"As I have said on other occasions, the new and unique situation in which the world and the Church find themselves at the threshold of the Third Millennium, and the urgent needs which result, mean that the mission of evangelization today calls for a new program which can be defined overall as a 'new evangelization'" (Pope St. John Paul II, Ecclesia in America, 243).
"Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses" (Pope St. Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi, 41).
In light of the recognition that we have entered into an apostolic age, what are some principles and attitudes upon which to formulate a reasonable pastoral and evangelistic response?
1. Gaining an apostolic attitude
The first requisite is to note the times in which we live and to be ready to adjust expectations and strategies accordingly. In this regard, we might begin by considering the apostles soon after the ascension of Christ. They had been newly filled with the power of the Holy Spirit and had the words of their resurrected Master ringing in their ears: “Go and make disciples of all nations.” This was the quintessential apostolic situation. One can imagine them gathering for their first “evangelization committee meeting.”
Our Agenda: To bring the Gospel of Christ to the world.
Priests? Same number.
Trained theologians? None.
Religious orders? None.
Christian believers? A few hundred.
Countries with Christians in them? One.
Church buildings? None.
Schools and universities? None.
Written Gospels? None.
Money? Very little.
Experience in foreign missions? None.
Influential contacts in high places? Next to none.
Societal attitude toward us? Ignorant to hostile.
If the Apostles had been thinking in a Christendom mode and had assessed their situation from the standpoint of the strength of existing Christian institutions, they would have been overwhelmed by discouragement, facing crises in every direction: vocational, financial, catechetical, educational, and numerical. They were not discouraged: they were filled with joy and hope. They had great confidence in their Lord, in their message, and in the creativity and fertility of the Church. They knew that their task was to be used by the Holy Spirit to grow the Church, and they knew the graced means by which it was to grow. And grow it did.
The Church in an apostolic time needs to have the same confidence in the power and goodness of the message she bears, in its life-changing potency, in the Church’s power of regeneration and growth. In a particular way, those in positions of influence and authority need to be convinced that Christ is the answer to every human ill, the solution to every human problem, the only hope for a dying race. They need to be convinced of the bad news: that the human race has by its own rebellion brought a curse upon itself and has sold itself into slavery to the prince of darkness, and there is nothing we can do under our own power to save ourselves. At the same time, they need to be equally convinced of the Good News: that God in his mercy has come among us to set us free from our sins and from slavery to the devil, and for those who turn to their true allegiance, the nightmare of life apart from God can be transformed into a dawn of eternal hope. They need to know, from their own experience, that obedience to the Gospel is perfect freedom, that holiness leads to happiness, that a world without God is a desolate wasteland, and that new life in Christ transforms darkness into light.
This attitude, necessary for many reasons, is essential for properly evaluating the Church’s work and fortunes in a post-Christendom age. In a time of transition such as ours, we should expect that the pastoral and evangelistic strategies that have pertained for a long time under the influence of an assumed Christendom narrative vision will no longer prove as effective as they once did. We should expect that many who have attended Mass because it was the conventional thing to do will stop attending and that those who have no real conviction about the truths of the Faith will be reluctant to pay a high price for those truths and will increasingly keep their distance. There are many “hereditary Catholics” currently in the Church, who have sentimental ties to the way in which they were raised. Sentimentality will not sustain a way of discipleship that will challenge them at every level of their being, however, nor will it sustain their faith when it brings them into conflict with those around them. We ought not be cavalier about this or quick to quench the smoldering wick, however weak the flame has become; every soul, no matter how tepid, is of immense importance. The fundamental task of the Church – one that can get lost under a Christendom mentality – needs to be kept in view.
Brothers and sisters - Christendom no longer exists!
Old Simeon, holding the child Jesus in the Temple, spoke of him as being the fall and the rise of many in Israel and the instrument whereby hearts would be tested (Luke 2:34). The great task of the Church in every age is to preach and live the Gospel with clarity and conviction; what effect that may have on others is not hers to determine. Jesus, the greatest and most talented preacher of the Gospel in history, did not gain a good reception from all his hearers; sometimes even a majority rejected his message. This was not because his preaching, to the extent that it did not produce conversion, failed. Rather, it succeeded perfectly in what it was meant to do: it tested the hearts of those hearing such that they either rose or fell when confronted by his message. The same is true in the Church’s witness to the Faith. However faithfully Christ is presented, the response to the Gospel will be mixed. There is no getting around the fact that, in a society moving away from Christendom, the Church will by a kind of social necessity grow smaller: the majority in any society tends to embrace the ruling societal vision unconsciously unless they explicitly move out of it to something else. This needs, however, to be seen in proper perspective. Ten genuine followers of Christ will prove more fecund in new believers than a thousand whose faith is lukewarm or non-existent. The Church does not grow by mass movement; it moves forward one soul at a time, as each individual catches the fire of belief from another and is grafted into the body of Christ. The importance is not found in numbers but in the intensity of the flame, as the Apostles understood.
