Forming Intentional Disciples

Forming Intentional Disciples

We learned that there is a chasm the size of the Grand Canyon between the Church’s sophisticated theology of the lay apostolate and the lived spiritual experience of the majority of our people. And this chasm has a name: discipleship. We learned that the majority of even “active” Catholics are still at an early, essentially passive stage of spiritual development. We learned that our first need at the parish level isn’t catechetical. Rather, our fundamental problem is that most of our people are not yet disciples. They will never be apostles until they have begun to follow Jesus Christ in the midst of his Church.

We learned that at the parochial level, we have accepted this chasm between the Church’s teaching and Catholics’ lived relationship with God as normative, and this has shaped our community culture, our pastoral assumptions, and our pastoral practices with devastating results. We discovered, to our surprise and dismay, that many pastoral leaders do not even possess a conceptual category for discipleship. As long as this holds true, the theology of the laity and the Church’s teaching on social justice and evangelization will remain beautiful ideals that are, practically speaking, dead letters for the vast majority of Catholics.

Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus. Dom handed me this book a while back and I’ve been reading it slowly for months. It’s the kind of book that I need to chew on, to think over. (And now, having come to the end, I think I need to re-read.) As I read a bit and then let it sit I have found its ideas percolating. I’ve found myself referring to it to help me think about other topics, other books. Weddell’s book is one of those that has drastically changed the way I see the Church and the world of faith and that in a very helpful way.

There are some things I didn’t like about the first time I read it that made it hard to get through, but the second time they seemed less important. The one hurdle I had in reading it was that much of the language felt like “inside baseball.” Weddell’s use of the term “disciple” being the primary example. I felt very uncomfortable with the word “disciple” the first time I read the book because I really didn’t understand how she was using it. As she says in the book, I didn’t really have a mental category for it and it took getting to the end to really be able to stretch my mind around it. The second read through makes so much more sense.

I do think this book is essential to the conversation about the new evangelization. It diagnoses the root problem of the contemporary American Church in rather frightening detail and then sets out a plan to address them. Weddell herself says that there are many gaps in her understanding and many questions left to answer. This book doesn’t try to set out definite answers, but rather lays out what Weddell has learned through more than a decade of her work with the Catherine of Siena Institute, a ministry whose mission is to equip parishes to form lay apostles.

Why is this book so important? Because we have failed:

Only 30 percent of Americans who were raised Catholic are still “practicing”—meaning they attend Mass at least once a month.

Nearly a third of self-identified Catholics believe in an impersonal God.[. . .] only 48 percent of Catholics were absolutely certain that the God they believed in was a God with whom they could have a personal relationship.

Recently my sister was telling me about the new parish she’d joined and how she was surprised that the pastor devoted a sizable portion of his homily to addressing some specific Protestant objections to Catholicism. When she commented on it she learned that a new evangelical megachurch was deliberately targeting Catholics at that parish, trying to lure them in. According to Weddell, they stand a good chance of being pretty successful unless the Catholic parish takes steps not just to counter the Protestant arguments but to actively nourish the spiritual maturation of the adults in the parish, to help them become intentional disciples.

In the first part of her book Weddell lays out some surprising insights into the normative experience in Catholic parishes and why the old assumptions are not longer valid.

[I really wanted to organize this blog entry and polish it up. But I’ve been sitting on it a week and still haven’t got a vision of what it should be. All I have is a bit list of passages that I marked. So I’m just going to throw up a bunch of quotes with no comment from me. Feel free to comment on any of them. These are from about the first third to half of the book. I want to write a separate post about the latter half or two thirds or whatever of the book. Later.

Anyway. I hope this book opens up some conversations. It hit a lot of nerves and touched on a lot of themes I’ve been exploring and conversations I’ve been having. But I’m in too much of a muddle right now to really do it justice. So better to just do what I can and see what happens, Right?]

What’s wrong with cultural Catholicism as a paradigm

One of the deepest convictions of evangelical culture is that every person, whether raised inside a Christian tradition or not, has a personal decision to make about whether he or she will live as a disciple of Jesus Christ. [. . .] In contrast, Catholic pastoral practice still assumes that religious identity is largely inherited and stable throughout one’s life span. [. . .] What we have taken as normative is, in fact, the far end of the “religious bell curve.”

Since the late sixteenth and early sevententh centuries, the Catholic retention strategy has been (a) childhood catechesis and (b) sacramental initiation. [. . .] Setting out to give every Catholic child a solid catechetical background was an extraordinary vision hat had never before been attempted. The endeavor was deeply influenced by a Renaissance optimism about the power of education. The assumption was that a carefully nurtured religious identity acquired in childhood would endure throughout life.

[. . .]

