The following is a full transcript of an address given by Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila during the 2021 Msgr. Herron Dinner hosted by the Napa Institute several weeks ago. Archbishop Aquila’s various addresses and homilies are available and can be listened to on his podcast channel.
It is a pleasure to be with you this evening and an honor to be asked to give the annual Msgr. Herron lecture. I knew Msgr. Herron and worked with him on various projects as a priest of the Archdiocese of Denver. I have been blessed by my engagement with the Napa Institute, which serves leaders throughout the global Church as we wrestle with the challenges of how to engage and transform the culture through the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I am grateful to the Busch family, and their deep commitment to Jesus Christ and the Church, as well as to those I have met through the Napa Institute over the years and to you here for this presentation.
This evening, I want to share with you a description of the unique challenge to the mission of the Church today and then propose to you potential antidotes. These are in the form of two distinct mindsets for us as Catholics to adopt if we are to see the kind of renewal we desire.
Much of my thinking and praying behind my reflections, as well as much of my vision in leading the Archdiocese of Denver for the last year, has been shaped by my work with Father John Riccardo and the ACTS XXIX team, as well as a brief but extraordinary book of anonymous authorship, called From Christendom to Apostolic Mission. The foreword was written by Msgr. James Shea, the president of the University of Mary.
In August 2020, I instituted a new format for our priests’ monthly deanery meetings where they read various articles and books on moving to apostolic mission and then prayerfully discuss how to implement the principles in our parishes, schools, and across our archdiocese. The goal is for us to be praying and discerning together how God is calling us to advance the mission of the Gospel in our culture today.
All of this was preceded by my own journey as an archbishop and the desire to form disciples who deeply encountered Jesus Christ. This included the influence of Sherry Weddell and her presentations on her influential book, Forming Intentional Disciples, to the clergy of the archdiocese in the spring of 2014, followed by convocations in the two following years with Curtis Martin and Tim Gray on evangelization and discipleship. The reason for sharing this brief history is to recognize the providence of God in the work of the last year and how he was preparing the field so that fruit could be brought about.
This praying and discerning of God’s plan is important work for each diocese to undertake because of the particular challenges of our time. Our Church has always encountered challenges in proclaiming Christ to the culture. Today, however, we live in a transition of eras; from Christendom to a new apostolic moment. “Ours is not an age of change but a change of age,”1 Pope Francis has stated.
The successful evangelization of the early Church during the first apostolic age flowered into a culture, referred to as “Christendom,” that was built on Christian ideals. While Christendom was rarely the perfect embodiment of those ideals, it was a cultural period based on them, at least in principle, and striving to live them.
Throughout the centuries, Christendom was marked by an explosion of art, science, universities, hospital systems, countless social services and the formation of peaceful societies based on the rule of law in what had previously been a barbaric and pagan Europe. In “Christendom,” the Church engaged her life in a culture where answers to questions of the human person were largely shaped by the Christian imaginative vision for reality. The Church’s doctrine, generally speaking, had fundamentally shaped and informed beliefs on cultural pillars like marriage, family, and sexuality. In such a context, parishes and schools were largely responsible for just supporting what was already present.
We are no longer living in a cultural context that has been forged by this Christian imaginative vision. A secularizing momentum, which has had its ebbs and flows over the last few hundred years, has now brought this Christendom culture to a close. It is dead.
Archbishop Fulton Sheen put it most bluntly, in a TV show as long ago as 1974, stating, “We are at the end of Christendom. Not Christianity, not the church. Christendom is the economic, political, and social life as inspired by Christian principles. That is what is ending and, because we live in it from day to day, we do not see the decline.” Today that challenge and decline is much more evident.
