The president of the University of Mary discusses our apostolic age, the Eucharist, and the Church's engagement with harmful ideas.
Msgr. James Shea, president of the University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota, has caused much discussion in Catholic circles with the book From Christendom to Apostolic Mission (University of Mary Press), which communicates that we are living in a post-Christian age and are called to be missionaries to this new era.
In this interview with the Register on campus in April, he discussed the book's message, the National Eucharistic Revival, and the way in which the Church engages with harmful ideas.
Tell me about this book, From Christendom to Apostolic Mission, and why you think it has resonated with many readers.
This book is a great surprise and a little bit of an embarrassment. It's not something that I sat down and wrote. This was the result of a conversation that happened between a group of good friends over the course of several years. We love the Church, and we were thinking, "Okay, what's happening right now in the world in which we live?"
There are some moments in human history where you can draw a bright line between everything that went before and everything that's coming after. We find ourselves in such a time.
From Christendom to Apostolic Mission characterizes it like this, that in the first 300 years or so of Christianity, we were living in apostolic times. That meant that the first disciples, the apostles and those who followed the apostles, were living in a time in which they were trying to preach the Gospel in a very countercultural way because they were coming up against a very impressive Greco-Roman culture that had a vision of human life which was different from the message of Jesus Christ.
After about 300 years, spilling a lot of blood and a lot of persecution, that Christian vision came to challenge and then eventually overcome the Greco-Roman vision of the human person, incorporating certain aspects of the classical vision into its own vision.
Life in the West since then has been a series of what could be called Christendom cultures. A Christendom culture is a culture in which the society takes its imaginative vision from the Christian message. Individual human lives, categories of success and failure, ideas of right and wrong, even the institutions, schools and government, are founded in deeply Christian principles.
What we've seen over the course of the last couple hundred years is a civilization that has been slowly, but surely, ridding itself of its Christian basis or foundations, such that now we find ourselves in the first post-Christian civilization in all of history.
Now we find ourselves in the first post-Christian civilization in all of history.
That has certain implications; and what it means for us as Catholics is that we find ourselves in a new apostolic age. The Church has different strategies, which it applies to different times. In the first 300 years, there was a particular way that the Church went through the world, which was different from how the Church was in the world in those long Christendom years and different even in Christendom from the way that things were done in mission territory. The whole of the civilization has become mission territory, but this is not a major news flash. That's what's so embarrassing about this book. Pope St. Paul VI was talking about this—that the whole civilization, the culture, has become mission territory and that we have to be missionaries now.
This small essay was an internal piece that we published so that people at the University of Mary would know this is why the University of Mary is moving through the world in this particular way. That it caught fire and became resonant means that it probably articulated in a simple and accessible way what John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis have been saying in a pretty consistent way over the course of the last 60 years.
I think another reason why the book has resonated so widely in the culture is that it's so hopeful. People are really on edge. Believers are feeling themselves under siege, and they wonder, "What is going on in the world?" and "Can we have hope anymore?" If they can simply see the ground is simply shifted under our feet and that's nothing to be terrified about; it's just a challenge that we need to meet.
What are your thoughts on the National Eucharistic Revival?
There was a 2019 Pew research study about the belief of Catholics in the Real Presence, finding that there had been, over the course of the last several generations, a significant decline in the belief of Catholics in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. The bishops believed, rightly, that there needed to be a concerted response to this.
What's happened isn't simply that we've become lax in our teaching or our practice. A lot of people make the mistake of boiling this down to a question of not being clear enough about what the Church teaches about the Eucharist. Now, that's a difficulty. We do need to preach what the Church teaches about Jesus being truly, really and substantially present in the Blessed Sacrament. We need people to understand that, but even if we were able to do that, that's not sufficient.
It's not sufficient to simply say we need to be more reverent in our worship. That is an important concern, as well. If we're casual or sloppy in the way that we worship the Lord, if we don't take proper reverence toward the great gift which is Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, then there's going to be a decrease in devotion.
But to connect it with the whole question of a movement from a Christendom time to a new apostolic time, there's something else at hand here, and that's that the religion which has taken the place of Christianity is a kind of aggressive, scientistic materialism. That's a vision of the world and of human life which dismisses out of hand the possibility of an invisible world and the possibility of a fierce allegiance to the invisible world.
The visible world is always tricky for us as Christian believers because it both conceals and reveals the invisible world. You see this all through the Gospels, where Jesus is warning people about various things because the visible world can lull us into thinking that it's all that there is.
