The post-Vatican II Lectionary for Mass has many fine features, one of which is the continuous reading of the Acts of the Apostles during weekday Masses in the Easter season. As the Church celebrates the Resurrection for fifty days, the Church also ponders the first evangelization: the primitive Christian community, in the power of the Spirit, brings the surrounding Mediterranean world the history-shattering news that Jesus of Nazareth, having been raised from the dead, has been constituted Lord and Savior for the forgiveness of sins. These serial readings from Acts end with Paul established in Rome (probably in today’s Trastevere district), speaking with the Roman Jewish community about the fulfillment of their ancient, covenantal hopes in the Risen Christ.
There’s one omission from this early Christian history that I regret, however; the Lectionary omits the twenty-seventh chapter of Acts, which tells the dramatic story of Paul’s shipwreck and his brief stay on Malta, where the apostle is miraculously saved from the poisonous grasp of a poisonous viper, and from which he eventually takes another ship to Rome.
Now here is something to ponder: There have been innumerable books of Church history written over two millennia. But the only inspired book of Church history, the Acts of the Apostles, ends with the story of a shipwreck—a seeming disaster that becomes, in divine providence, the occasion to extend the Church’s mission.
The imagery continues in Acts 28. Paul is not living in optimum circumstances in Rome; he’s under a form of house arrest. Yet he turns his lodgings into a center of evangelization, calling the Roman Jewish community to consider Jesus anew and to reconsider the criticisms of the new Christian “sect” they had heard, while explaining how God, in the Spirit, had extended life-giving salvation to the Gentiles. The inconvenience and indignity of house arrest lead to intense evangelical activity: “And he lived there two whole years at his own expense, and welcomed all who came to him, preaching the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ quite openly and unhindered” (Acts 28:30).
Shipwreck and mission, it seems, are intertwined strands in the Church’s historical DNA.
This is not to suggest that the Church should willfully seek shipwreck. Much of the damage that has been done to Catholicism in recent decades—by the abuse scandals, by the ongoing horror stories of mid-twentieth century Catholic life in Ireland, by forms of intellectual dissent that empty Catholicism of the patrimony of truth bequeathed to it by the Lord, by the counter-witness of Catholics in public life who fail to stand firm for the dignity of the human person at all stages of life and in all conditions of life—is a matter of self-imposed wounds, which Church authorities have an obligation to address. The wider cultural assault on the Church, however, is another matter.
Some may consider it “shipwreck” that the cultural Catholicism that transmitted and sustained the faith in these United States as recently as two generations ago is on life-support. What should we expect, however, when the ambient public culture becomes toxic, anti-biblical, Christophobic (to use the sharp term most recently made prominent by an Orthodox Jewish legal scholar, Joseph Weiler)? Perhaps the demise of cultural Catholicism—Catholicism offered to the next generation without great effort, Catholicism-by-osmosis—is a kind of shipwreck. But why not take a lesson from the last chapters of Acts and see in that hard fact the providential invitation to become, once again, a Church in permanent mission? A Church in which every Catholic knows that he or she has been baptized into a missionary vocation? A Church in which Catholics know that the quality of their discipleship is measured by the power of their witness to Christ and their capacity to invite others into friendship with the Risen Lord?
To borrow again from genetics, shipwreck and mission are the double-helix of Church history. The challenge is to discern the possibilities for mission that God always encodes in what seems to us, at first blush, to be utter shipwreck.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center.