Pope Benedict XVI called this dynamic the “eclipse of God, a kind of amnesia”2 which is “the phenomenon of the detachment from the faith, that has progressively manifested itself in societies and cultures that for centuries appeared to be impregnated by the Gospel.”3 Religion, if not outright repudiated, is relegated to the world of private devotion, loyalty to a cultural heritage, or baggage of a past age clung to for comfort by regressives who wish to go back to a less enlightened time. When we look to empty churches in many Western cities, even in former bastions of Catholic life like Quebec City, Germany, Spain, Ireland, and Belgium, all of which became extraordinarily secular in a single generation, we can see the devastating effects of the tide of secularism on religious belief and practice.
More than just a collapse in church attendance, though, as God disappears from the broad cultural consciousness, we can observe and experience a general collapse of hope. In the words of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, “A spiritual desert is spreading: an interior emptiness, an unnamed fear, a quiet sense of despair.”4 When we see the rapid growth of the numbers of atheists and of those with no religious affiliation in the United States, we should not be surprised to also see sky-rocketing rates of suicide and depression. Further, in recent years, we have watched an extraordinary increase in violence, born of deep restlessness and the death of supernatural charity in many souls.
You and I are now no longer operating in Christendom, but in a new apostolic age, similar in challenge and opportunity to that of the early Church. We could find ourselves tempted to wish for smoother sailing, a time that was more supportive of Christian beliefs and practices, but God did not choose you and me for those times. He picked us for this moment for a reason and he wants us to engage with both the unique obstacles and opportunities of our time for the sake of the Gospel. We are living in a time that calls for joyful witness in the face of opposition.
We are to neither shrink away from the challenges in front of us, nor are we to become embittered or shrill in the face of opposition. With hearts enflamed by divine charity, we are being called by God to go on mission. The same Holy Spirit that drove the accomplishment of the first evangelization, which baptized so much of the ancient world, is the same Holy Spirit who is calling the Church to renewal in the apostolic age in which we are living.
What, then, to do?
How does the Church navigate a change of age and proceed through the wilderness of a secularized culture? What are the antidotes to a post-Christian moment?
This era presents opportunities for us in advancing our Church’s mission, which we in the Archdiocese of Denver have stated this way: that, “in Jesus Christ all might be rescued and have abundant life, for the glory of the Father.” What is required of us, I contend, is more than tweaks to our tactics and those of Christendom.
In From Christendom to Apostolic Mission, the author writes, “There are many American Catholics who still have a Christendom mentality. They were raised with it, and it has become part of the assumed furniture of their minds. This inherited attitude is understandable, but from a strategic point of view, it is disastrous. The rapid change from a Christendom ruling vision to a modern progressive utopian one has radically altered the strategic situation.”5
When I stated this to our priests, that Christendom is dead and that we cannot rely on a “maintenance mode” anymore, one of them candidly remarked, “But I like Christendom! And I want it back!” That will not happen without a radical conversion of hearts and minds to Jesus Christ.
If we are to preach Jesus boldly and compellingly in this new apostolic time, our entire mode of operating must change. Our fundamental stance ad extra and ad intra must experience a missionary conversion and every instance in which the Church is arrayed must be set up for apostolic mission. Where must this change, this conversion, begin?
The first change to which Christ is calling us, I contend, is not found in what we do, but how we see.
This was the perspective of St. Paul, when he exhorted the Romans, “Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect,” (Rom 12:2). First, we put on the mind of Christ, which allows us to then discern what God is calling his Church to in a countercultural context. Pope St. John Paul II reinforced this idea in Redemptoris Missio, when he said, “radical conversion in thinking is required in order to become missionary.”6
Over the last year and a half, as I have worked with my leadership team in partnership with my good friend Fr. John Riccardo and his team at the Acts XXIX ministry, we have become convicted that right now, for Catholic leaders, we are called to adopt two lenses which make sense of our all-too-confusing culture and help us to see a “way in the wilderness” (Is 43:9) for moving forward. These lenses clarify the situation around us and begin to slowly bring forward, in the light of the Holy Spirit, potential tactics of renewal.
A Biblical Worldview
The first of these lenses is, to borrow Fr. John’s terminology, to re-acquire a biblical worldview.
