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The One Very Substantial Key to the New Evangelization

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | May 07, 2013

If you treasure your Faith, you never want to lose it. Your Faith is the pearl of great price, the guide and goal of your very existence, the one thing you simply cannot do without. And this means you find it difficult to understand the immense indifference toward the Christian Faith on the part of the majority of people in the world, and very probably the vast majority of your neighbors and associates. How can such indifference possibly exist? How can it be so difficult to overcome?

Frank Sheed gave me a partial answer last night. Sheed (1897 – 1981) was the famous lay theologian and apologist who, with his wife Maisie Ward, sparked the Catholic Evidence Guild and founded the publishing house Sheed and Ward in the 1920s. It is one of the many flaws in my Catholic background that I have been very late in appreciating his work, which is particularly relevant in this context. Sheed converted to Catholicism at the age of 16 and was initially concerned primarily with a defense of the Faith against Protestants. By 1966, however, Sheed was impressed enough by the call for renewal at Vatican II that he began to rework his material in a way which took into account exactly this problem of human obtuseness, both within and outside of the Church.

In 1966 Sheed published Knowing God: God and the Human Condition, which has recently been reprinted by Ignatius Press. The title could not possibly be more apt. Sheed had gone through exactly what most older Catholics today have gone through, and he ended by facing exactly what we all face today. That is, his life took him from sectarian controversy in a largely Christian context to the bewildering flight from God in modern culture, with the seeds of indifference maturing into the noxious weeds of antipathy. And to this abysmal trend, Frank Sheed offered a one word answer. That word is not Church, not faith, not doctrine, not morality, not theology, not philosophy. The word is Christ.

“Of course!”, you may say, but not so fast. I have contended at times over the years that even Catholics have a tendency to get bogged down in the detailed configuration of Religion and to forget the dynamic and engaging figure of the Savior. It is so easy to reduce the Christian experience to propositions and rules on the one hand or mere platitudes on the other, while failing when it comes to mission. This is another aspect of what I have recently been calling “living the faith prescriptively”—and to my critics, I would like to point out that this concept is not original with me. I stole it from Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI), who developed the idea in his book What It Means to Be a Christian, a collection of three homilies he preached to students in 1964, shortly before the close of the Second Vatican Council. (I was a harmless lad of 16 at the time.) In fact, the shift in focus among contemporary Catholics from prescription to the mission of Christ was the burden of the Council, and we are still struggling to get the hang of it.

The Need for Substance

Frank Sheed grasped the point very quickly and managed to articulate it as well as anyone. In the very first chapter of Knowing God, he tries to unravel what it is about human nature which makes it so hard for people to appreciate supernatural truth and even God Himself in a life-changing way. It is one thing, Sheed argues, to learn the words of faith and theology and glibly answer questions “the right way”. It is another to actually understand what we are saying by forming what he calls “mental equivalents” for the terminology, so that we actually see what the various propositions mean and how they fit together. This is hard intellectual work; in general we are not practiced in such labor. We tend instead to follow where our desires and our imagination lead.

But even if we do the work necessary to understand, we still need to discover or create what Sheed calls “vital equivalents”, resonances in our own lives which engage the whole person—intellect, will, imagination, emotions—and lead to a new way of life. The problem here, says Sheed, is that in comparison with the natural things with which we usually deal, supernatural realities tend to strike us as “thin”. We are accustomed to engaging with natural things, and these are all, in an important sense, less than ourselves—things which we can grasp and understand in a naturally satisfying way. But the things of God are infinitely greater than we are, and we cannot grasp them easily in any sort of satisfying way. Often they seem abstract, distant, “thin”.

“The trouble about the great mysteries,” Sheed writes, “is not to believe them true, but to see them as real…. They are intellectually coherent, but they are like a coherent dream” (p. 26). As we have all learned to our sorrow, much of the modern world regards them as so thin as to be irrelevant. Sheed continues:

It is easier to see the reason for this than the remedy. The whole problem can be put in one phrase—we want the same comfortable, effortless, unquestioning awareness of the spiritual world as we have of the material world, and we find ourselves trying to apply the norms of certitude and the feeling of certainty which suit the one kind of reality to the other. [27]

If this is typically true, how do we approach God, the Church, the Faith and even theology in a way that no longer seems “thin” but substantial? Sheed’s answer should come as no surprise. After all, Psalm 34 exhorts us to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (v. 8), and so Our Lord invites us literally to “gnaw” at his Body and drink His blood. It is precisely this that gives life. Jesus Christ raises “substantial” to a new level.

Or, as Sheed put it:

In a way he focuses the infinite and the eternal. He makes the solid framework of the material reality to which our minds are habituated seem less absolute. He puts it on the defensive, by so obviously transcending it; spiritual reality becomes more real since he is real—it becomes real with his reality. [28]

The Person of Christ must be at the heart of the New Evangelization. Everything else good can and will follow. Actually, we have this on a higher authority than that of Frank Sheed. “There is salvation in no one else,” says St. Peter, “for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).

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Show 6 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: John J Plick - May. 09, 2013 1:11 PM ET USA

    There is something odd here, like a “tilt” warning on a pinball machine, and I think I know what it is. There is NOTHING “wrong” with Jesus…, and there is nothing “wrong” with the Church in the essential sense. But in the practical sense there is MUCH wrong with “the Church….” The “evangelical” question on the table is this, “How does any convert (or Catholic for that matter) relate to a Church that is shot through with rebel clergy and laity?

  • Posted by: wojo425627 - May. 08, 2013 10:23 AM ET USA

    I think you would find another book of Sheed's very interesting reading. It is titled "Christ in eclipse" written in 1978. In the first part Sheed asks How real is Christ to us? and what can we do to know him better. In the 2nd part he asks what difference does Jesus make to our lives. What if he hadn't come?

  • Posted by: rfwilliams2938 - May. 08, 2013 8:17 AM ET USA

    propositions,rules and mere platitudes..that is how Christianity was presented to me growing up Catholic. I was taught, but never evangelized until evangelical protestants explained about a personal saving relationship with Christ. Another issue for Catholics, muddled theology: I'm baptised, so I'm saved. No one is perfect, so we're all going to do time in purgatory; and I'm not so bad, so it won't be any worse for me than for everyone else.

  • Posted by: John J Plick - May. 08, 2013 7:37 AM ET USA

    There is no mystery here. Scripture nmakes it clear; Rom 2:23-24 "You who boast in the Law, through your breaking the Law, do you dishonor God? For "THE NAME OF GOD IS BLASPHEMED AMONG THE GENTILES BECAUSE OF YOU," just as it is written..." Do you think pagans are unaware of the foolishness of the Church and of its members?

  • Posted by: bservaes4399 - May. 07, 2013 6:32 PM ET USA

    There is only one major doubtful statement in Dr. Mirus article, namely ... that he was harmless at 16. I just doubt that very much! :-)

  • Posted by: jg23753479 - May. 07, 2013 6:01 PM ET USA

    This is a wonderful piece, one of the best you have written. I will get Sheed's book and look forward to reading it. I have enjoyed several others that he wrote, but this will be special because the question you address here has been on my mind now for months. I believe the key to achieving this 'connection' to Jesus is constant prayer, especially the Rosary. I know our new pope prays all the mysteries every day. We should follow his lead and 'taste' the new reality the practice will give us.

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