Fr. Sean Weeks
Fr. Sean Weeks
This is the third and final story in a series on a spiritual movement in the Archdiocese of Portland.

When first encountering those who have yet to embrace belief, the church should focus on the amazing promises of relationship with Jesus, leaving doctrine and catechesis for later. That’s the advice of a book foundational to a new spiritual movement in the Archdiocese of Portland.

“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,” Msgr. James Shea writes in the 2020 book “From Christendom to Apostolic Mission: Pastoral Strategies for an Apostolic Age.”

Here is the crux of Msgr. Shea’s 94-page book: The church needs to stop cruising along blithely as if it existed in a comfortable Christian society. Instead, Christians must act more like the earliest disciples who offered a thrilling paradigm to a skeptical world.

“In the Christian vision, to be human is to be involved in an extraordinary adventure,” writes Msgr. Shea, president of the University of Mary in North Dakota. Most books, films and television shows, he insists, are but weak copies of the story of Jesus.

In this case, one can tell a book by its cover. The front art carries the message nicely; it’s an 1880 painting by Vasily Perov of the first Christians in Kyiv, Ukraine, utterly amazed and overcome by the story they are hearing and telling.

Msgr. Shea reminds readers that when the church began it faced a skeptical Greek culture and went into apostolic mode, reaching out and offering a contrasting vision. The early church borrowed much from the Jewish worldview and ended up taking the Mediterranean by storm over the course of only a few centuries. That gave rise to a Christian culture in the West, known by the shorthand term Christendom. But this culture, perhaps weakened by its own wealth, eventually took a turn toward worshipping autonomy and material gain, a course embellished by modern electronic media.

Msgr. Shea points out the obvious: Western culture steadily has shed its Christian basis, and many moderners think the church has little to offer. At the same time, multiple alleged roads to happiness have emerged, among them consumerism and technology.

Msgr. Shea won’t give up and even thinks this is an opportune time for Christ and his followers to make inroads in a culture marked by material riches and spiritual misery.

“A compelling Christian narrative is called for, one that provides a counter to the secular vision, that helps Christians fend off false gospels,” he writes.

The Holy Spirit, he reminds readers, keeps the church as the freshest institution on earth.

Msgr. Shea calls on readers to trust in the Spirit’s work and believe that while the death of Christendom is worth mourning, a better church may emerge from the wreckage. Among some, the bloated Christendom culture tended to foster ennui, careerism and a sense that the mission is only about maintaining the institution.

By contrast, a nimble and hungry apostolic church has a better chance of touching souls, the monsignor insists.

Msgr. Shea offers a number of warnings to Christians who set out on the apostolic path.

A bitter church that insulates itself or hides from the wider culture would be a disaster in his view. He reminds readers that the great apostle St. Paul did not act as a mere opponent of Hellenistic culture, but found a way to engage its sophisticated philosophical vision of the cosmos — and thus revolutionize it.

Parents must get clearer in their Christian life and witness to counter modern culture’s poor influences, Msgr. Shea contends. If not, a vague Christian vision will get trounced by a material culture that prioritizes self-interest. But, the monsignor wisely cautions, parents must avoid acting out of fear or becoming sectarian.

To modern progressives, Msgr. Shea counsels against accentuating the moral and social mission of the church without embracing the whole of the Christian vision. The danger is that the church becomes one among many helping groups and not, as Msgr. Shea stirringly writes, what it really is, “the re-created human race saved from death and slavery.”

In an apostolic age, the main need is for telling personal stories of encounter with Jesus and building a distinctly Christian vision, Msgr. Shea said.

The apostolic path won’t likely look like a success at first. “The Church will regularly appear to be the underdog when an assessment of her fortunes looks only at the visible world,” Msgr. Shea writes. He reminds readers that even Jesus, the best preacher of all time, got a poor reception.

Don’t sweat the smaller numbers, Msgr. Shea seems to say. He reminds readers that the church of France plummeted at the time of the revolution then returned stronger and purer in the 19th century and influenced New World Catholicism.

“Ten genuine followers of Christ will prove more fecund in new believers than a thousand whose faith is lukewarm or non-existent,” he writes. “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.”