I still remember the first time I visited the area that once was the city of Ephesus. Ephesus was one of the great and most fruitful local churches of the ancient world. To look again to one of the great evangelists of the original apostolic time, we can see that St. Paul’s letter to the Christians there, the Ephesians, is filled with praise for this community’s devotion.
This church boasted none other than St. John, the Beloved Apostle, and St. Timothy, as its first bishops. This was the church where the Blessed Virgin Mary had received the Eucharist, had gathered community around her, had counseled people and shown her motherly affection to all. Today, however, it is effectively non-existent, a heap of ruins, fascinating to encounter and to learn from. How can this happen? How can such a faithful and thriving local church today be completely dead?
Scripture reveals to us the source of its decline. In the beginning of the Book of Revelation, we find Letters to the Angels of Seven Churches. To the angel of the church of Ephesus is addressed this message:
“I know your works, your labor, and your endurance, and that you cannot tolerate the wicked; you have tested those who call themselves apostles but are not and discovered that they are impostors. Moreover, you have endurance and have suffered for my name, and you have not grown weary. Yet I hold this against you: you have lost the love you had at first (emphasis added). Realize how far you have fallen. Repent, and do the works you did at first. Otherwise, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent” (Rev. 2:4-5).
Such a message of challenge could be directed to our local churches today. There are many in our parishes who retain a modicum of Catholic practice while not fully believing and living the Gospel; they live without a biblical worldview and look at the world through a worldly lens.
“Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty ideal…but the fruit of an encounter with a person, who gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”7 With these words, in his first encyclical Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict XVI opened his pontificate by pointing back to Jesus Christ and reminding us that it is an encounter with him, which changes us forever, which is at the heart of being Catholic.
John 15 reminds us that apart from Jesus Christ, we can do nothing. Only in Jesus Christ can we bear fruit. If we are not attached to the vine, then our parishes will empty, religious orders and Catholic schools will wither and die. God is faithful to his promises.
The Church is not an “NGO,”8 Pope Francis reminds us, carrying on a worldly project. We have been given a mission by Jesus Christ. Sent himself by the Father, to bring his sons and daughters back from the captivity of sin and death, he gathered to himself and commissioned a Church, led by the apostles, so that every person, in every time and in every place, could have an opportunity to experience and respond to the Gospel. As St. Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians, we do not preach ourselves or our own humanitarian efforts, but “Jesus Christ and him Crucified,”9 he who is in himself the answer to every longing and question of the human heart.
If the Church in the United States is to avoid the path of Ephesus, or even that of Europe, then we need to come back to our identity as a Church and remember our story. We must ask ourselves: whose voice are we listening to? Is it Christ’s first? Or is it the world, the flesh, or, even, the Devil, the accuser, who seeks to keep us captive to sin and death?
C.S. Lewis once remarked that, “the story of Christianity is of the rightful king who has landed in disguise…and we are called to be his ‘agents of sabotage’ until he returns.”10
This story needs to shape how we see reality itself and how we view the Church. Salvation history, God’s action and work in human history, beginning with creation, moving through our captivity to rescuing us in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ provides us that biblical worldview. We must ask ourselves: is this how we see our mission as Catholics in the world? Do we view reality through the prism of the story of the Gospel, of the rightful king who has landed? Do I see myself as an “agent of sabotage” of the evil still present in the world? Is this personal God and the way he calls me to life the standard of my life?
Evangelization is not, as some might accuse it of being, ideological colonization. It is proclaiming to every human person the fulfillment of all desire and the source of our deepest joy is the encounter with Jesus Christ. It is the presentation of the story of a Father who did everything he could to find his children after they had been taken from him, who sent his son on a rescue mission to get his world back and to bring his children home. It is throwing a life raft to one stranded at sea. It is the Church, digging through the rubble of a collapsed building urgently searching for those in need of rescue.
