Writing this series of columns using James Shea’s essay, “From Christendom to Apostolic Activity: Pastoral Strategies for an Apostolic Age” (Bismarck North Dakota: University of Mary, pp. 94, $13.95) has been a very interesting experience for me.
It has also been a very challenging experience. If I agree with Shea’s ideas, what should I be doing in my own life to embrace those ideas and help others to embrace them? Shea claims that Christendom is over and that a new approach to our faith is needed. Commenting on the experience of the Christian faith in the first three centuries of Christianity’s existence, Shea writes the following:
“During this time the Church functioned in an apostolic mode, by which is meant that she was making her way against the current of the wider society and needed to articulate and maintain a distinct and contrasting vision. Those who were brought into Church did more than embrace a set of moral principles or doctrinal statements. There was a need for a profound conversion of mind and imagination such that they saw everything, viewed the whole, differently.” (p. 7)
Shea claims that Christians today need to experience such a profound conversion of mind and imagination. Looking at myself I can see how I need such a conversion. I feel a little like G.K. Chesterton must have felt when he responded to a survey question in a newspaper. The question was, “What’s wrong with the world?” Chesterton’s response was, “I am.” To the question, “What’s wrong with the Church?” I could answer, “I am.”
In addition to my own need to make a deeper faith commitment, part of my vocation is to help other Christians experience such a conversion. How can I allow the Holy Spirit to lead me and others to be more deeply committed so that the Christian narrative influences our entire lives? Writing this series of columns has kept this question in the forefront of my consciousness and my conscience. Some of the possible projects that I am imagining make me wish I was 40 years younger. Some of the projects I will have to convince others to embrace. Shea writes the following:
“Wherever apostolic zeal and apostolic strategies are in operation, the results are impressive: one sees conversions to the Faith, especially among the young; new movements and religious communities being born or rediscovering their vitality; institutions being founded or reformed; a deepening life of prayer and communal witness being expressed. These movements do not involve majorities, but that is part of the nature of an apostolic time: in a mission setting the Church does not move by majorities.”(p. 33)
I suppose the first thing that should be understood is that the type of conversion that is being imagined can take place on a large scale but frequently it will require the meeting of small groups. So what I am imagining is both large groups such as a diocese and small groups such as a prayer group or a discussion group. Of course numbers are always to be considered in any effort to evangelize, but I suspect that Shea is correct in suggesting that one active apostle might do more good than 10 Christians living as though Christendom still existed. Reflecting back on my own experience as a parish priest many years ago I think I experienced something resembling the conversion experience that Shea is urging.
As I have reported previously in this weekly column, one of the most wonderful experiences I had as a parish priest was to be the co-moderator of more than 20 discussion groups. Each group was made up of 10 or fewer parishioners. All the groups started off with the same paperback book: Fr. Leo Trese’s “The Many Are One.”
After meeting for several weeks discussing that book the goal was for each member to start another group discussing Trese’s book. The groups met each week for about an hour and a half. The meetings were always held in one of the participants’ homes. What happened frequently was that other people in the host’s family sat at the periphery of the group and listened intently.
These discussion groups are one of the best memories I have of my four years as a parish priest. Some of my priest friends thought that the discussion of a book did not accomplish much. They could not have been more wrong.
I think I observed within the discussion groups people having the type of conversion that Shea is encouraging as part of the Apostolic Mission. The meetings were an excellent illustration of why Pope Francis emphasizes the importance of encounter. When people get together to discuss some important topic this gives the Holy Spirit an opportunity to accomplish what may seem like magic, or better, like a miracle.