THE STRATEGY FOR THIS AGE
A few summers back, some of us joined Joseph & Crystal Gruber at a summer training conference at the University of Mary in North Dakota. We had a chance to meet a profound prophet in our age: the president of the university, Monsignor James Shea. He and his team penned a little book called From Christendom to Apostolic Mission. It is a gem, a mental goldmine, a prized strategic plan, and a spiritual boost. (Much of what I share below is taken from this book, though not word-for-word quotes. Barely a single thought is mine!!)
The main argument of the book is that we need to change strategies. We in the Church of America and Europe are in an age of a new Apostolic Mission, but we still act as if we are in a society of Christendom. A Christendom society is one that is saturated by Christian ideas, morals, and culture. It is one that understands the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The secular culture is not hostile to Christianity, as Church and society move in basically the same direction. And so, the primary need is simply maintenance. The danger, which Christian history has seen repeatedly, is that morals tend to go lax, vision is forgotten, corruption soon follows, religion gets mixed up with politics, sin abounds, and things become weak and anemic. But in an Apostolic age, like the first generation of the first Apostles, the Church makes her way in opposition against the secular culture; maybe conflicting to the point of persecution and martyrdom. In an Apostolic era the Church must have focused intentionality, high standards of holiness, clear purpose, and terrific fortitude to row upstream against the current. Because of the high cost of discipleship, the great temptation in an Apostolic age is not laxity but cowardice and fear.
The issue is that we in America are functioning as if we are still in a Christendom Age. We are not. It cannot be business as usual. Our approach in evangelization, teaching, liturgy, morals, and everything needs to shift to the approach we take in Apostolic times. This concept gives great clarity and undergirding for much of what we are already doing in the Diocese of Lansing and here at St. John. I found the book so assuring that we are approaching things the right way at the right time.
Now all of this is painting a picture in wide brush strokes; there are always exceptions to these two extremes. But in general, here in North America and Europe especially, we can see the tides have turned in the last two generations. The culture is no longer majority Christian, but we keep doing business as if it is. We must approach things differently.
The part of Msgr. Shea’s book that I appreciate the most is a God’s-eye-view of what has been happening in the world in recent years. He cuts through the rhetoric and politics to see the Biblical worldview that we have lost our grounding on the foundation of Christian faith and reason. The modern progressive vision of our Western culture has wonderful high hopes of a utopia brought about by science, technology, policies, economics, and politics. Despite its high aim for truly good things and a good life, there is a strange failure and violence flowing out of much of this modern desire for peace. We’ve seen it over and over with the failed advances of socialism on one hand and the failed advances of capitalism on the other. The secular world is aiming for a utopia and a lush garden but instead always seems to bring about a barren wasteland. War, lack of justice, greater poverty, loss of human dignity, and mounting despair seem to always follow these worldly pursuits. Why? Because too often they seek perfection without the Perfect God. The good desire for this perfected society (no matter if the course they follow is more “left” or more “right”) is doomed to failure unless it is infused with God’s truth and presence. Utopia of this nature will always fail because, as the Catechism says, we are trying to be God without God. The secular world too often denies the reality of where true goodness originates. And it denies the truth of the fall, and sin. Therefore, it denies the need for Christ. It denies the realities of a fallen world. It denies the reality that Christ is the answer. We are seeing more and more the tendency to divide, hate, and vilify those who disagree with us— instead of aiming disgust and outrage against sin and Satan, we aim outrage at those who have a different opinion from our politics.
The Church’s primary purpose before an unbelieving world is not just the imposition of Church laws and rules, and not just trying to influence politics and society, but rather the invitation to a relationship with the Living God. This relationship is a whole new way of being and seeing, one that rescues us and brings tremendous meaning and joy. The main evangelical task in an Apostolic age is the presentation of the Gospel in a way that enters minds for transformation and conversion. Radically transformed individuals will radically transform all of society. THIS is how we find our way to utopia! Our approach at the parish-level needs to be in step with this: we must see that we are in an Apostolic age that appeals to a completely different way of seeing things, and our job is to share a clear communication of Christ’s saving love.
There is a lot of work on the long road ahead… will you join Christ?
Director of Faith Formation