The Apostolic Church, Reinterpreted Today
What does it mean to live as Christ lived in present day America? I have no idea. The new evangelization requires us as Christians to live differently in the world today. We cannot walk around with this pre-Enlightenment European air of entitlement, spouting sayings about "Christian nations" and all that nonsense. This is not a Christian nation. Other than Vatican City, there are no more Christian nations. "Christendom is dead. Long live Christianity!" as Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen used to say.
I have been reading Acts of the Apostles lately with an ongoing irritation that I cannot seem to shake. The way they lived was not a once-only event. It needs to be revisited and reinterpreted in the light of today. I am not living the way that I think I should be, the way that I think my neighbor needs me to live so that they might have life. Here are three major things that stand out to me about the Apostolic Church.
- The Apostles were tireless evangelists and incredible saints. They instituted men to follow in their footsteps who were tireless evangelists and incredible saints.
- The early Christian communities were intensely personal, ordered in such a way that rich and poor could give and receive out of love and justice, and not out of force or coercion. And it was centered on the worship and imitation of the person of Christ. The reality of the Body of Christ was felt.
- The whole early Church was animated- from top to bottom- with the power of the Holy Spirit, working miracles in Christ's name, but also overcoming every obstacle that prevented men from being true brothers and women true sisters.
Now, I'm painting with broad strokes and can teeter on that Golden Age mentality that seems to think we've lost the better part of ourselves somewhere in the past, but these things largely characterized the Apostolic Church in a uniquely powerful way. There were a lot of problems back then, too. With human beings, there are always problems. That being said, when the Church left behind its persecuted nature and took over the reins of both society and political power, the vital task of evangelization was increasingly put aside.
So I have been looking at our Church lately and offering a comparison:
- The Bishops of the Church are exhausted bureaucrats. The constraints of diocesan systems in modern Western countries make the bishop the head of a very unwieldy non-profit. And it is daunting! I am not bashing the bishops here, nor am I saying they are not doing their jobs (or aren't saintly, or some such nonsense). What I am saying is that the institutions that service and support the hierarchy have become incredibly bureaucratic and that essential task of evangelization is now reduced to a program or a department within that bureaucracy. This comes from having massive amounts of Christians (1.5 million in the great Galveston-Houston Archdiocese!) and having centuries of inculturated Christianity. The task of evangelization was deprioritized in the West because it was largely considered completed, save for the mission ad gentes.
- And our community? Let us be honest, the Christian community is a weekly club membership. We see each other on the weekends, hopefully, a few of us are friends outside of "church", and our kids may go to the same CCE class, but that is about it. Maybe we are in a prayer group together. Maybe we study the bible together. Maybe we meet up at the parish hall for donuts together. But probably not. We definitely don't eat meals together, share vehicles with one another, pay off debts, cover one another's health insurance, or give our second coat to him who has none. My best friends are my fellow Catholics at my own parish church, but man, it ain't nothing like how the early Christians lived with and for one another.
- The Holy who? "The Forgotten God" is a common title for the Holy Spirit today. Scripture does not really furnish us with relatable images of the Holy Spirit like it does for the Father and Son- smoke, fire, water, clouds, a dove- these are not as user-friendly as a dad with a big beard or a young son in dad's spittin' image. Living by the power of the Holy Spirit, praying in the Spirit, working through His movements and carrying out His mission through the sacramental and the charismatic gifts are rarely communicated to the average person in the pew. Charismatic parishes, retreat houses, and communities do offer this, but they are relegated to a "movement", and one that is seen by most normal Catholics as "fringe" and "weird".
Praying in tongues, healing, and prophecy were all a part of the early Church, just as much as radical Christian charity, defending the poor and helpless, and the universal mission of evangelization. The Gospel was new then, and exciting to those who saw and encountered Christ in the Apostles. It was the honeymoon of Christ and Christians. It reminds me of when I first fell in love with Christ and His Catholic Church, I thought of Him all the time, read Scripture, prayed frequently. Everything was about Him and it was all so new. I had freedom inside and out, and I rejoiced in that. I was fervent.
Then life happened. Apathy grew. Sanctity took a back step, or rather, become neutered and managed. The Holy Spirit was replaced by orthodoxy and evangelization was replaced with apologetics. Vitality was lost, and routine took its place. This is how bureaucracies are built. This is how mediocrity is fostered. This is how political and social systems replace or augment living the Gospel; yet still make us feel comfortable in an almost alien Christianity from what the Apostles had.
We are afraid of what the Holy Spirit will do to us and with us, so we hide behind our orthodoxy as a replacement. We hide behind the road signs instead of running down the actual road. Charismatic movements, then, get cut off or pushed away from the sacramental life of the Church in a feeling of mutual alienation.
A theological movement that led us to Vatican II was called ressourcement, going back to the sources of our Christian beliefs and not resting content with an inheritance of commentaries and interpretations (what Hans Urs von Balthasar called "sawdust Thomism"). It means returning to the Christian bedrock -Scripture above all, the Church Fathers, the actual writings of St Thomas Aquinas- and mine those resources anew for deeper and better insights as to what it means to be a Catholic.
This is not just for theology classes in academia. This is for us, now. We need to return to the sources of our faith and rebuild what we have lost through the millennia. We also need discernment and wisdom to keep what we God wants us to keep from that which we have accumulated over the millennia as well. This was the mission of Vatican II. It was the Church realizing that we needed to breathe anew from the Spirit, not that we needed to chuck everything and start over. We just need to start hanging some question marks over our own hearts and lives, asking, “Is this really the life that Christ promised me, or ought I to strive for something more?”
This is where I shall begin my striving. Will you join me?