2. Refusing to be trapped by social analysis
An apostolic age needs to free itself from the logic of sociological surveys and numerical extrapolations about the place of belief in the coming age. Whatever their use, such things tell us very little about the future fortunes of the Church. They leave out faith and miracle and the Holy Spirit by a necessity of their method, and so they will necessarily be inaccurate concerning the activity of a spiritual organism with its roots in heaven. What sociological survey could have predicted the conversion of an ancient and sophisticated civilization at the hands of a small group of uneducated laborers? What numerical analysis could have surmised the explosion of the monastic movement? Or the conversion of all the pagan peoples of Europe? Or the appearance of a Saint Francis and his thousands of followers in a few short years? Or the apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe and the conversion of Mexico? Or, for that matter, the conversion of a single soul? What sociological study can gauge the presence of the Holy Spirit or the power of prayer? From its first appearance, the Church has been a massive surprise; in every age its existence is a standing miracle. The unlikely and unlooked-for success of Christianity tends to get lost in a Christendom culture, when the wonder and the revolutionary power of an Incarnate God can come to be seen as just part of the way things are supposed to go. But in every age the Church runs counter to the spiritual atmosphere of a darkened world, even if at times it is successful enough to influence that atmosphere in significant ways. Every conversion is a marvel of grace, an astonishing work of God. Saint Augustine once said that it was a greater miracle for God to save one sinner than to have created the whole world. Augustine’s comment points to the attitude appropriate to an apostolic age.
This is not to say that such societal analyses are of no worth or should be ignored. They are useful, even essential, in helping Christians to understand the culture they are navigating, and they can provide necessary information concerning the current state of belief. They can be used as spurs to action and as information to construct the appropriate stance and strategy of the Church. But sociological analyses are not markers of the Church’s spiritual strength, nor can they predict how the Church will fare into the future, nor should they be a source of hand-wringing and an excuse for lack of faith.
As an example, in the late eighteenth century the European Church was in a general state of lassitude, with large numbers of its educated classes falling off from their faith. Then came the French Revolution, and Christendom’s lead country was thrown into twenty-five years of warfare, chaos, and waves of forced dechristianization. The Pope was for a time held prisoner, the traditional Christian monarchies were tottering, and many thought the Church was on her last legs: old, lacking conviction, about to expire. Vocations to the priesthood and religious life in France were at a very low ebb, seminary instruction was lacking, many religious orders had lost their foundations, and there were contrary ideals and currents of unbelief in the wider society set against Christianity and the Church that weren’t likely to go away. A sympathetic observer of the state of the French church around the year 1810 or 1815 would have seen nothing but wreckage and, given simple sociological data, would have predicted vocational disaster into the future with everything that implies. What happened was something different. In 1808 there were 12,300 religious sisters in France. In 1878 there were 135,000. In 1830 there were some 3,000 priests of all kinds serving the French Church. In 1878 there were around 30,000, a ten-fold increase in sixty years, and their median age in 1878 was significantly younger than it had been sixty years earlier. Whatever might be said of the Church’s fortunes at that time, it was evident that it wasn’t about to disappear. All of this was a great surprise to the Church’s enemies, especially to those who were developing the discipline of sociology as a kind of replacement for theology and who were happily predicting, under its methodology, the demise of the Church. According to their logic, none of this should have happened. The point is that the Church has great powers of regeneration. It is not a static body with a fixed amount of resources and a limited number of adherents. It responds to each situation it encounters with the power and the generative quality of the Holy Spirit. This regeneration happens when the members of the Church take stock of their times, renew their commitment to the whole of the Gospel, and place themselves at the service of Christ. Of course, if the Church and the Faith are treated as purely human constructs, numerical analyses will have more predictive power, and the common dire prognostications are then more likely to come true.
3. Maintaining and using institutions differently
A key difference between a Christendom and an apostolic age has to do with the way Church institutions function. Institutions are essential to Church life, indeed to human life. They are a necessity of existence in a world of space and time. It is no surprise then that in God’s dealings with the human race, he has been so insistent on the founding and maintenance of proper institutions within which humans can live and their ideals and relationships can come to fruition. The family is the primeval human institution, and the Church is the most important and most comprehensive institution of all, the home in which the whole person is addressed and cared for into eternity. And there are a host of other institutions in between, from parishes, to schools, religious orders, charity organizations, businesses and neighborhood associations, which together provide the fabric of a healthy life.
The word “institution,” although it has a long and illustrious Christian pedigree, currently has a stodgy and impersonal feel, and we can be reluctant to use it. This reluctance is due partly to the way the word has been used in sociological analysis. But it is also due to the sad fact that most modern institutions have for various reasons become corrupted and therefore inhuman places. A healthy institution is always ordered to the human person and enhances, or at least does not diminish, the humanity of those under its influence. When we think of an institution, the first thing that should come to mind is not an overly-bureaucratized business or a forbidding school building, much less a prison, but rather a close-knit family circle or a parish where faith and love are evident and all are well cared for. When Christian institutions have lost much of their spirit and freshness, it becomes tempting to think that the solution is to be found in leaving institutions behind altogether. “Spirituality” comes to replace “organized religion,” by which is meant religion seated in institutions. The incarnation of religious ideals in institutions, an essential operation in God’s providential plan of salvation, is perceived as inimical to vibrant faith. Given the current cultural confusion and the subjectivist nature of our time, this is an understandable mistake, but it is a serious mistake nonetheless. Properly founding and caring for institutions in which the ideals of a culture are incarnated is the heart of all civilized life. God is very much in favor of (proper) institutions, as is clear by his founding them and his insistence on their maintenance. Jesus spent much of his time among his closest disciples, laying the groundwork for the institution that he himself would inhabit by the Holy Spirit.