Never before in all of human history has there been a society or a civilization so materialistic and so scientistic in their understanding as our current world. We live in a world of spectacular sights and sounds and images, which come to us through our smartphones and on television. Constantly, our senses are being bombarded with a kind of vision which decreases our capacity to understand that what we see is not all that there is, and it's not even the most entrancing and wonderful part of human experience.
What we see is not all that there is, and it's not even the most entrancing and wonderful part of human experience.
Belief in the Eucharist—belief that when I look at the consecrated bread and wine, I'm not looking at bread and wine, but I'm looking at the Body and Blood of the second Person of the Blessed Trinity, and that I'm beholding God himself—that belief depends upon a heart and a mind that has been initiated into a true belief in the invisible world. That requires a very sturdy Christian interiority, and it requires that we've been deeply initiated into a vision of reality and a vision of human life, God, ourselves, the world, which is very different from what's on offer in the secular culture. The cultural shift has contributed in a significant way to the loss of belief in the Blessed Sacrament.
It's not enough simply for us to teach more clearly. It's not enough simply for us to worship more reverently. We also have to foster a complete vision of faith that makes clarity of teaching efficacious and that makes reverence in worship coherent.
What does that mean for efforts like the Eucharistic Revival?
One of the things which is most helpful to belief is knowing that one is not alone. Oftentimes, we think, "I must be crazy. Nobody has the same concerns that I have. Nobody's willing to stand up for the things that are dear to me."
We take young people to the March for Life; and when we're going up Constitution Avenue, on the way to the Supreme Court, there's a certain point when the road swells upward. And at that point, I get in front of hundreds and hundreds of University of Mary students there, and I say, "Turn around and look," and they turn around and look, and they can't see the end. They can't see the end all the way on Constitution Avenue, and they know that they're not alone. It swells their hearts and gives them deep courage and bravery.
One of the great things about the Eucharistic Revival is that, in addition to the clarity of teaching and the reverence and worship, we're having huge gatherings of people throughout this country.
In a recent talk for the Napa Institute, you included the image of the Church becoming infected with the ailments of the modern world and developing antibodies. Tell me more about that.
One of the fundamental problems that we have in the times in which we live is that the modern mind is obsessed with utopias. We have this idea that there's no human fallen-ness, and we can achieve for ourselves, by our own effort, a perfect society.
This modern conception of the inevitability of progress, being on the right side of history, this is a utopian delusion, which makes promises that it cannot keep. This is why people are fundamentally so angry, not simply in our political world and our political life, but in the Church, as well.
A lot of people have this false utopian vision of the Church that the Church is supposed to be some kind of a perfect society that sails over the ills of the world, dispensing its medicines. But it's worthwhile for us to ask whether God actually set it up like that or not. If you look at Church history, I don't see evidence of that. Instead, what you see is that the Church is the Body of Christ.
When Jesus walked among us, he was incarnate, the second Person of the Blessed Trinity, taking upon himself all of the diseases of a fallen human race; and he took those diseases into himself. He became sick by them; and through his suffering and death, he died. But because he was Jesus, the second Person of the Blessed Trinity, that principle of life at the heart of the Blessed Trinity wouldn't allow him to stay dead. Death could not conquer him. In the same way, his body, the Church, all through history does the same thing, takes the diseases of every age into itself.
There's a great battle that takes place in the Church, and then the Church generates in its bloodstream—just like Jesus generated in his bloodstream, given to us in the most Holy Eucharist—the Church generates in its bloodstream the antibodies necessary to keep the Church and even the world safe from error, wickedness, sin.
It does it by taking that error, wickedness and sin into itself, fighting against it and generating the immunity. The antibodies, by the way, are the saints. The saints in every age are the great antibodies that flow through the bloodstream of the Church and have developed that resilience against every error, every sin and every wickedness.
The Church is at the heart of the human race, and so it's within the Church that the fundamental battle for humanity takes place in every age. Once you know that … then you can be cheerful and resilient because we're fighting the battle every single day. We're meant to do that, and that's how we can become saints in our own time.
Lauretta Brown. "Msgr. James Shea on Evangelizing in a Post-Christian Society, Belief in the Invisible World, and Utopias." National Catholic Register (May 20, 2023).
© 2023 EWTN News, Inc. Reprinted with permission from the National Catholic Register.
Lauretta Brown is the Register's Washington-based staff writer.Copyright © 2023 EWTN News, Inc.
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