Often times when I become frustrated or make mistakes it is usually because I am stuck in the same, self-serving mindset. It is only when I am able to begrudgingly muster the humility to admit this that I can then better address the problem.

I would posit that as Catholics we have to do the same when it comes to evangelization. That is to say that rather than get caught up in frustration over why certain things or programs haven’t worked, we have to look at the truth of the situation so as to chart a better way forward.

Without consciously accepting our reality and changing our mindset, we will continually be frustrated; and frustration can quickly turn into becoming jaded, cynical, or — worst yet — apathetic. 

We as a Church can’t allow ourselves to become consumed in this way. So, I invite you to consider something with me that perhaps you have already considered, but may not have accepted in practice:

Christendom has dissipated.

What do I mean by this? This premise is presented most notably in “From Christendom to Apostolic Mission,” written by Msgr. James Shea et al. and published by the University of Mary (2020). I would invite you to read the book.

In it, the authors invite Catholics to appreciate the change in our society’s worldview. This shift is an important reason behind much of our woes. Yet, I would argue that our inability to respond to this shift, while remaining true to the Gospel message, is perhaps an even more important reason for decline.

While we share with our lips that things have changed, in practice we act as if we still exist in an age of Christendom and not, as Msgr. Shea puts it, an Apostolic age. 

Let’s define our terms then. By Christendom, neither Msgr. Shea nor I mean the Church itself nor Christianity. Indeed, Jesus promised that the gates of the netherworld would not prevail over the Church and that the Holy Spirit would continue to guide it (cf Mt 16:18; Jn 14:26). Rather, Msgr. Shea describes Christendom in this way:

“A Christendom society is one that goes forward under the imaginative vision and narrative provided by Christianity … there was a general acceptance of basic Christian truths and an assumption of the Christian narrative and vision of the world” (p.13-14).

Christendom can therefore be understood as a culture structured around the core tenants of Christianity, where Christianity is the assumed and accepted norm. 

Shea links the dissipation of Christendom with the decline of belief and practice in much of the Church’s life. In other words, the first step a person makes before disregarding Church teaching and practice is to stop seeing the world through the eyes of a Christian — one who has accepted and sees the world through the lens that Jesus is God Who became flesh, died for our sins, and physically rose from the dead. 

Put another way: more people than we realize have not experienced an encounter with the Risen Christ and we who are in the Church act in such a way that assumes they have. In this reality, individuals may act more out of obligation than purpose when it comes to the faith. As a result, invitations to take a “next step” or “go deeper” in parish life go ignored, regardless of how many bulletin announcements are made to invoke attendance at the next “thing.”

To this end, Msgr. Shea gives the examples of four locales: Quebec, Belgium, Spain and Ireland. Within these locations he writes that “in the space of one generation the bottom of Christendom culture fell out. Almost overnight, these societies went from being strongly Catholic to aggressively secular” (p.31).

Why? Msgr. Shea makes an observation: “The overarching vision of the society had been changing over a course of time, but the change was not perceived, and the institutions of the Church were not adjusting to it; they rather continued to be led under the attitude of ‘business as usual’” (p.31).

A mentality of Christendom, implemented within a society divorced from such a culture, cannot sustain a foregone reality and, so, something has to eventually give.

Church participation. Mass attendance; Faith Formation enrollment; the list goes on. 

Our own diocese has not been immune to this, as no diocese has. Bishop Edgar M. da Cunha, S.D.V., in his 2021 pastoral letter Journeying Together, notes that “in the Fall River Diocese since 1990 we have 100,000 fewer Catholics, participation in Faith Formation has dropped 67 percent, and Sacraments of Initiation have declined by 65 percent” (p.2). I would add that 47 percent and 41 percent of the decline noted within those last two categories, respectively, occurred just within the last nine years prior to the pandemic. The pandemic, in turn, has not helped matters.

This is not meant to be an apocalyptic message or a rehashing of the same old issues at a time when frustration abounds plentifully. I would like to think these declines have not gone unnoticed. But the fact that we can talk about these declines as “the same old issues” points to this issue: we may see the decline but seem to accept it as normal without acting differently. 

I can appreciate that nostalgia exists, and fear of failure, or frustration over past failed attempts, can become crippling. “We’ve been through this before,” or “that may work over there, but that won’t work here,” are phrases I’ve heard plenty. It is easier to start a new ministry that serves “insiders,” than to equip and concentrate an entire community’s efforts to reaching “outsiders.” That takes work, prayer, and not being afraid to fail. Yet, we cannot afford to engage in “business as usual.” Better to try and fail then not to try at all. What do we have to lose?

Discouraged? Don’t be. 

While Msgr. Shea describes that an Apostolic age brings challenges — hostility of a wider culture, fewer resources, exhaustion in articulating the faith, error in all its forms — such an age brings various opportunities, namely humility and authenticity (p.26).

An Apostolic age requires the Church to be less hypocritical and more intense in living the faith ardently and authentically. This, in turn, results in a more attractive witness which, when embodied in outward-focused relationship building, is a recipe for good evangelization.

Msgr. Shea goes on to outline several pastoral strategies based on functioning within an Apostolic age. While discussing these requires a separate space (a reason to read the book), it suffices for now to say that Msgr. Shea’s recommendations can be summarized as the need for the “conversion of mind to a new way of seeing” our work as Church. He writes:

“The main evangelistic task in an apostolic age …is the presentation of the Gospel in such a way that the minds of its hearers can be given the opportunity to be transformed, converted from one way of looking at the world to a different way” (p.65).

That is directed at all of us. Do each of us share the faith with those we know? Do we minister to our literal neighbor? Are our homes places of invitation to those who have not encountered the Risen Lord? While we need to continually gather as Church to be nourished by the Sacraments, “Church” has to be extended beyond the physical property.

This takes a community, not just one staff person at the local parish.

To this end, as a Church let us consider: how can we help individuals know how to speak, one-on-one, with someone else about the faith? How can we help them to articulate how Jesus has worked in their lives? How can we better work together to be invitational, be strategic in reaching out and hospitable to outsiders? How can we set regular time aside for prayer, asking God to transform and ground us?

Until we recognize that such activity is not optional but rather should be our primary focus, we risk continuing to act with a Christendom mentality in an Apostolic age. 

Do not become frustrated. Rather, commit to prayer and align everything you do with helping individuals to know Christ. And place your trust in God through all of it.

Anchor columnist David Carvalho is Secretary for the New Evangelization for the Diocese of Fall River. Contact: dcarvalho@dioc-fr.org.