But the evidence suggests that what worked in the seventeeth century does not work in the twenty-first. Pew researchers found that attending CCD, youth groups, and evn Catholic high schools made little or no difference in whether or not an American Catholic teen ended up staying Catholic, becoming Protestant, or leave to become “unaffiliated.”

Our pastoral practice still operates on the presumption that although most Catholic teens vanish after Confirmation, they will find their way back when they are ready to get married and especially when they have children. One huge problem with this paradigm is that Catholic marriage rates are, in fact, plummeting.

We can no longer depend upon rites of passage or cultural, peer, or familial pressure to bring the majority back.

In the twenty-first century, cultural Catholicism is dead as a retention strategy, because God has no grandchildren. In the twenty-first century, we have to foster intentional Catholicism rather than cultural Catholicism.

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Personal attachment to Christ is normative

The majority of Catholics in the United States are sacramentalized but not evangelized. They do not knew that an explicit, personal attachment to Christ—personal discipleship—is normative Catholicism as taught time and time again by the apostles and reiterated by the popes, councils, and saints of the Church.

If a living relationship with Christ and, therefore, his Father and the Holy Spirit, does not exist, we have not succeeded in “transmitting” the faith. The faith has not been transmitted unless the Person and the relationship at the center of the faith have been transmitted. And we can’t successfully transmit the relationship at the center of the faith unless we ourselves consciously participate in that relationship.

The common working assumption that we encounter is that personal discipleship is a kind of optional spiritual enrichment for the exceptionally pious or spiritually gifted.

To the extent that we don’t talk explicitly with one another about discipleship, we make it very, very difficult for most Catholics to think about discipleship.

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Intentional Discipleship

Simon Peter’s “drop the net” decision is what we mean by “intentional.” From the moment he dropped his nets to follow Jesus, he was a disciple.

Intentional discipleship is not accidental or merely cultural. It is not just a matter of “following the rules.” A disciple’s primary motivation comes from within, out of a Holy Spirit-given “hunger and thirst for righteousness.”

In the twenty-first century, Catholic pastoral practice is still largely based on what could be called an “infant paradigm,” rather than am “adult paradigm.” What do I mean? We often function as though the initiation of a young child into the faith is the practical spiritual norm. [. . .] This paradigm also assumes that a baptized child will pick up the Catholic faith from the family and the parish as naturally and inevitably as he or she learns language and culture. The faith is communicated,and the child trustingly accepts and believes it. The child will inherit a stable, lifelong religious identity and practice from the family and the parish, a Catholic identity that will move seamlessly into adulthood, resulting in slow spiritual growth over a lifetime. There is little expectation of distinct internal turning points, much less of an overt “conversion” experience.

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On Vocations

Our problem is not that there is a shortage of vocations but that we do not have the support systems and leadership in place to foster the vast majority of vocations that God has given us. Most fundamentally when we fail to call our own to discipleship, we are unwittingly pushing away the vast majority of the vocations God has given us.

In the Catholic tradition, the word vocation is not a synonym for vocational career. A vocation is a supernatural mystery that emerges from a sustained encounter with Christ. It is a transforming, sanctifying path and work of love to which Christ calls us. A vocation builds on our natural qualities but carries us far beyond what we would imagine.

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What do you think? Have you read the book? Are you interested in reading it? You can listen to an interview with Sherry Weddell on Boston’s The Good Catholic Life if you want to get more flavor of what the book is about.

I haven’t yet got to the part that intrigued me most, the thresholds of conversion. Stay tuned.

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  • Thanks for linking to my blog and Pinterest board!  I hope Sophie (and eventually your other kiddos?) have fun with French.

    The castle project sounds amazing and makes me want to reread Pillars of the Earth!  What a wonderful field trip that would make….

  • Thanks, Sarah. I’m really hoping French will continue to be a part of our homeschool for years and years.


    That’s awesome. It’s the same guy as the French one! Now I want to take a road trip. Though it looks like they are having financial difficulties. I hope they find some good backing.

  • That castle is amazing. I’d love to visit it. I also love the disclaimers that point out that this is a real construction site, not a cutesy staged thing where you can demand to watch the builders do specific things.

    On another rabbit trail- does anyone know if you can get a good wild plant identification app? I was going to get a guide but an app would be more portable. Nat’s always asking me the names of wild plants and I only know a few of them.

  • Yeah, I love that it’s a real site and not a Disneyland production.

    I don’t know of any apps like that but would love to have one. We’ve used Leaf Snap, but it’s only for trees. The down side is you have to take a picture of the leaf against a white paper, so not so handy in the wild. But you can use it to look up species. Here’s a page that lists a few. The Botany Buddy looks promising as do the Flower Pedia and Audubon Wildflower. I’d love to know if anyone has tried any of them.

  • I hope you find a French app you can recommend because I think Naomi would love one too.

    Guedelon looks amazing. I would love to visit.