In a time of transition such as ours, we should expect that the pastoral and evangelistic strategies that have pertained for a long time under the influence of an assumed Christendom narrative vision will no longer prove as effective as they once did.
It seems a law of institutional life that a given institution will tend to conform to the overarching imaginative and moral vision of the society in which it finds itself. When that ruling vision is a good one, such conformity is an advantage. When it is Christian, it is an especial advantage; one of the advantages of a Christendom society is exactly this tendency for its institutions to take a Christian form. But this comes with a corollary: a Christian institution in a non-Christian or anti-Christian cultural environment can only maintain its distinctively Christian character by energetic resistance to conformity with the wider atmosphere. Not to exercise such concerted activity is to lose the institution’s original purpose. In other words, for a Christian institution to shed its Christian bearings and spirit in an apostolic time, whether the institution be a family or a parish or a university or a charity organization, it does not need to be led decisively away from Christianity. All it needs to do is carry on in a maintenance “business as usual” mode, and in a fairly short space of time, as the institution conforms to dominant cultural forces, its inner spirit will have been lost to Christ. It is the difference between floating a canoe downriver with the occasional guiding push (in Christendom mode) or steering it upriver against the current with energetic strokes (in apostolic mode). What happens when the rowing stops is quite different in the two cases. Those who think the current is going their way – when in fact it is against them – will be surprised to find themselves rushing along in a direction they did not intend.
In an apostolic time, institutions need to become more self-conscious about their mission, their aims, and their inner spirit. Those who lead and inhabit them need to know with greater clarity what they are doing, why they are doing it, what the likely consequences of taking certain kinds of decisions will be, and how the inner culture of the institution is best maintained against the tide.
What is needed here can be seen clearly in the current marriage culture. Not so long ago – in fact, only a generation or two ago – it was sufficient for a young Christian couple who wanted to marry and raise a family to do so according to the way they had been raised, following the general stream of the culture. They knew there were some societal patterns they would want to avoid, but there was a fairly clear path ahead of them. Many such couples would not have been able to articulate in any detail why they lived the way they did, raised and educated their children in a given way, pursued their work and recreational life according to a certain pattern. It was the obvious thing to do in a Christendom culture; it had long been done this way; it did not need to be spoken about; it had worked for their parents, and it would work for them. But in the current climate, the results of the inadequacy of this way of proceeding are evident on every side. How often parents of a certain age mourn the loss of their children to the Faith without knowing how or why it happened. “We sent them to Catholic schools; we took them to Mass. We did everything our own parents did! What went wrong?” A way of living Catholic family life that would have been at least adequate in a Christendom culture is now sadly inadequate to compete with the overpowering atmosphere that their children inhabit.
In the current cultural climate young, serious-minded Christians who marry are much clearer about their task. From the start, their decisions to get married at all, to remain chaste before marriage, to intend their marriage to last for life, and to welcome children into their family have put them into a counter-cultural stance, one that will be viewed as strange by many of their peers. They know they will have to think through every aspect of their family’s life if they are to maintain its Christian vitality. They understand that they will not be able to depend on the wider culture as a pattern for how they should raise or educate their children, or how they should spend their money, or use technology, or choose among entertainment options. They are aware of the need for an integrated vision of their institutional (family) life within which all its activities can find meaning. They will need to raise their children differently from how they themselves were raised, not necessarily because their parents did a bad job, but because the surrounding environment has so radically changed. They are consciously moving from a Christendom mode of thinking and acting to an apostolic one. They know that their family life, if properly established, will not only provide a good environment for their children but will also be a source of intrigue and hope to many around them looking for a better way to live. Raising a Christian family has always been a serious task; in an apostolic age, it is a missionary adventure.
In other Church institutions – schools, universities, charities, and parishes – the same principle is at work. Such institutions will cease to be meaningfully Christian and Catholic unless there is clarity of identity and understanding concerning the aims of the institution among all its members. In a Christendom age, an institution that is being led in a sleepy or muddled way will still be more or less Christian, riding the general drift of the culture. In an apostolic age, it will be rapidly swept down the current away from Christ and the Church. Because of this current danger, such institutions need to be more selective about whom they employ and more intentional about how they train their members. Those accustomed to functioning in a Christendom mode, or those who have lost the Christian narrative and have been largely captured by the overall vision of the wider culture, will no doubt find this difficult: it will seem doctrinaire, rigoristic, or intolerant. They have become accustomed to floating with the current, and the energy and clarity needed to navigate upstream is alien to them. Rather than taking as their pattern the whole Gospel of Christ in all its difficult and liberating clarity, they will tend to embrace less decisive formulations of their mission that allow compromise with the culture’s ruling spirit. Vague talk about values will come to replace doctrine, Church liturgy, and discipleship – a recipe for losing the institution’s founding ideals. Of course, those establishing or re-invigorating an institution need to be careful not to become sectarian or paranoid, ruled by fear rather than by faith. But they will also need to be clear and decisive.
