There have been some very good books written in the past few years centered on helping parishes to become mission-focused. One of the best of these is a ninety-page book published by the University of Mary, From Christendom to Apostolic Mission: Pastoral Strategies for an Apostolic Age. Monsignor James Shea, in his preface to the book, describes a fundamental cultural shift of recent decades that is dramatically accelerating. We are living in an era of transition away from the relatively comfortable confines of a Christendom-oriented relationship with culture to a new and much more challenging environment. A Catholic (or Christian) way of seeing the world is finding itself increasingly at odds with many of the values and priorities of larger society. Of course, this is not new news. Msgr. Shea argues, though, that the Church must now shift from Christendom-oriented ways of doing things to missionary approaches more appropriate to reaching those who are uninterested in the possibilities of life in God. And this new mindset will be more akin to that of the Christian missionaries of the first centuries than to those living in the Catholic-friendly cultures in which many of our grandparents lived.
Here is the central challenge: today’s Catholic parishes must become adaptive, pivoting away from the way things used to be done in a Christendom-oriented Church. We need new competencies in communicating the Gospel in this new missionary context. Msgr. Shea puts it this way:
We are dealing with the first culture in history that was once deeply Christian but that by a slow and thorough process has been consciously ridding itself of its Christian basis. Our society is full of many—including those baptized and raised with some exposure to faith—who believe that they have seen enough of Christianity to see that it has little to offer them. We are therefore not attempting to make converts from pagans; we are attempting to bring back to the Church those knowingly or unknowingly in the grasp of apostasy, a different and more difficult challenge. C. S. Lewis once described this difference as that between a man wooing a young maiden and a man winning a cynical divorcée back to her previous marriage.
This movement from Christendom to apostolic mission is also a pivot that must be made by catechists. The Church has emphasized now for five decades that catechesis must be carried out in an evangelizing way. Many have written extensively on what such a shift in approach would look like (including the very limited author of this editorial). Considering catechetical approaches that are properly aligned with the new societal reality is critical. I believe, though, that the greatest landscape-shifting change needed on the part of catechists is in our capacity to give authentic witness to a life of communion with God in Jesus. In other words, we must be, ourselves, drawing on a deep reservoir of prayer. Many catechists today are familiar with John Paul II’s teaching that “the definitive aim of catechesis is to put people not only in touch but in communion, in intimacy, with Jesus Christ.” It seems to me that the only way such an objective becomes possible, in either our current or future circumstances, is if catechists are able to teach and guide others from the position of their own prayerful intimacy with Jesus.
Beginning a new year, then, we can ask ourselves: how highly do we prioritize our own prayerful encounters with God?
The most important wisdom we can draw upon as we face deeper cultural challenges is the exact same truth Jesus shared with those first catechists gathered around him at the Last Supper. Knowing well the challenges they would face after Pentecost, he said: “I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing” (Jn 15:5).
Our prayerful communion with the Blessed Trinity is important to our own Christian life. And it is the most essential ingredient if our catechesis is to be fruitful. As John Paul II once wrote: “Unless the missionary is a contemplative he cannot proclaim Christ in a credible way.”
Dr. James Pauley is Professor of Theology and Catechetics and author of two books focused on the renewal of catechesis: An Evangelizing Catechesis: Teaching from Your Encounter with Christ (Our Sunday Visitor, 2020), and Liturgical Catechesis in the 21st Century: A School of Discipleship (Liturgy Training Publications, 2017).
 University of Mary and Msgr. James P. Shea, From Christendom to Apostolic Mission: Pastoral Strategies for an Apostolic Age (Bismarck, ND: University of Mary Press, 2020), 2–3.
 John Paul II, Catechesi Tradendae, no. 5.