Back to the Future: From Christendom to Apostolic Mission

From Christendom to Apostolic Mission is a diagnosis with a prescription for the ills confounding a post-Christian culture.

Msgr. James Shea and students from the University of Mary participate in the 2020 March for Life in Washington, DC.
Msgr. James Shea and students from the University of Mary participate in the 2020 March for Life in Washington, DC. (photo: Motion Media/Alicia Joritz / University of Mary)

“At every point, the One who came as light into darkness to establish a kingdom of truth and love has been opposed by the darkness. The light continues to shine; its origin is in God himself, and the darkness cannot overcome it .”

That is the opening message in the book From Christendom to Apostolic Mission: Pastoral Strategies for an Apostolic Age. It continues:

“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 age to age. It is therefore important for those who are members of Christ’s body, who share in his divine life and so are called by him to be the light of the world (cf. Matthew 5), to take thought for the times in which they live and to devise pastoral and evangelistic strategies suited to those times.”

From Christendom to Apostolic Mission (University of Mary Press, 2020) is a diagnosis with a prescription for the ills confounding a post-Christian culture. And it has gone viral with no advertising, revealing that the message strikes a chord in a culture where Christianity is no longer the prevailing wind. By understanding how the first spark of apostolic zeal led to the civilizations of Christendom, which then later became complacent and slipped away, we can wrap our minds around the Catholic Church of today and tap into the Holy Spirit for the challenges ahead.

The book was put together by Msgr. James Shea, president of the University of Mary. In an interview with the Register, he explained that the inspiration for it began with ongoing conversations among friends. When he gave talks on the topic, the reaction from audiences in several states revealed that Catholics are truly worried about the rapid secularization of our culture. 

“Our main motive in publishing the book was as an encouragement and explanatory piece for those working here at the University of Mary,” Msgr. Shea explained. “We want to have a common vision and sense of purpose in our important work of Catholic higher education. That was the first purpose of the work. We put it up on Amazon, but that’s because all of our University of Mary Press books are on our Amazon account. We didn’t spend a dollar on advertising.” 

What happened next was a big surprise. “We began getting a small number of orders, then more and more,” Msgr. Shea said. “Then, I think because a number of podcasts across the country had done episodes about the book, it got so that we were struggling to keep up with the demand. Dioceses were calling to order thousands of copies at a time. The Diocese of Sioux Falls did a video series on the book and then a study guide, with book clubs meeting in all of the parishes of eastern South Dakota. The Archdioceses of Oklahoma City, Portland, Detroit, Omaha and Denver all placed large orders.” 


Walking the Apostolic Walk

It is important to note that as one who has lived in Bismarck for 30 years and has had several children attend the University of Mary, the book does not just share ideas but also employs them. One of the fruits of UMary’s apostolic mission is two Masses a day filled with students. (There are six chapels on campus.) 

That commitment is intentional and imaginative. Here are just two illustrations of that. One is a pilgrimage to Lourdes, France, and Dachau, Germany, taken by 41 faculty members from the School of Health Sciences in 2017 (with the help of an outside donor). The stark contrast between a brutal, dehumanizing concentration camp in Dachau and the respect for all humanity at the Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes impacted the faculty in a way that would impact their instruction. As Jodi Roller, dean of the School of Health Sciences, told me then, “Teaching about human dignity will become more explicit in our mission.”
Another example is the school’s Catholic studies program, which is separate from the religion department to impart the Catholic imaginative vision. Catholic studies can be a second major or a minor. It integrates Catholicism into all aspects of academic, professional and personal life, being the leaven in all the other sciences to see them as a whole.


Struggle of the Ages

The book itself walks readers through Christian history, beginning with a time where zeal, the truth and the Holy Spirit was all the Church had — that, and 11 apostles. We see the waves of evangelization spreading to create cultures of Christendom, where Christianity becomes the prevailing wind, only to eventually slip into the [surrounding] culture through complacency. Once the culture smothers much of the spirit that should set the Church apart from the secular world, the mission must again become apostolic to overcome it. 

Pastoral strategies include rethinking education and also rejecting social analysis that expects defeat, given that such methods fail to see a spiritual organism with 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?” the book states. “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 St. Francis and his thousands of followers in a few short years? Or the apparitions of Our Lady of Guadalupe and the conversion of Mexico? Or, for that matter, the conversion of a single soul?”

The book conveys that societies have a moral and spiritual “imaginative vision” that impacts everything about that society. In the U.S., we have experienced a dramatic shift in recent decades, from a “Christendom imaginative vision” to a secular one demanding that the Church rethink her strategies for spreading the Gospel. “It’s urgent,” says Msgr. Shea.

And ultimately, he stated, we are to seize the adventure of working with the Holy Spirit to live and share the saving message given to us by Jesus Christ. “Our task,” he said, “is to understand that we are living in a new apostolic age, to trust that the Holy Spirit is at work, and as St. Paul says, the more that evil is present, the more grace abounds.”