The difference in attitude between institutions in a Christendom environment and institutions in an apostolic setting is highlighted by two of Jesus’ pastoral teachings. In a Christendom setting, “he that is not against you is for you” (Luke 9:50). In Christendom, as long as there is no active opposition to the ideals of the institution, a certain number of apathetic or poorly trained members will do it no special harm. They will tend to conform, at least passively, to the Christendom orientation of the wider culture, and while they won’t help move things forward or deepen their clarity, they won’t get in the way. In an apostolic situation, “he who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters” (Luke 11:23). It is not enough in such a time to have a neutral or noncommittal attitude toward the aims of the institution in question. This supposed neutrality is not really neutral and will eventually result in active opposition, because such uncommitted members will likely conform to the wider societal vision without thinking about it. Whether they intend to or not, they will be adding their weight to the dissolution of the institution by the gradual eroding of its original purpose.
There is no getting around the fact that, in a society moving away from Christendom, the Church will by a kind of social necessity grow smaller: the majority in any society tends to embrace the ruling societal vision unconsciously unless they explicitly move out of it to something else.
In a time like ours, a typical error of Church institutions is simply to avoid paying attention to questions of overall vision, to assume that such matters are either unimportant or are more or less settled, and to limit themselves to technical and administrative goals. Such goals may be praiseworthy or at least necessary, but they can become a distraction if they are pursued apart from deeper questions. In ignoring foundational matters and pursuing lesser ones, they can undermine the spirit of the institution. Given the current climate, the result may be institutions that possess various technical excellences but which will not be Christian.
For example, it is an aspect of the current cultural climate (and an unfortunate expression of its fundamental decadence) that technique and procedure are seen as the most important considerations for accomplishing serious goals. Unfortunately, this attitude can be taken on by those responsible for Catholic institutions. Rather than emphasizing the deepest questions – What is the good, the true, and the just? How can we develop the truly and fully human? What is expected of us by God? What will most conduce to eternal as well as temporal human happiness? – our society asks only: What is “best practice”? What is going to bring the highest return? What is the latest trend? What will most conform to the going professional standards? What will gain for us the greatest measure of social and professional prestige? What will be most immediately successful in a quantifiable, measurable mode? These are often important questions, but they can be answered well only when they are embedded in and ruled by more significant principles. Otherwise one can find that an alleged “best practice” may be damaging the human dignity of those using it, or that the latest pedagogical breakthrough may be founded on an anthropology that assumes a secular and unbelieving vision of humanity and thereby tends to destroy the faith of those under its influence, or that insisting on professionalism or respectability may in a given instance mean betraying the Gospel of Christ, or that pursuing profit alone will result in the subversion of the real purpose of the institution.
4. Establishing and strengthening practices that incarnate the Christian vision
In order for the unseen, spiritual world to become a living force in our minds, this invisible world needs to be visibly incarnated in space and time. This principle touches on the sacramental nature of things, the intercommunion between the material and the spiritual, and can be seen in the way God has revealed himself from the beginning. In showing himself to be the creator, the center of all being, the helper and redeemer of humanity, he did not merely get these ideas going esoterically in peoples’ minds. He fashioned these invisible truths into visible forms that would be reminders of them and roads to experiencing them. Hence, he arranged for the Temple and its sacrifice, the Law, the Sabbath, the formation of a distinct people, the whole manner of life and worship that he gave to the Israelites. Finally, this principle of the invisible manifesting in the visible took definitive form in the coming of the incarnate Word of God. Ever since then it has been expressed in a thousand ways by the Church. While faith is far more than its outward forms, without those forms it cannot long survive.
What has been true of the Church is true universally. Every society, seemingly by an inner law of its nature, expresses its ruling vision in a set of institutions and practices within which its ideas and principles clothe themselves. In this way the ruling vision comes to live in the minds and imaginations, as well as the physical and temporal environments, of its members. The things we do, the kind and manner of activities we engage in, the way we organize our lives, the way we structure the physical world around us, how we order our time, all will have a great deal to do with what we think and believe. The statement “out of sight, out of mind” is a popular way of getting at this. Ideas that are not incarnated in the stuff of the world soon lose their hold on our minds. This principle is of special importance for Christians. Christianity involves the revelation of a world that is largely invisible, most importantly concerning the being of God, but also including immortal human souls, angelic beings, humanity’s true home in heaven, and a coming judgment. If these invisible realities are not incarnated in visible form, they will soon weaken their hold on the mind and imagination.
In a Christendom time, the Christian vision is the primary influence in shaping the “architecture” of the society as a whole. Not only church buildings and worship services but the organization of towns, the “soundscape” of bells, the division of the year by feasts and seasons, the way of working and dressing and eating and speaking, all express the invisible world behind the visible one. If that Christendom world is no longer present and the society is going in a different direction, Christians will need to find ways to create a societal architecture that incarnates an increasingly counter-cultural Christian vision.