This joy comes at a price; there is no such thing as “cheap grace,” and we need to not forget that part of the message. God wants our whole heart and will not tolerate our false gods of materialism, consumerism, pride, ego, vanity, lust, and selfishness. Jesus reminds us in Luke’s Gospel, “If any one comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple,” (Lk 14:26). The call to discipleship means subordinating everything and everyone in our lives to Jesus Christ, to a loving Father, who desires only our good. We can have no false gods!
An Apostolic Mindset
This biblical worldview roots us in Jesus Christ as the center of the story of our own lives and of the entire universe. A further step is needed today, though, where the disciple, with a biblical worldview, also puts on a characteristically apostolic mindset. The apostolic mindset is a supernatural way of seeing, thinking, and acting, needed now to engage boldly with our new apostolic age.
Think of travelling to Europe, how, in a foreign land, a particular power adapter is needed to plug into the electrical outlets. As strangers and sojourners in a post-Christian culture, we need an apostolic mindset, which is the “adapter” which empowers us for effective witness as Catholics in the public arena.
The saints, God’s “masterpieces,”11 to borrow a word from Pope Benedict XVI, display what this apostolic mindset looks like. What moved St. Maximilian Kolbe to lead his fellow prisoners in hymns as he starved to death in Auschwitz? What led St. John Paul II to forgive the man who tried to assassinate him? Or how was St. Mother Teresa able to pick up poor people left to die in gutters and care for them?
They saw the current moment and all its cultural upheaval as a moment for heroic Catholicism. They were emboldened in the Holy Spirit, unafraid of persecution, with their hearts set on eternity, willing to face whatever challenges the world threw in their way.
To quote from Christendom to Apostolic Mission again, “To be apostolic is to do more than assent to a set of doctrinal truths or moral precepts, essential as they are; it is to experience daily the adventure that arises from the encounter with Christ; to view events and people moment by moment in the light of that vision; to be caught by the perilous and joy-filled work of learning to be transformed into divine beings headed for eternal rapture in the exhilarating embrace of God.”12
This is the mindset which is necessary for every Catholic right now; a distinctly apostolic one. To define this lens, in the Archdiocese of Denver, we have articulated five key characteristics of an apostolic mindset. I want to quickly unpack the five with you as something we are all being called to right now as Catholic leaders.
First, one needs a sense of a unique calling from the Father. The Father eternally loves every human being and has known each one for all eternity. While recognizing that, in a sense, no one is ever fully qualified for this work of mission, we know that the Lord has set each of us apart for some unique purpose, that we alone can fulfill. Therefore, we subordinate and entrust our entire lives to him, who is love, and define the success of our efforts by faithfulness to him.
Secondly, an apostolic mindset requires a costly imitation of Christ. We recognize that the urgency of the mission and an awareness of our eternal destiny demands that we humbly strive for greatness, embodying the virtue of magnanimity in all we do. The heart of this call to greatness is charity, drawn from the Eucharist, a recognition that the love of God leads me to see others as my coheirs. Jesus commands us “love one another as I have loved you” (Jn 13:34), which includes our enemies, the poor, the sick, the unborn, the dying.
Thirdly, one needs a conviction of the power and primacy of the Gospel. This mindset knows that the Gospel message itself has power to change lives. This confidence is in the message, not the one who is the messenger. Therefore, each person needs to personally live out of their own response to being rescued by Jesus Christ and prioritize a continual invitation to others to experience the power of the Gospel, again or for the first time. We are to bring people to the Gospel and to Jesus Christ not ourselves.
Fourthly, the apostolic mindset requires a joyfully countercultural witness. We cannot have an expectation that Christian values or authority exist anymore in the broader culture; we can assume nothing with respect to their adoption or relevance. However, we also must reject the temptation to either “hunker down” and wait out the troubled times or worse, to capitulate to the world’s demands. Instead, we need a bold and radical willingness to risk for the sake of the Gospel, in hope, and to be unafraid of persecution. We must rejoice when we are persecuted by those of the world, suffering for Jesus Christ, as the disciples did in the early Church (Acts 5:41).
