How was St. Maximilian Kolbe able to lead his fellow prisoners in hymns as he starved to death in Auschwitz? What moved 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?
The answer is that each of these saints had an intense flame of love for Jesus burning in their hearts and an “apostolic mindset” which compelled them to undertake these works of charity for their neighbor. Over the last several issues of the Denver Catholic, I have written about the importance of understanding the Gospel anew to help us live as faithful Catholics in these times. In this column, I will look at what it means to have an apostolic mindset, which the Church needs to thrive when the surrounding culture is no longer Christian.
As Pope Francis has stated, we are not living “in merely an era of change, but a change of era.” While the challenges are different today than in the early apostolic times, the indifference and hostility that the culture directs toward people of faith and the Church is similar. And because of that, we need to ask God to help us think as the Apostles did.
What is different between the way Catholics have viewed their faith and the place of the Church in society for the last several centuries and the way the early Church did? The book From Christendom to Apostolic Mission (FCAM) explains that in a “Christendom culture, the primary need is maintenance” because the Gospel influences society’s key institutions and nourishes the vision of where society is going. In apostolic circumstances, because “the Church is not the major influence of society’s overarching vision, the need is not mainly for maintenance” but for “apostolic witness and the building of a distinctively Christian cultural vision and way of life” (FCAM, pgs. 20, 26).
It is clear in the Acts of the Apostles and accounts of the early Church that witness and creating a uniquely Christian way of living were essential to what Peter, Paul and the other apostles were doing. Their preaching, teaching, healing and lives of charity were evident to all, but what were the central convictions that powered these efforts? What, in other words, is an apostolic mindset?
If we look at the first actions of St. Peter after the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, we see that he no longer was locked away for fear of being arrested and persecuted. Instead, we witness his bold proclamation of the Gospel to all those present, resulting in 3,000 people being baptized and becoming Christians (Acts 2:41). Peter and the rest of the apostles had deep confidence in the transformative power of the Gospel, and this gave them great courage, joy and hope. These are hallmarks of an apostolic mindset.
The events of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection also convicted the first believers that the faith they had received as Jews was the true version of reality, not the pagan portrayal of a world ruled by many flawed gods. In our time, the competing worldview we encounter is that the spiritual realm and God either don’t exist or don’t matter. As a quick look at the last century clearly demonstrates, we see that sin and other spiritual actions do matter. We can also observe that when God is removed from society, such as during Communism, humanity begins to self-destruct.
Into this void, we must proclaim that there is no other god, technology or person who has defeated death and sin as Jesus did. No one else has promised that same victory to all who believe in and follow him. Salvation is made possible by encountering Jesus and living the Gospel in one’s life, even its difficult messages. This belief is central to the apostolic mindset.
This is the conviction that allowed St. Peter and the apostles to proclaim the Gospel in the Temple without fear of being jailed and to respond to being flogged by rejoicing “that they had been found worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name” (Acts 5:41). It’s also the conviction that compelled the many missionary saints over the centuries to undertake difficult journeys to faraway lands, including our country, to share the Gospel. And it’s precisely the truth we should rely upon as we seek to be bold witnesses to Christ in a society that thinks it can save itself.
Rather than being depressed or despairing about the difficulties of losing the cultural support the Church has had for so long, we should be hopeful. We were formed in our mothers’ wombs and brought into this world by God for these very times. God is not worried about the situation and we shouldn’t be either, because he has definitively won the battle. As we work to build the kingdom of God on earth, we can be confident because our good Father has a multitude of graces ready to give us if we ask for them
Success in the mind of the Apostles was not measured by the number of converts or communities that were established. Rather, just as it was with Jesus himself, success in an apostolic time is measured by whether the Gospel tests the hearts of those who hear it and calls them to the greatness God has for them (cf. FCAM, 37).
May God give us the confidence, courage, joy and hope to be witnesses to the great adventure of mercy and redemption that he invites every person to join in. May God the Father pour out his Spirit upon us and help us follow in the footsteps of the Apostles!