Our current society, once visibly ordered to Christianity, has been transformed; it now incarnates a very different vision undergirded by a very different set of principles. It has largely forgotten the invisible world, such that its rhythms and practices are bounded by the visible and the temporal. Those under its influence will naturally have a hard time maintaining a clear sense of invisible and eternal realities. They will come to believe what they see and practice. A soldier on tour and away from his home will put a photograph of his wife and young children in a place of prominence as a way of keeping his affection and constancy fresh and vivid. Similarly, an individual Christian and the Church as a whole will find ways to express the invisible world around them, embodied in practices and customs, lest that vision first recede to the surface of their minds and finally be lost to them. This does not mean, for most, constructing an entirely different social and cultural world. It means learning to shake free of some of the secular practices around us, creatively finding ways to remind ourselves of the world as it truly is. Adjustments can be made around the ordering of our time, the arrangement of our homes, and the use of various electronic technologies, all directed toward constructing a genuine incarnation of a positive and coherent Christian vision of the world.
According to the sacramental understanding of the world, the invisible world is greater, richer, larger, and more real than the visible world, and it is lasting rather than evanescent. Sacramentality holds that the invisible world is clothed in and can be reached through visible things.
Liturgy takes on great importance in this regard as the focal point, the seed crystal, of the visible incarnation of invisible reality. Vatican II’s document on liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, puts the broad principle this way:
5. Rethinking priestly life and education in light of the current cultural context
It was noted previously that families serious about their Catholic faith are finding it increasingly necessary to make adjustments in order to thrive in an apostolic and missionary situation. The same is true, yet more compellingly, for priests. Family life and its rhythms have a certain natural quality that allow at least some sympathy and affinity with almost all human societies. But apart from the understanding of the world that Christ and the Church bring, the priest is an ambiguous figure and his role in life does not make sense. It is thus incumbent upon the Church in a missionary age that she pay special attention to the education of priests and to the shape of their lives, not just morally, but in its overall atmosphere, all the more as the priest has a special responsibility to carry the Christian vision for all the faithful. Our current mode of training priests and the typical shape of priestly life as we now experience it were developed during a Christendom time, and they depend upon a Christendom society for their reasonable functioning. The collapse of Christendom is therefore leading, not surprisingly, to a crisis of priestly life. It is an urgent need of our time to devise ways of preparing priests and of providing avenues of priestly life such that they are ready to meet the new demands of an apostolic time.
In a Christendom age, the priest is a known and understood member of the society. Everywhere he goes his identity and role are recognized. He still has a serious personal task before him, to conform his heart and his behaviour to Christ and to serve those under his care with charity and zeal, but he is not likely to forget who he is and why he has been set apart for service. He was brought up as a child with an implicit understanding of his calling, the whole of his environment reminds him of it, and the overall vision of the society helps him to make sense of his life and his duties. In such a society, a good-hearted priest who is sincere in his calling will probably find his way. His path is fairly clear and well-trodden, and his task will be to perform what is expected of him with faith, diligence and charity. For his preparation, in addition to learning his sacramental duties, he will need to be trained in theology such that he can be a reliable source of Christian truth for those he serves. His formation in character and his overall vision of the world will already be largely in place. The seminary can build upon the wider cultural environment and will be doing its task adequately if it deepens and purifies what is already present in the seminarian from his membership in his family and his society.
The current apostolic environment is different. Those who step forward for priesthood – at least the majority of them – will need not only theological training but also a conversion of mind and vision, coupled with a corresponding transformation of behaviour that counters much of what they have imbibed from the wider culture. The patterns of life and ways of thinking that have surrounded them from their childhood, often subtle in their operation, will have to be re-ordered, not just toward a Christian moral code, which may already be in place, but toward a holistic Christian narrative and vision. As such, recent efforts to implement a robust preparatory or spirituality year in priestly formation – a sustained opportunity for personal healing, intellectual conversion, and cultural “detox” – are precisely in line with the needs of our time.
And once ordained to priesthood, there is much in the cultural environment that will tend to the destruction of priestly life unless proper measures have been taken to secure it. In an apostolic age, articulating and building a sound priestly life is necessarily a communal venture. Only under exceptional circumstances would a general attempt to sustain an attack on well-defended enemy territory by sending individual soldiers against it one by one. In an apostolic age, it is equally imprudent for priests to think that they can survive in an enemy-held culture, much less prevail against it effectively, by taking it on singly. Christ himself did not attempt this, but always went about in a company, and the early apostolic missions were made of bands of apostolic workers. In an apostolic age, it is not enough for a priest to be good-hearted and sincere, excellent and necessary as those qualities are. Sending a priest alone and unprepared into the current culture is like sending a soldier alone and without defence against a well-armed fortress. Sincerity alone cannot win this kind of battle.
