Fr. Franco's Letters

The Flame: September/October 2022

Dear Readers of the Flame,

The phrase sea change comes from Shakespeare’s play The Tempest. It actually refers to the change that happened to Fernando’s body when he drowned. However, over time this phrase has taken on a different meaning.

Today sea change refers to a complete change of environment. Perhaps this meaning of the phrase was inspired by the places in the world where the sea changes in a radical way. The difference between high and low tide in Canada’s Bay of Fundy can be over 50 feet. That’s quite a change in the sea!

In many ways our culture has experienced a sea change. For much of the second millennium of Christianity our culture was called Christendom. This means that the accepted world view was influenced by Christ. For the most part people believed in God, heaven, hell, Jesus (Lord, Savior, Judge) and a way of life that was framed by the moral teachings of Jesus Christ. For sure, people were not always fervent in their faith. Many people sought to do the minimum. Their faith was more like fire insurance. They would do what we need to do to avoid the fires of hell.

Last Christmas, Bishop Malesic gave the priests of the Diocese of Cleveland the book From Christendom to Apostolic Mission. In this book Msgr. James Shea describes this sea change from Christendom to Apostolic Mission. He makes clear what many have sensed in their heart. The assumptions upon which Christendom was built are no longer the assumptions of our culture. Belief in God has been replaced by atheism, agnosticism or, what Pope Benedict XVI called, practical atheism - affirming faith in God but acting like there is no God. Without God, people do not think they have a destiny. Without God people do not have a defined way of living.

If Christendom is no longer the basis for society and culture, how does the Church fit in?
In Christendom, the Church supported institutions that perpetuated the Christian way of life. It maintained the schools, hospitals, parishes and other institutions that formed culture so that people lived in the framework of a Christian worldview. In parts of Europe, the Church had great political clout. If the Church no longer has that kind of influence for the Lord, what is the Church to be about?

As the title of Msgr. Shea’s book indicates, the Church must shift into an Apostolic Mission mode
. Since faith is no longer the cultural air we breathe, the Church must proclaim Jesus Christ in new and fresh ways. Obviously, this new proclamation of Christ takes boldness and divine inspiration. If the great temptation during Christendom was becoming lukewarm with regard to faith, the great temptation in an era of Apostolic Mission is cowardice. People find it easy, convenient and even advantageous to adopt the current culture. To resist compromising our faith, to resist adopting the values and morals of the worldview of our current culture, we need courage and commitment.

And perhaps this was the whole reason for the modern charismatic renewal!
Think about the works of the Holy Spirit from apostolic times until now. It was the Holy Spirit who gave the apostles the holy boldness to leave the Upper Room and proclaim Jesus as Lord to the nations gathered to celebrate Pentecost. It was the Holy Spirit who gave the early Church the charisms it needed to witness to the gospel with signs and wonders and thus confirm its truth. It was the Holy Spirit who united Jew and Gentile, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free in Christ.

And the Holy Spirit is about doing these same things in our day!
Without the Christendom framework, the Church needs a new toolbox to communicate the truth of the faith. When St. Paul addressed the intellectuals in Athens (Acts 17), he sought common ground. He spoke of a shrine to an Unknown God. Beginning there, and quoting Greek poets twice, he proclaimed the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Many scoffed. Some wanted to invite him back. A few believed.

St. Paul went on to Corinth and then Ephesus. (Acts 18 & 19) In those places he adopted a different approach.
His ministry was characterized by a radical reliance on the power and gifts of the Holy Spirit. People listened to the gospel because they saw and experienced the power of God. This led St. Paul to say to the Corinthians:
…my message and my proclamation were not with persuasive [words of] wisdom, but with a demonstration of spirit and power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God. (I COR 2:4-5)
As Christendom wanes and God is squeezed out of public life, we need to reach into the toolbox of the Holy Spirit and give witness to the gospel by charisms of power, as well as by deed and word. An apostolic mission needs to rely on the same power that the apostles relied on for the initial proclamation of the gospel. For sure, there is an inherent power in the basic gospel message. However, many people lack the framework to understand it. In a sense they lack ears for hearing (Matthew 13:14-15). Signs, wonders and miracles jump start faith in the unbeliever. We need to be open to exercising these charisms.

We also need to bear the fruit of the Holy Spirit. Genuine love of people, joy that goes beyond the comforts of the world, peace that surpasses understanding is attractive to people. Again, when God is squeezed out of culture, people’s existence becomes joyless. And as our efforts to evangelize are effective, we will need the fruit of patience. As we know, people who come to Christ often bring some baggage. Our patient and prayerful encouragement will move people from encountering Christ into being genuinely established in Christ.

In this time of sea change, the tide of Christendom has receded. A world that does not acknowledge God has come rushing in. It will be the Holy Spirit who will help us navigate those treacherous waters. In fact, there will be times when, by the Spirit, we will do what Jesus did. We will walk on water (Matthew 14:24-33) and even speak to the storms that batter us and say, Quiet! Be still! (Mark 4:39) and calm will ensue, if not in our external circumstances, at least in our souls. Though much has been lost with the collapse of Christendom, opportunity abounds as we move into this apostolic mission mode. Let us pray for the holy boldness and wisdom that the Spirit gives. By the Spirit we will bear great fruit for the glory of God.

In Christ,
Fr. Bob Franco
Bishop’s Delegate to Catholic Renewal Ministries