Early in Msgr. James P. Shea’s provocative essay, “From Christendom to Apostolic Mission: Pastoral Strategies for an Apostolic Age” (Bismarck, North Dakota: University of Mary Press, pp.94, $13.95), he sketches what he means by Christendom and what he means by Apostolic Mission.
By Christendom he means a society that goes forward under the imaginative vision and narrative provided by Christianity.
Shea argues that Christendom has ended, but the Church and Christians are acting as though it still exists. According to Shea this is a serious error that leads to disastrous consequences.
What is needed, Shea believes, is a recapturing of the vision, narrative and zeal that animated Christians in the early years of the Church’s ex- istence. Reflecting on the apostolic mission, Shea writes the following:
“Every human has been created for a magnificent destiny that makes the greatest prizes of this world seem like uninteresting nothings, a destiny of such height that the imag- ination can hardly take it in.
“Not only are we meant to know good things, happiness, strength, length of existence, but we have been created to experience the unthinkable: to share the very nature of God, to become — in the language so beloved by Eastern Christians — ‘divinized.’
“Created from the passing stuff of the material world fused with an invisible and immortal soul, we are each of us meant to be what we would be tempted to call gods: creatures of dazzling light and strength, beauty and goodness, sharing in and reflecting the power and beauty of an the Infinite God”(pp. 70-71).
Several times while reading Shea’s essay, I was moved and inspired by his description of the graces and blessings that God has showered on us and is showering on us.
Shea presents a vision of the person who has accepted God’s self-gift as breathtaking. What Shea claims about God’s self-gift to humans is true: “the imagination can hardly take it in,” and “each of us meant to be what we are tempted to call gods.”
During the last month, whenever I have been in a serious conversation with anyone, I find myself bringing Shea’s essay into the conversation. Though I don’t have Shea’s gift for writing, I want to pass his message on to others. I want them to hear the good news so that its goodness strikes them powerfully. I want them to appreciate it so deeply that the good news seems too good to be true.
Recently in some philosophy classes at St. John’s University, I have been lecturing about what philosophers call the transcendentals.
Usually philosophers ascribe five characteristics to every being that God has created: every being is a being, is one, is true, is good and is beautiful.
This means that all beings, even trees and flowers and animals, resemble God because of the transcendentals that are attributes of every creature. This means that God cannot create anything that does not resemble God. It also means that God, Who is Infinite Good, cannot create evil. God can create free human beings who can do evil acts which are sins, but God cannot create evil or commit a sin.
The transcendentals are marvelous signs of God’s existence, goodness, truth and beauty. I try very hard to communicate the meaning of the transcendentals to students because I think the transcendentals can be signs of God and can help students experience awe and wonder at the meaning of created being.
The transcendentals are like messages from God that God has implanted in God’s creatures. I believe this can be proven by philosophy without any direct reference to Christian faith. When we bring Christian faith into a discussion about God and ourselves, the vision of both God and ourselves becomes so wonderful that it is mind-boggling. I think one of the saints, perhaps the Little Flower St. Therese of Lisieux, said that God’s gifts to us are so marvelous that they put our finest and most exalted dreams to shame. Who could have ever guessed, without God’s rev- elation, how much God loves us?
In trying to help contemporary Christians make the commitment that an apostolic age requires, I think I might choose almost any Christian teaching about God and us as a starting point. I know when I think about my own faith I almost immediately begin to think about the Eucharist. I find that the meaning and mystery of the Eucharist easily relate in my mind to almost every Christian truth. What Shea is insisting should happen to foster apostolic mission is that the Christian narrative be presented, preached and taught in a way that calls people to deep personal commitment. Of course on our own we cannot succeed. But with the Holy Spirit, of course we can.
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.