The question here is not so much whether our current priests are devout or not, hard-working or not, sincere in their calling, or worthy of praise as good servants. It has rather to do with the objective organization of priestly life to a specific end. Does our priestly formation provide the context for the kind of transformation of mind and vision necessary for our apostolic time? Does the typical pattern of priestly life, whether diocesan or religious, tend by its overall shape to give the priest what he will need to accomplish his task well and to live a holy and fruitful life? Does its atmosphere inspire those under its influence with a holistic Christian vision? Here a candid examination would yield the conclusion that neither our current priestly formation nor the present configuration of priestly life is particularly well-ordered to perform these apostolic tasks. A diocesan priest who wishes to incarnate these virtues will often be fighting against, rather than moving with, the grooves of priestly life ahead of him (the same could also be said for at least some religious priests). He will be forced to construct the architecture of his priestly life more or less on his own, and the challenges are many. He can easily become isolated, thereby making his own witness to brotherly love less real. He will operate independently by the necessity of circumstances, needing to find his own way in most of the details of his life. He will find himself affluent, if not outright wealthy (at least living a physically comfortable upper-middle class life, often with access to wealth beyond his own means at the hands of generous members of the faithful). He will find himself more or less alone in planning evangelistic initiatives. He will be very busy such that he will find it difficult to sustain a regular life of prayer and difficult also to maintain habits of study that will keep his mind alert and his preaching fresh. He will be vulnerable to overdoses of entertainment media, which will be a burden to his life of chastity and to his own sense of the sacred and through which he will be imbibing, often unconsciously, the narrative assumptions of a non-Christian world. He will have no obvious mechanism in his life for fraternal correction and, if he begins to stray, he may go a long way down a dangerous road before he is checked. In general, he will struggle to foster an overall Christian vision of life in the midst of a culture that promotes a different vision and a different gospel. This will make it difficult for him to maintain apostolic zeal during the long years and decades of his service, and he may easily fall prey to fatigue, cynicism, laxity, and even despair.
…the kind of remedy that is needed is not likely to be found in what is often called “priestly support”… Such remedies are likely insufficient to meet the challenges of an apostolic age. It is not so much emotional support that is needed, but rather a whole structure of life within which a priest can exercise his calling for the sake of others.
That many priests do not succumb to such temptations and do follow a road of zeal and holiness and enterprising apostolic activity is a testimony to their quiet heroism and to the grace of God. But given the current situation it is not surprising that many priests do not manage to avoid the looming pitfalls. The numbers who leave, who fall into public scandal, or who settle into an unhappy and tepid priestly life witness to the genuine difficulty. Many of these are good-hearted men who might have fared differently had the shape of their lives been more conducive to their apostolic calling. And for those who do manage to live in prayer and charity and apostolic zeal, the energy required of them to sustain such a life against the grain of their surroundings can be exhausting.
Sorting out how best to articulate and live the apostolic priestly calling in the modern post-Christian world will be a task for a whole generation of priests and will no doubt be accomplished in many different ways. In any event, the kind of remedy that is needed is not likely to be found in what is often called “priestly support,” which tends to the therapeutic and is satisfied by supplying a modicum of friendship and an occasional opportunity for the priest to talk things through and be understood. Such remedies are likely insufficient to meet the challenges of an apostolic age. It is not so much emotional support that is needed, but rather a whole structure of life within which a priest can exercise his calling for the sake of others. The priest needs to live in and be animated by a Christian vision and a pattern of practices that touch every aspect of life: a pattern ordered to loving obedience to counter the perennial idol of pride; ordered to chastity to counter the aggressive eroticization in the wider culture; ordered to poverty to counter rampant greed and debasing consumerism; ordered to fraternity and common life to counter isolation and fragmentation endemic to modern life and to provide a witness of brotherly love; ordered to prayer, liturgy, and the unseen world to stay in touch with the most important aspects of reality; ordered to austerity to fight the enervating push toward comfort and to maintain missionary zeal; ordered to charity and to effective preaching to reach hearts with the Gospel; ordered to love of the Scriptures and to theological study to be able to catechize and teach the Faith and to meet the intellectual challenges of a highly sophisticated age; and ordered to common initiatives to spearhead a new evangelistic mission. And running through all is a vision ordered to the deep joy of a life given for love of Christ and in imitation of him, configured to him in priesthood, consecrated entirely to him and to his service.
The point of this discussion is not so much to construct a list of desirable priestly virtues; it is rather to inquire into the overall pattern of seminarian formation and priestly life within which a priest actually lives and exercises his role. In the midst of the current post-Christendom context, does that formation and pattern of life tend to the clarity, holiness, and apostolic zeal of the priest who willingly embraces its contours? The current configuration may have worked well enough for many priests in the past. But a pattern of priestly life that was adequate to one cultural setting may be insufficient, and perhaps irresponsible, in another.
6. Allocating resources with apostolicity in mind
In a transitional time such as ours, those entrusted with leadership will need to lend their attention both to the maintenance of the existing institutional order and to the development of apostolic initiatives. Because apostolic works are often not immediately productive and require a different mode of thinking, the tendency can be to starve them of resources and to simply keep “working the system.” Under this scenario, when a Christendom way of ordering Church life and institutions proves ever less viable, available resources diminish and are spread ever more thinly until, at a certain point, massive institutional collapse ensues. Instead, without simply abandoning the existing institutional structure, the need is for significant resources to be given to developing the kind of apostolic initiatives that produce conversions, especially among the young. There is probably no easy calculus for determining when a given institution or initiative is worth salvaging and when it needs to be let go or pared down and resources given elsewhere. It is a matter of continual prudential examination of the overall apostolic situation.