Finally, I would like to make this my concluding point this evening, highlighting this last characteristic of an apostolic mindset in particular: an utter reliance on the Holy Spirit. This point is critical; all renewal, finally, depends on God. The Holy Spirit is the principal agent of all revival that ever takes place in the life and mission of the Church. The temptation toward despondence in the face of the Church’s apparent decline comes from a kind of self-reliance, on our own plans, best practices and talents, instead of the utter reliance on the Holy Spirit which is characteristic of God’s great saints.
We must always hold space, in our minds, hearts, and strategic efforts for the mysterious working of grace. As millions of Catholics were walking away from the one true Church during the Protestant Reformation, it was a miraculous appearance of Our Lady in a pagan part of Mexico that would lead to the conversion of millions in a few short years.
And it was siblings Benedict and Scholastica in the 500s who would articulate and live out a way of life in their communities that would preserve culture as Rome fell and barbarian hordes descended upon Europe. The mendicant orders, founded by Saints Francis and Dominic, would revitalize a Church that had grown lukewarm in the 1200s. Ignatius of Loyola, Francis de Sales, Theresa of Avila, Vincent de Paul, Therese of Lisieux, Faustina, and the list goes on. In every age of crisis, the Lord raises up great saints and reformers who rely on the Holy Spirit and discover a way in the wilderness for the biblical worldview to be distinctly lived in a way that perplexes the world, eliciting curiosity and wonder in unbelievers.
It is this “wonderful and confessedly striking”13 form of life that proves the truth of what the Church teaches. In this moment, I believe Lumen Gentium and Christifideles Laici have made clear, among others, that, in addition to the wonderful orders which have sprang up in the last sixty years as new forms of apostolic living, it is the laity, called to be salt and light of the Earth, who will form the tip of the spear in the Church’s missionary renewal efforts for the next several hundred years. It is ordinary families, men, women, and their children living out of a biblical worldview and apostolic mindset, that will captivate and perplex those who do not yet know Christ. This requires an utter reliance on the Holy Spirit, not on our own plans and all-too-often worldly ways of thinking.
Transformed men and women are the great strategy of God for renewal throughout human history, his trump card in the face of all cultural upheaval and challenge. Let us feel that challenge in our own lives. In the words of John Paul, “do not be afraid, open wide the doors to Christ.”14 God never takes more than he gives us in return, and the encounter with Jesus is the only path to true freedom. Before each of us leaves this Earth, we cannot miss the opportunity to give of ourselves completely to God. “Life with Christ is a wonderful adventure.”15
Thank you for the opportunity to be with you this evening. I pray that these reflections will help you to encounter a Father who loves you, to give your life fully to Jesus Christ, and to open your heart to the Holy Spirit. I pray that you will have a biblical worldview that will guide you in these times, recognizing that the Father in his love for you has called you in this time in history to go on mission with an apostolic heart that is bold and fears nothing, knowing that in Jesus Christ the battle is won, and that our true home is in heaven. May God bless you each abundantly.
- Pope Francis, Meeting with the Bishops of Brazil, 28 July 2013.
- Pope Benedict XVI, Message for the 2011 World Youth Day, 1.
- Pope Benedict XVI, Ubicumcque et Semper.
- Pope Benedict XVI, World Youth Day Mass Homily, July 20, 2008.
- From Christendom to Apostolic Mission (Bismarck: University of Mary Press, 2020), 31.
- Pope John Paul II, Redemptoris Missio, 49.
- Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, 1.
- Pope Francis, address to the Bishops of Switzerland, 1 December 2014.
- 1 Corinthians 2:2
- C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (1952; Harper Collins: 2001) 45-46.
- Pope Benedict XVI, homily on the occasion of the canonization of four blesseds, 3 June 2007.
- From Christendom to Apostolic Mission (Bismarck: University of Mary Press, 2020), 74-75.
- Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus, 5.
- Pope John Paul II, homily for the inauguration of his pontificate, 22 October 1978, 5.
- Pope John Paul II, homily at the Mass for the youth of Czech Republic, 26 April 1997, 8.