Summary: From Christendom to Apostolic Mission: Pastoral Strategies for an Apostolic Age by Msgr. James Shea

1: The Place of a Ruling Imaginative Vision in Human Cultures

If you polled your family, school, or parish with the question, “how’s life?” or “how are things going?” or “are things in general going in a good direction or a bad one?”, what do you think are the subconscious criteria that people would use to answer that question? Physical health? Finances? Relationships? Anything else?

The answer to these questions is based upon some assumed narrative embedded in an overall vision of life, one that gives a sense of purpose, meaning and direction (14-15).

For example:

  • “Life’s good. Kids are healthy. Work is busy. Got a vacation coming up soon.” This response reveals a vision in which life might be about enjoyment, maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain.
  • “Life’s good. Kids are active in the youth group at Church. My co-worker joined my Alpha group and that’s been exciting. I really hope he has an encounter with Jesus soon. We have an Alpha retreat coming up soon as well. Can you pray for everyone going on that retreat?” This response reveals someone with a vision of faith “whose narrative involves a revelation of cosmic battle for souls between God and the devil will answer the question according to the advance or retreat of Christianity” (14).

2: Christendom & Apostolic Modes: Advantages & Disadvantages

There are 2 basic modes by which Christianity interacts with human societies:

1. Christendom Mode – The culture’s imaginative vision and narrative is provided by Christianity (eg. most of Western civilization since the 4th ce).

  • Advantages: The culture (eg. laws, morality, etc) is more aligned to Christian truths & great cultural achievements naturally emerge (eg. hospitals, cathedrals, universities, end of slavery, freedom to worship).
  • Disadvantages: The Church can become a worldly institution. Evangelization becomes lukewarm. Laity feel left behind to religious (as if missionaries of foreign lands are the only evangelists). #1 Temptation = Hypocrites: Counterfeits to genuine Christianity emerge – few intentional disciples & many become involved in the Church for personal gain.
  • Goal: “maintenance” – with continual renewal (ie. re-awaken that Christian vision & narrative – to bring alive dormant truths), strengthening, and correction (it’s always going to be challenging in this fallen world).

2. Apostolic Mode – the Church’s imaginative vision and narrative goes directly against the culture.

  • Advantages: Christian witnesses can really stand out (especially with martyrdom). Purity of intention for leaders. Urgency for evangelization. Laity more important.
  • Disadvantages: Hard to persevere & keep spiritually healthy. Hostility from the culture. Fewer resources. #1 Temptation = Cowardice due to the high cost of discipleship.
  • Goal:

3: The Current Climate

In order to evangelize the culture, we must first see our culture clearly.

Our culture culture is the “first culture in history that was once deeply Christian but that by a slow and thorough process has been consciously ridding itself of its Christian basis” (8) and is now aggressively secular.

Our culture is transitioning from a place in which Christianity is the dominant cultural influence for economics, politics, and social life (ie. “Christendom”) to one in which it is merely one influence among others (“Apostolic age”).

We are not trying to convert pagans but rather bringing back to the Church those who knowingly or unknowingly have apostasized (C.S. Lewis’ image of not trying to woo a young maiden but rather a cynical divorcee back to previous marriage).

4: Devising a Pastoral Strategy for this Transitional Time

Since we no longer live in a Christendom age but rather an Apostolic age, our pastoral strategies must change.

“It is the difference between floating a canoe downriver with the occasional guiding push (in Christendom mode) or steering it upriver against the current with energetic strokes (in apostolic mode). What happens when the rowing stops is quite different in the two cases. Those who think the current is going their way — when in fact it is against them — will be surprised to find themselves rushing along in a direction they did not intend” (41).

Our problem is rather that much of the Church is still in a Christendom mode, either seriously compromised by the ruling vision of the wider culture or using outmoded strategies that were devised for a different context, and so it is unable to cope with the current culture” (32).

  • An essential “working principle: institutional and ecclesiastical strategies that are suited to Christendom do not work well in an apostolic setting” (31). In fact, “business as usual” will lead to bankruptcy!

Principles and Attitudes:

  1. Gaining an apostolic attitude: we must be totally convinced of both the bad news & the Good News, to preach & live the Gospel with clarity & conviction.
  2. Refusing to be trapped by social analysis: Sociological surveys & numerical analyzes are helpful in understanding the current state & in devising an appropriate strategy but are utterly incapable of capturing the divine quality & regenerative power of the Church throughout history.
  3. Maintaining & using institutions differently: “In an apostolic time, institutions need to become more self-conscious about their mission, their aims, and their inner spirit” (41).
  4. Establishing and strengthening practices that incarnate the Christian vision: Now that we are again in an apostolic age, Christians must find new ways to incarnate what is now a counter-cultural Christian vision of the world (ordering our schedules around the liturgical calendar, using images in our homes, etc).
  5. Rethinking priestly life and education in light of the current cultural context: Seminarians need to a certain time (like a spirituality year) for “personal healing, intellectual conversion, and cultural “detox” (49). Priests also can no longer go about as lone rangers in this enemy-held culture. They need brothers in arms, an apostolic structure of lie, and his entire life animated by the Christian vision.
  6. Allocating resources with apostolicity in mind: Since we are at war, we might have to go into fallback mode and give up certain territories to gather strength for a renewed attack at a later time (cf. 52). For example, significant resources must be given for apostolic initiatives that produce conversions, especially among the young. “The alternative is to hang on by the fingernails to every acre of ground until the collapse comes and the army is routed, with no possibility of counter-attack” (53).
  7. Being ready to put up with a certain apostolic “messiness”: We need to welcome the problems that arise with energetic disciples (from the “sons of thunder” – eg. unenlightened zeal, rigoristic attitudes, idiosyncratic stances, rivalries).
  8. Expecting cultural influence to be exercised primarily by impressive witness: Courageous martyrs, caring for the outcast (eg. Missionaries of Charity), moral purity from “ordinary” people. All of this is even more necessary today: “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses” (Pope St. Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi, 41).” In an apostolic age, the Church needs to be more demanding of her members, not less, and less demanding of those outside the Church, not more (invite rather than impose.