Such allocation of resources cannot be done without serious “political will,” since it will mean, for example, that parishes may have to share a pastor while other priests are spending their time in what will seem less important or less productive activities. The analogy might be to an army in fallback mode, needing to abandon a certain territory in order to gather strength for the sake of a renewed attack at a later time. They won’t give up ground that they can maintain, and they won’t give up anything easily; but they will assign some of their soldiers to prepare fallback positions, and when it becomes clear that a certain bit of ground can’t reasonably be held, they will perform an orderly retreat. They will invest most of their fighting energy in what is strategically most important. The alternative is to hang on by the fingernails to every acre of ground until the collapse comes and the army is routed, with no possibility of counter-attack.
This principle applies, on a large scale, to a diocese or a school system or a religious order, but it also needs to be applied to each local instantiation of the institution: each family, parish, school, and local chapter of an organization. In an apostolic age such as ours there is no guarantee that things will keep operating merely because someone shows up as the manager. Without genuine conversion of overall vision and serious formation of mind among individual members, the institution will become lost or slowly disappear. Pastors, school administrators, and others in positions of institutional leadership will need to have an eye for the apostolic, keeping a lookout for genuinely committed disciples among their members and finding ways to nurture them. The aim is to create an “apostolic-friendly” environment that will encourage creative missionary initiative.
His great diocese was still an unimaginable mystery to him. He was eager to be abroad in it, to know his people.
An apostolic mode of running institutions tends to their renewal, but such renewal in the Church always comes from (relatively) small numbers who are given the grace of an intensity of spiritual life for the sake of the whole body. There can be a natural desire to want to see all boats rise together. For some, this means that whatever initiative is attempted needs to be done by everyone. Any group or organization with a more than usually vibrant life of faith produces uneasiness, and immediately there is an attempt to find some way to “spread the fire around” so that everyone participates. It is of course true that a gift of faith given to an individual or a group is meant to be a treasure for the whole Church, but it becomes so precisely when those who have received it are faithful to the charism they have been given. To try to spread such a gift around indiscriminately is like removing logs from a burning fire and spreading them one by one on the ground in order to distribute the heat better. All that happens is that the fire goes out. Those in roles of responsibility need to understand the dynamism of apostolic renewal in order to promote and nourish it rightly. Not everyone will participate in such renewal in the same way or with the same energy or at the same time.
7. Being ready to put up with a certain apostolic “messiness”
When there is genuine conversion taking place, and especially when it touches the young, there is excitement, a sense of growth, and an immediacy of the power of the Gospel. But it is also true that living, breathing disciples make for more problems. Unenlightened zeal, rigoristic attitudes, idiosyncratic or even heretical stances held with great energy, rivalries between individuals and groups, can and do arise. For the stolid administrator this is nothing but trouble, and after all, dead bodies are much easier to arrange than living ones. But the Church needs to be ready for this kind of energetic messiness if she wants to remain alive and capture the wider culture. Those in leadership positions – bishops, priests, seminary rectors, directors of institutes of various kinds, parents, and teachers – should have an instinct for the apostolic and should welcome apostolic energy even if it means taking certain risks. The Church has a long history of handling such energy and should certainly not be afraid of it. Jesus had a special love for James and John, the “sons of thunder,” even if he needed to rebuke them occasionally. And his choice for the apostle to the Gentiles was potentially a very difficult case. One wonders what Ananias and the others whose task it was to help Saint Paul into the local Church at Damascus shortly after his conversion must have felt. He was hardly the model seminarian too often posited by a sleepy and decaying Christendom – friendly, mild, and no trouble. Sometimes it is better to have to tame the over-zealous than to try to convert the skeptical and inspire the apathetic.
8. Expecting cultural influence to be exercised primarily by impressive witness
In a Christendom age, much of the influence of the Church is exercised from the “inside” of the society. Christianity has a privileged place in the culture, its representatives are given a respectful hearing, and much can be accomplished by diplomacy, cultivation of relationship, and maintaining influential positions. The art of the political, understood in a good sense, comes to the fore as a means of guiding the culture toward Christ. The difficult task is then to see that those who gain positions of influence and cultural authority are not themselves corrupted by greed or desire for power or fame. In an apostolic age, influence is exerted less by political arts than by a living witness to the Gospel that captures the imagination. The ancient world, which early held the Christian movement in disdain, was greatly impressed by the courage of the martyrs, by the care Christians gave to the poor and the sick, and by the moral probity of the lives of uneducated believers. These witnesses to the Faith contributed to the eventual conversion of the culture. We are moving again toward such an apostolic age.
In a time such as ours, many will be attempting to exercise influence in a Christendom mode, from the inside, and they will find the returns diminishing and the effect increasingly corrupting. The possibility of influencing the society in this way becomes ever less likely, and those who think they are making headway will often come to find that they have been used by others whose interests are vastly different. A change of attitude is needed. The Church in such a time needs to cultivate a spirit that pursues her true vocation heroically and that spends less time being concerned with what the wider society thinks. This will allow the kind of witness to the Faith that can have a profound influence and can ultimately help to convert the culture. The witness of Mother Teresa and her sisters is an example of the kind of daily heroism called for in such an age.
