By Monsignor James P. Shea
Msgr. James Shea is President of the University of Mary.
Earlier this year, Archbishop Aquila wrote a pastoral letter entitled Our Apostolic Moment. In that letter, he noted that the Church is now living in a post-Christian age. He then explained what he meant: “The successful evangelization of the early Church during the first apostolic age flowered into a culture, referred to as ‘Christendom,’ that was itself built on Christian principles and 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.” But that time is now behind us. “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” (Our Apostolic Moment).
This change is likewise sketched out in the University of Mary’s recent book, From Christendom to Apostolic Mission. Where does this momentous change leave us?
The truths of our faith do not change. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). Still, it has been the task of the Church in every age to take stock of its cultural environment and to find ways of living and of communicating the Christian faith that were suited to those conditions. The Church teaches and lives the same divine truth, but the strategies used to maintain and spread the faith differ depending on the circumstances.
Calling our time “Apostolic” touches on two meanings of that word. First, to be apostolic refers us back to the Church of the Apostles, when the life and teaching of Jesus were fresh, and the 12 apostles and their successors were laying the foundations of the Church’s life. Those early Christians could not count on the wider culture to help them live as God called them; they needed to construct a “counterculture” to bring the Gospel alive for themselves, their children, and the people to whom they were witnessing. Second, to be apostolic points to the Church’s evangelizing nature. Missionaries always have an apostolic mindset, witnessing to the truth and love of Christ for those who do not know him. We no longer need to “send out” missionaries to a distant place; we are surrounded by a mission field. In an apostolic time, every Christian is called to be a missionary and needs a missionary strategy. As we seize the opportunities of our time, we will want to pay attention to both of these apostolic tasks: that of building a strong Christian counterculture and that of embracing the call to be missionaries.
What does it mean in practical terms to be apostolic? Here are seven suggestions among many that may help us to think clearly and act wisely as we respond to God’s call in this new apostolic age.
Make the mental shift from Christendom to apostolic mission.
Our culture has been Christian in the past and because of that we have become accustomed to imitating the patterns of life around us concerning how we make friends, how we date and get married, how we educate our children, how we entertain ourselves, how we handle our technology, how we pursue our careers, how we spend our money; how we do pretty much everything.
An apostolic time demands a discerning attitude toward what comes to us from the surrounding culture. Not that we should throw everything out; there is still much that is good and worthwhile. But we want first to determine what it is in keeping with the mind of Christ. Rather than saying: “I will take whatever comes as long as it isn’t really bad,” we will want to say: “I will not take anything from the culture unless I can see that it is good.” As St. Paul wrote to Christians living in their own apostolic time: “Test everything; hold fast what is good, abstain from every form of evil” (1 Thessalonians 5:21-2).
Take the opportunity to re-commit ourselves to Christ.
A great advantage of an apostolic time is that it makes it hard to be a lukewarm believer. Remember the stern admonition of Christ: “I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth” (Revelation 3:15-16). We all know how easy it is to be lukewarm for Christ and his kingdom when things are too comfortable. God allows times of greater challenge to help us fan the flame of our love for him. Now is a time to re-enchant our lives with the invisible presence of God, to stay close to the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, and to make a steady habit of going to confession. It is a time to give prayer and fasting a secure place in our daily and weekly schedule and to read the Bible regularly.
Get ourselves into the right story.
An important part of conversion to Christ is to understand and receive God’s story concerning who we are and what he is doing. The secular culture around us is constantly providing us with a narrative that brings an identity and an expected way of behaving along with it. We need to remember the true story: God’s creation, the fall of humanity, the coming of Christ to win us back from our rebellion and free us from the devil’s grip, our ongoing spiritual battle, and our glorious destiny God intends for us as sharers of his divine life and love. There are many fine resources to help us and our families with this, among them an audio project at primematters.com/narrative.
“The time in which we now find ourselves, with all its challenges and opportunities, has been specially chosen for us by God, and his grace is richly available to each of us. The advice St. Peter gave to the early Christians is meant for us too: ‘Therefore gird up your minds, be sober, set your hope fully upon the grace that is coming to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ’ (1 Peter 1:13).”
Bring our faith into all the details of life.
In a Christian age there are all kinds of helps that develop over time to keep the invisible world present so that it won’t easily be forgotten. Ways of speech, seasons and feast days that mark the year, the architecture of cities, customs of song and festival, set times of prayer, a thousand ways that invisible truths are clothed in the stuff of space and time. Such cultural expressions of the faith are a big help in aiding conversion and keeping God and his truths in mind. Most of that Christian cultural expression has now drained away, and a different cultural architecture has taken its place. We need to regain the territory where we can by making our homes, our schools, our leisure time, all our common activities, places that speak of Christian truth. We can creatively work together to shape our communal environment in ways that keep the invisible world alive to our imaginations.
Regain our work for Christ.
Most of us have little control over our places of work, but we can still find ways to regain some of this ground for Christ. We might find moments in the day, upon starting work or beginning a meeting or a project, to take a brief minute of silence and offer the time and our work to the Lord. We might ask the Holy Spirit’s guidance in ways we can be a witness of Christ’s love to our co-workers. God is always present and always acting even where he seems absent. We will want to avoid the experience of a schizophrenic life that leaves our working hours outside of our call to faith and mission.
Don’t go it alone.
Our Christian faith is essentially communal: we are Christ’s body. This truth comes to the fore in an apostolic age. While the “loner Christian” is always an anomaly, in a post-Christian time like ours, it increasingly becomes an impossibility. Finding ways of sharing our lives with our brothers and sisters, by families, in neighborhoods and among friends, is a necessity in an apostolic time, both for providing a compelling witness and for maintaining and passing on our faith.
Keep faith and hope high.
When things around us are rapidly changing and the culture is secularizing there can be a temptation to become anxious or discouraged, and to settle into an attitude of quiet despair. It is good to remember that God, who rules all things, is not wringing his hands over the state of the world or the Church, wondering what to do. His governance of the world is mysterious and often hidden, but it is strong and certain. He is working his will, and he is calling each of us to an ever-deeper renewal of mind and heart so that we can cooperate with him in building his Kingdom.
The time in which we now find ourselves, with all its challenges and opportunities, has been specially chosen for us by God, and his grace is richly available to each of us. The advice St. Peter gave to the early Christians is meant for us too: “Therefore gird up your minds, be sober, set your hope fully upon the grace that is coming to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:13).