Here’s the short version of this review: If you have any interest in the challenges facing catechists and evangelists in the Church today, stop reading this review and get a copy of Forming Intentional Disciples. You will not be disappointed.
For those of you that still need convincing, read on…
Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus by Sherry Weddell is the most important book I’ve read this year. That is not exaggeration or hyperbole, but a testament to the research, experience, and insight Weddell brings to the question of evangelization and catechesis in the Church today. Weddell’s book is a synthesis of every deep conversation about catechesis and evangelization I’ve had with my local and national colleagues for the past four years.
Weddell begins with a review of the data that should be familiar to all of us: decreasing Mass attendance, Catholics leaving the Church for Protestant communities, and a general “disengagement” from the life of the parish by many of the faithful. But she doesn’t just leave us with cold, hard facts. Thanks to her work with parishes across the country Weddell is also able to weave compelling anecdotes that put a human face on the crisis. Most surprising to me were the number of people who have left the Catholic Church not because they were failing to moving closer to Christ but because, as they more fully embraced their call to discipleship, they had no one in their parishes to support them or who understood the sudden fire that had been lit in them. That the Church is losing both unengaged and highly motivated members — leaking from both ends, as it were — should alarm all of us.
Weddell’s overarching question in reviewing the data and stories is this: How many of our parishioners are truly disciples of Jesus Christ? How many are committed to living a life of faith in an intentional way? Her answer, based on conversations with pastors and parish staff across the country, is that about 5% of Catholics can be described as “intentional disciples.” This is shockingly low. And unfortunately many of the leaders in our parishes are not included in that figure. Some of the most heartbreaking stories in the book are the anonymous parish leaders — presumably DREs, youth ministers, and pastoral council members — who describe themselves as having no active relationship with God.
Thankfully Weddell doesn’t tread old arguments by trying to place the blame for this crisis on any particular group within the Church. Rather, she identifies as a major contributing factor the lack of a “normal” understanding of what it means to be a disciple:
As we listened to the spiritual experiences of tens of thousands of Catholics, we began to grasp that many, if not a majority of, Catholics don’t know what “normal” Christianity looks like. I believe that one reason for this is the selective silence about the call to discipleship that pervades many parishes. Catholics have come to regard it as normal and deeply Catholic to not talk about the first journey – their relationship with God – except in confession or spiritual direction. This attitude is so pervasive in Catholic communities that we have started to call it the culture of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
Weddell also decries the poor sacramental preparation received by both children and candidates in the RCIA. Weddell delves into the Church’s theology of grace to demonstrate that we are not preparing people to fruitfully receive the sacraments. A tendency to focus on the validity of the sacraments has blinded us to the need for the recipients to receive the grace imparted by the sacraments and allow it to flourish in their lives. Quoting St. Thomas Aquinas and the Catechism of the Catholic Church Weddell skillfully indicts catechists who operate with a “the sacrament will take care of it” attitude towards the spiritual lives of those in their care.
Weddell goes on to offer a framework for understanding the process by which a person becomes an authentic disciple of Jesus Christ. This was, for me, the most important part of the book, since it is the pivot on which evangelization and catechesis turn. Through her work with the Catherine of Siena Institute Weddell has identified five “thresholds” on the path to discipleship:
- Intentional Discipleship
Each describes the foundational attitude the individual must have before they are able to progress through the stage. Of course, this framework would be of little use without suggestions for how to guide individuals through this journey of faith. Fortunately, Weddell gives us some very concrete ways that we can walk with people at these different stages. For instance, Weddell challenges Church leaders to break the silence in our parishes concerning discipleship:
Until discipleship and conversion become a normative part of parish life, many [people] will walk in and out of our parishes untouched, and many Catholics who are disciples will continue to feel that they need to hide or minimize their newly awakened personal faith in front of other Catholics. The first thing that must be done is to deliberately and persistently break the code of silence if it is in place. The Catholic norm of silence about a relationship with God, about Jesus Christ and his story, about our own stories of following Christ, and about the need for everyone to decide whether or not he or she will follow as a disciple is stifling the emergence of a culture of discipleship and all that flows from it. One of the most powerful ways to challenge the silence is by making a safe place for others to talk about their own lived relationship with God.
Weddell offers similar advice for each of the thresholds of discipleship; parish staffs would do well to read these chapters carefully and discuss how the suggestions might be implemented in thir local communities.
Forming Intentional Disciples is a book that has appeared at preciously the moment it is needed in the life of the Church. I am indebted to Sherry Weddell for her work in writing it, and I believe every bishop, pastor, evangelist, and catechetical leader should have a copy and study it carefully. I know I will be.
Photo by Fr. Lawrence Lew, OP / FlickrCC