Catholic News Agency reported that in an online posting on July 17, Cardinal Timothy Dolan said that the United States of America is a mission territory once again. Archbishop Charles Chaput also echoed this realization when he said that the city of Philadelphia is “now really mission territory … for the second time.” Acknowledging that a crisis of faith is now entrenched in the fabric of Western societies, another finding they addressed is the lack of confidence people have in organized religion; especially the Church. Cardinal Dolan alluded to as much when he suggested, “Maybe, we have gotten way too smug. We have taken our Catholic faith for granted.”
According to the same CNA report, a recent gallop poll found that “only 44 percent of Americans, from various faith backgrounds, now say they have a ‘great deal’ or ‘quite a lot’ of confidence in ‘the church or organized religion.’” At its highest, public confidence in the Church was at 66 percent. Today, however, the public trust is the lowest since 1973. Although many, if not, most, U.S. Catholic Bishops have effectively implemented child-protection policies in their respective dioceses, the shadow of the 2002 priestly scandals remains. But, perhaps, what is even more at issue is how a once Christian society, inspired by the knowledge of Christ, became secular and entangled in those sins it had once been delivered from.
Half of the remedy is acknowledging the problem. As with apostates- that is, those Catholics who fall away from the Faith only to become the Church’s leading critics –societies follow a similar pattern. In contrast to a people never having known the Gospel, a spiritual downward spiral has its own peculiar challenges. As one Catholic historian said, “A man going uphill may be at the same level as another man going downhill; but they are facing different ways and have different destinies.” Indeed, there is such a thing as moral and spiritual momentum.
As for the early Christians, they started with a fresh sleight. The world was anticipating the arrival of the Messiah during those first centuries. For that reason, momentum was on their side. In fact, even though the ancient pagans were hostile to Christianity at first, they had both a reverence for the supernatural and an awareness of a void that needed filling. On the other hand, it would “seem” the modern world is lacking in both of these areas. As such, the New Evangelization will probably not benefit from the same kind of momentum that the early Christians enjoyed. In some respects, our challenge to reclaim the culture for Christ is greater than theirs.
Not a few seasoned missionaries throughout Church history have made the claim that, in contrast to fallen away Catholics (or Christians in general), it is much easier evangelizing a people who had never known the Gospel. Perhaps this is why St. Peter the Apostle said, “For if they, having escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of (our) Lord and savior Jesus Christ, again become entangled and overcome by them, their last condition is worse than their first.” (II Peter 2:20) The last condition is worse than their first because their culpability is greater. Sins committed after having known Christ merits more guilt for the sinner than if those same sins were committed before grace awakened his soul. Having known the truth, the sinner is judged more severely. Which is to say: falling from greater heights causes greater impacts.
Another factor to consider in evangelizing a post-Christian world is this: Catholicism has been misrepresented with great intensity by those within and outside the Church. To be sure, such misrepresentations have been occurring for twenty centuries. However, probably more than any other time, partial truths about the Catholic Faith (or nominal Catholicism itself) have been passed on from Catholic to Catholic unchecked for the last 50 years. As a result of this, there are a multitude of people in society who “think” they know what authentic Catholicism is but in fact do not. Studies tell us that if this demographic of ex-Catholics were a denomination it would be the largest one in America. Therefore, the attitude- “Been there! Done that!” –is an attitude that the Church will have to contend with; not only contend with, but overcome.
The fact that Cardinal Timothy Dolan and Archbishop Charles Chaput said that the United States of America is once again a mission territory is no reason to be discouraged. When this nation was a mission territory before the early 20th century, the Catholic Church grew by leaps and bounds. Such a phenomenal growth can be traced back to these historic truths: Our spiritual ancestors had no illusions about the sacrifices and the challenges that awaited them. They lived in this world but were not of this world. With a world-renouncing spirit, their faith and love of Christ were able to flourish all the more. And the greatest irony is that they were in a much better position to save the world (i.e. American culture); a world they had learned to be detached from. Like the early Christians, Catholic immigrants from the 1600's to the early 1900's saw themselves as pilgrims on this land because they first believed themselves to be citizens of heaven. The second century Epistle of Mathetes Diognetus, captures the "In this world but not of this world" attitude:
They [the early Chrisians] dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven…They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life.