Discussion Questions:

  1. In what ways has your parish/school/family been operating out of a Christendom mode? and out of an Apostolic approach?
  2. What would it look like for your parish/school/family to more deeply embrace an Apostolic approach?
  3. How might you gain an apostolic attitude yourself, and help others to do the same? What are some practices that you might undertake to incarnate the Christian vision?

5: The Key Task: Conversion of the Mind to a New Way of Seeing

“The main evangelistic task in an apostolic age, a task that also needs to be directed at many within the Church, is the presentation of the Gospel in such a way that the minds of its hearers can be given the opportunity to be transformed, converted from one way of looking at the world to a different way” (59).

“The new evangelization aims at the renewal of the mind, because it recognizes that people’s minds have been barraged by a daily onslaught of false gospels, leading to confusion and distraction away from invisible realities to concerns solely of this world” (60).

  • “Preaching in an apostolic age needs to begin with the appeal to a completely different way of seeing things; it needs to offer a different narrative concerning the great human drama; it needs to aim to put into place the key elements of the integrated Christian vision of the world within which the moral and spiritual disciplines the Church imposes find their place” (60).

“The great apostolic task of our time is to gain a genuine conversion of mind and vision” (62). We must present Christianity “as a way of seeing the whole of things” (66).

The Christian Way of Seeing Things

“To be apostolic in vision (to repeat an earlier point) is to recognize that Christians don’t see some things differently than others: they see everything differently in the light of the extraordinary drama they have come to understand” (67). A sacramental vision of seeing everything.

  • “In the Christian vision, to be a human is to be involved in an extraordinary adventure” (63).
  • Because we are blind to the invisible world, we are largely ignorant of how the most real, lasting, beautiful, and important events of human history are largely hidden from sight.
  • Born into an enchanted and dangerous world that is both visible & invisible, there is a cosmic battle taking place and we must take a side.
  • We have an essential and unique role to play in this great drama of human life, the mission of God bringing humans from slavery to divinity.
  • There are only two destinations for each human life: heaven or hell. Both are real possibilities.

The Modern Way of Seeing Things

Overall: A chaos of confusing bits & pieces. A blurred and often myopic way of seeing. Modern progressives (which to some degree means nearly all of us) like to pride ourselves on our rational and scientific way of seeing things – not for its scientific accuracy but for its romantic utopianism, trying to find evidence to fit our own views.

  • Faith in progress – modernists took the supernatural, heavenly belief that history is “going somewhere” (to perfection) and made it into a natural, earthly belief of finding the perfect here and now – that humanity was ascending on an upward course not only technologically (made sense) but also socially & morally (does not make sense). Led to great impatience with any imperfection in this world (think Covid now). Love for the poor, sick, aged has changed into a hatred for poverty, sickness, and the ravages of age. This has led to eradicating the poor, eliminating the diseased, and euthanizing the aged. Pride, rather than love, is the root motivation. But the gospel of progress has enormously failed (expect for technological power leading to wealth & comfort).
  • Denial of the Fall – the progressive vision finds the source of evil to be bad fruit of ignorance (due to physical laws, social structures, psychological principles, etc). Gaining & applying proper knowledge will fix it. Instead of the devil, progressives look at a specific group of people as the problem – thus demonizing some portion of fellow humans & hating them with the perfect hatred that was meant to be reserved for the devil alone.
  • Marginalization of God – Practical atheism is prevalent (ie. “God doesn’t really matter”). And so religion must be a very private matter (ie. “whatever works for you”). Religion is not an account of reality but rather something to enhance our experience & help us to deal with the stress of existence. God becomes a therapist we can reach out to when we need, not our Lord to whom we surrender our lives. God is an actor, not the Actor. But sadly this leads to existential boredom!
  • Intoxication with the world of space and time – de-sacramentalized vision leads to obsession. “The only meaningful criteria for judging success or failure are those that can be seen: popularity, power, wealth, comfort, and personal enrichment” (75). Immediate satisfaction has great appeal in constant distraction by what is seen.
  • Freedom to choose as the essence of human dignity and the source of human happiness – “freedom” is no longer something Christ can give us (from death, from devilish tyranny, from destructive passions, from ignorance, brought to the status of sons & daughters of God as free men & women) but rather a human endeavour to have choice for whatever my individual will desires at whatever time. Autonomy is seen as the greatest good.
  • Consumer contentment the default experience – “We exercise freedom by buying what we want; we find meaning by keeping abreast of the “next big thing”; we make the world a better place by carefully constructing a personal statement of existence whose brand is produced out of the consumer choices we make” (78).

Discussion Questions:

  1. How has your family/school/parish been influenced by the modern way of seeing things?
  2. What are some practical ways you can take so that your family/school/parish can be more influenced by the Christian way of seeing things?

Conclusion: Readiness to Embrace the Times We are Given

Despite its influence, the prevailing vision is unsatisfying, precisely because it is inaccurate. It is both intellectually bankrupt and spiritually impoverished. We must have confidence in the Holy Spirit and His power to help ourselves and those around us embrace the true, Christian vision of reality. Let us understand the age we have been given, trace out how the Holy Spirit is working within it, and seize the adventure of cooperating with Him.

Discussion Questions:

  • Who are the saints we must look towards for inspiration in this time? What lessons can they teach us?
  • What concrete actions will you take to help those in your parish/school/family discern the movement of the Spirit in our time?

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