Pope Paul VI’s famous assertion that modern man is more willing to listen to witnesses than to teachers, quoted at the beginning of this section, is perhaps best seen in this light. We can tend to interpret this profound insight according to the individualistic and moralistic vision so common among moderns and thus think that he is mainly talking about impressive personal moral action taken by individuals. While his meaning certainly includes such action and points to the need for Christians to live the faith we profess if we hope to gain any kind of hearing for the Gospel, this does not tell the whole story. Such impressive and visible moral actions are not so easy to come by; much – if not most – of Christian moral heroism takes place away from the public eye. Another look at Mother Teresa will signal a yet fuller meaning of what it means to witness to the Faith. Mother Teresa did more than personally care for those on the fringes of life, as beautiful as that was. She went on to establish an order of Sisters whose life and way of being witnessed to a whole vision of the world. By their homes, their prayers, their chastity, their simplicity of life, their cheerfulness, and their labor on behalf of the poor, the Missionaries of Charity have compellingly incarnated and expressed to others a different way of seeing everything. They have made common witness to the great treasure to be found in Christ, to the superfluity of riches, to the love of God for every person no matter how obscure; and for millions around the world, Mother Teresa’s blue and white sari has become an icon of the love and mercy of God. In an apostolic age, the Church’s most potent and truest witness comes in this fashion, in her communal life, all aspects of which point to the reality of the invisible world.
It is not an uncommon error for those attempting a pastoral and evangelistic strategy in our time of transition to move in exactly the wrong direction as regards Christian witness. Having become accustomed to a situation in which the majority in the society are members of the Church, they have taken majority status as normative for all times, as the only authentic posture for the Church within the society. When many are leaving the Church under the influence of the ruling non-Christian vision or, while still remaining Church members, are complaining about doctrines or disciplines or aspects of its moral vision that don’t square easily with prevailing cultural attitudes, some in the Church want to adjust or do away with the “difficult” aspects of the Gospel in order to keep people in the pews. For those with this view, the worst possible situation for the Church is to find that the majority are not with them. It seems a sign that they are failing in their fundamental task, despite Jesus’ words about the wide and the narrow way, the many and the few (cf. Matthew 7, et al.). Thus, they attempt a kind of compromise in the hope of remaining contemporary and relevant. If the world will not allow itself to be raised to the level of the Church, the Church will have to lower itself to the level of the world. While the motivation for such accommodation is understandable, in practice this way of proceeding proves ineffective (to say nothing of the question of faithfulness to the Gospel). In an apostolic age the Church needs to be not less, but more exacting of her members; the distinct lines of her life and vision need to be made clearer, not mistier. By such a distinctive witness, her true influence upon the society will be exercised.
Rather, the Church’s primary stance before an unbelieving world is not the imposition of law, which assumes knowledge of its existence and purpose, but the invitation, under an attitude of mercy and hope, into a relationship with the living God and incorporation into the new humanity…
There is a flip side to this attitude toward Church life and witness. Just as the Church will demand more from her own members in an apostolic time, she will expect less from those who are not her members; she will not demand of those who are not genuinely converted to a Christian way of seeing and of living to abide by the way she orders her life or even to understand how and why she does so. To expect this is to keep thinking in a Christendom mode; it is to insist that everyone in the society is or should be Christian, at least materially. Rather, the Church’s primary stance before an unbelieving world is not the imposition of law, which assumes knowledge of its existence and purpose, but the invitation, under an attitude of mercy and hope, into a relationship with the living God and incorporation into the new humanity, to an entirely new way of being and of seeing, one that liberates and that brings meaning and joy.
This double stance toward the Church and the wider society can be difficult for many American Catholics, not only because it signals a new and seriously challenging time (a sobering prospect on its own), but because during the last half-century or so there has been an unconscious embrace by many Catholics of an American narrative vision by which the United States is seen, effectively, as the Church. A strong strain of the American mythical narrative views America as the hope of the world, the true “salt of the earth.” Few Catholics would express it this way, but the underlying assumption is present and potent. One can see its influence in the investment of a kind of religious fervor in American patriotism, in the practical attitude that the most important issues we face are sorted out in the realm of politics, and in the loss of fundamental hope when it seems that America is “losing its way.” For those who have assumed this vision, a kind of transposition occurs. The legitimate concern that the worldwide Church, called to be a light to the world and inhabited by the Holy Spirit, remain faithful to Christ and be held to a high standard of purity in her mission for the sake of humanity’s salvation is repackaged as the concern that America be faithful to its founding ideals lest the world go astray. Whether that American salvific mission is seen as the dissemination of capitalist democracy or the remaking of the world through the U.N.’s millennial goals, the error is the same. Whatever have been the genuine virtues and accomplishments of America, which are surely not insignificant, and however good it would be that America remain faithful to the best of its traditions, such a view of things has little to do with the Christian faith and is miserably inadequate to the genuine need of humanity.
We should be clear about this: even as we love our country and hope that it prospers and exercises good influence beyond its borders, we know that America is in no sense the hope of the world. That honor belongs to Christ alone as he works through his body, the Church. There is nothing surprising, nothing that should touch our Christian hope, however sad and unfortunate it might be, that America would be susceptible to the corruptions of a fallen humanity. The Blessed Mother was immaculately conceived, not the American Republic.
This five-part series is drawn from From Christendom to Apostolic Mission: Pastoral Strategies for an Apostolic Age, published by the University of Mary (2020).
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