Reading Msgr. James Shea’s “From Christendom to Apostolic Mission: Pastoral Strategies for an Apostolic Age” (Bismarck, North Dakota, 2019, pp. 94, $13. 95), I had a strong experience of nostalgia. The book reminded me of my experience as a seminarian when I read Cardinal Emmanuel Suhard’s marvelous “Growth or Decline?”
The Cardinal’s challenging pastoral helped me to see that the Church is not a static reality, that it is changing all the time. I can recall how excited I was when I realized that the Mystical Body of Christ could grow and develop and become a more powerful and sanctifying community or it could regress and become less influential in the world.
\What especially struck me about the insight that Suhard offered into the mystery of Christ’s Mystical Body was that I and others could make an important contribution to the Church’s presence in the world. I had a similar experience in reading Shea’s essay.
I am hoping that it is read by many who are interested in the future of the Church and also interested in being active in playing a role in the Church’s mission. Christ, the Head of the Mystical Body is perfect. We, its members, are not. I think Shea’s essay can be very valuable as the members of the Mystical Body plan for the future and try to meet the challenges that the future presents.
The first words of Shea’s essay are a statement which Pope Francis spoke to the Roman Curia: “Brothers and sisters, Christendom no longer exists!” In the Introduction of his essay Shea lists some of the changes in society that have contributed to the disappearance of Christendom.
The rest of his essay is a challenging presentation about what Christians are called to do to meet the challenges posed by the disappearance of Christendom. Noting that the light that Christ brought into the world has always been opposed by darkness but that the darkness will never overcome it, Shea writes the following:
“But the extent of that light, the way it sheds its rays, the kind of opposition it encounters and therefore the means it uses to keep its light shining and shed its influence abroad, changes from place to place and from age to age. It is therefore important for those who are members of Christ’s body, who share n his divine life and so are called by him to be the light of the world(cf. Mt 5) take thought for the times in which they live and to devise pastoral and evangelistic strategies suited to those times.” (p. 1)
Shea points out that we are currently, for the first time, dealing with a culture that was once deeply Christian but has by a slow and thorough process rid itself of its Christian basis. Shea argues that the task of the Church is not to make converts but rather to gain back those who were once Christian but now either consciously or unconsciously are in the state of apostasy. Winning back those former Christians becomes especially difficult since many still call themselves Christian.
After summarizing the almost incredible ways that our lives have changed because of scientific discoveries and the development of technology, Shea makes the following statements:
“Our view of ourselves, of the natural world, of our families, our work, our mental and emotional furniture, our hopes for this life, all have undergone a radical change….Developments in transportation, information and communication technologies , in entertainment media and in manufacturing have so changed our way of being that a person who lived a hundred years ago was closer both in modes of consciousness and in the daily rhythms of life to the time of Christ than to our own.”(p.3)
Shea claims that the Church is still reacting to the culture as though it was Christendom and this must change. What is needed is a recognition that as Francis said “Christendom no longer exists!” Shea believes that the key battles that our Church faces in contemporary culture are intellectual. By “intellectual” he does not mean academic.
What he believes is necessary is a conversion to the Christian vision of reality and a willingness to live out the implications of that vision. Shea believes that a compelling Christian narrative is necessary to combat the vision we receive from our culture. Shea presents his essay as an attempt to spell out that narrative and contribute pastoral and evangelistic strategies to engage our culture.
I am hoping Shea’s ideas, insights and strategies will be widely discussed by those searching for a vision of life that is Christian and countercultural. His analysis of where we are at this moment seems accurate to me. I think his analysis is a valuable gift. If the analysis is accurate, what can Christians do? I think reading Shea’s analysis is a step in the right direction.
Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He presents two 15-minute talks from his lecture series on the Catholic Novel, 10:30 a.m. Monday through Friday on NET-TV.