decries this wrongful tendency in Europe:

“Europe is now one of those traditionally Christian places which, in addition to a new evangelization, requires in some cases a first evangelization. Many Europeans today think they know what Christianity is, yet they do not really know it at all” ( #46-48).

Where is this widening of faith and public life occurring today? Recall just this past week: a judge in Montgomery, Alabama, stood against many—even in the law—who were trying to remove a copy of the Ten Commandments which he installed in his building. One writer opined that he was in favor of the Commandments but said that evangelicals and others should not make such hoopla about the public display of them. He suggested we should merely keep them in our hearts. Trouble is, some people need to see displays of them to be reminded. We can forget God quickly in this country.

Conclusion: We are called to individual holiness in addition to fostering social justice. Like Gideon, we may be called to public battle, however we all must first purify ourselves from within. We can make a loud noise of Christ-centered change without even making a sound in this silent apostasy. We can let God know that His Love for us is not being ignored. God calls all of us to holiness, “Be holy as your heavenly Father is Holy” (1 Peter 1:16). As Pope John Paul suggested in Europe, we need ourselves may need a re-evangelization of our country and culture. What are the biggest battles, you ask?: anti-life ones (abortion and euthanasia, the culture of death are promoted); materialism (love of riches and despising the poor); relativism (anything goes in morality); indifferentism (toward God and His Plan, to our Catholic Church, and loss of religious and civic virtues in public life); paganism (including mainstreaming of pornography and secularist sensuality, witchcraft and occult)-- How will you bring Christ to these battles? Social justice begins with personal holiness; a lifelong battle that the Saints have won and we must win. 

Read other reflections by Father John J. Lombardi