Book Review: Becoming a Parish of Intentional Disciples

BPIDSherry Weddell’s 2012 Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus sent shock waves across the Catholic catechetical and evangelizing communities. At the time I wrote that the book

has appeared at precisely the moment it is needed in the life of the Church… and I believe every bishop, pastor, evangelist, and catechetical leader should have a copy and study it carefully. I know I will be.

Since then I have read the book several times, led a discussion of the book in our curia offices, given away hundreds of copies, and incorporated Sherry’s reflections into my work as a diocesan catechetical leader.

So it is without hyperbole that I say that I have greatly anticipated the release of Becoming a Parish of Intentional Disciples.

In this new book Weddell takes on editorial duties, collecting reflections from representatives of parishes who have set out to become centers of discipleship. It is a slimmer book than its predecessor — almost half as long — but relentlessly focused in its translation of Weddell’s first book for parish life.

There aren’t a lot of new theological insights in Becoming a Parish of Intentional Disciples. Instead each chapter offers stories and reflections on the real lived experience of “in the trenches” disciples who are committed to sharing the Gospel and helping others encounter Jesus in their lives and churches.

Weddell herself contributes a chapter based on her popular keynote talk recounting the lives of an extraordinary group of saints in the late 16th and early 17th centuries who transformed the lukewarm, corrupt Christian community in France into a vibrant, faith-filled Church. Keith Strohm writes about the importance of prayer in energizing the work of intentional discipleship, while Fr. Michael Fones, OP, offers an excellent reflection on the role and dignity of the laity in the mission of the Church.

Bobby Vidal connects intentional discipleship to the work of the New Evangelization by demonstrating the importance of embracing new methods, ardor, and expression — especially as they are expressed through the charisms present in a parish. Katherine Coolidge and Fr. Chas Canoy both offer reflections on how their parishes built up a community of disciples, and Jim Beckman dispels myths about youth ministry that stand in the way of forming teens as disciples of Jesus Christ.

Becoming a Parish of Intentional Disciples is an excellent companion piece to Forming Intentional Disciples and is a must-read for anyone looking for inspiration and real-life examples of disciple-making. As before, I recommend it to all bishops, pastors, evangelists, catechetical leaders, and anyone interested in the formation of disciples in the Church.

Analyzing Post-Conciliar Catechesis: A Blindspot?

A few weeks ago I read a defense of catechesis in the 1970s by Cathleen Kaveny on Commonweal’s blog. Ms. Kaveny was confirmed in 1978 (coincidentally, the year I was born) and gives a heartfelt apologia against those (including Fr. Robert Barron) who criticize post-conciliar religious education:

For many years, I was sympathetic to that analysis. But I am increasingly uneasy with the wholesale dismissal of the catechetical programs of my youth. First, the stock caricature of the period is unfair. The programs had far more content then they are given credit for. Second, the criticism only reinforces polarization within the church. Scapegoating 1970s religious-education programs fosters the illusion that the church’s problems can be fixed by going backward, by inoculating children with something like the simple question-and-answer method and content of the Baltimore Catechism. But the root problem facing the church, then and now, is not catechesis.

Her analysis continues with an appeal that I am sympathetic to:

My generation was not lost because of religious miseducation. It was lost because of the changes in the culture. No CCD program, no matter how rich and nuanced, could overcome the challenges created by the simultaneous breakdown and reconfiguration of the institutional Catholic world and the American social world.

This is a piece that is often missing when examining religious education in the years following the Second Vatican Council. The Church was completely unprepared for the radical and rapid shifts in society — an irony given Vatican II’s roots in an aggiornamento that envisioned dialogue with the surrounding culture. Those who would criticize the catechists of the period would do well to keep that historical and cultural situation in mind.

Yet for all her pleas Ms. Kaveny’s analysis rings incomplete due to a glaring omission: nowhere does she address evangelization. Indeed, the word is conspicuously absent from her post. She, like many of her generation, seems to take for granted that the young people in parish formation programs and Catholic schools were familiar with the person of Jesus Christ — not just in stories or catechetical texts, but through a deep and abiding relationship with him.

But, as Sherry Weddell reminds us in Forming Intentional Disciples, this is not something we can take for granted. Part of those sweeping cultural changes alluded to by Ms. Kaveny is a wholesale forgetting of the story of Christianity: the reality of sin, the need for God’s saving help, and the Paschal Mystery of Jesus Christ.

If Christians are to ensure that there is a next generation of believers, they will need to find ways to tell the stories of the faith, as well as their own individual stories of conversion. That is, they will need to focus on the work of evangelization in witness and proclamation, for without evangelization catechesis cannot be fruitful, regardless of the cultural context in which we find ourselves.

Image from The New Saint Joseph Baltimore Catechism (1969)

Evangelizing and Catechizing the ‘Net’ Generation

Today I’m offering my talk “Evangelizing and Catechizing the ‘Net’ Generation” at the Indiana Conference for Catechetical Leadership. Below are my slides, notes, and resources for the session. Thanks to everyone who attended!

Slides

Notes

Web Resources

Books

Videos

Tools

17 Insights from FDLC (in Tweet Form)

Last week I attended the 2014 National Meeting of the Federation of Diocesan Liturgical Commissions (FDLC). I’m not a liturgist (and don’t even play one on TV) but I was invited by our diocesan director for worship and the catechumenate to participate in a consultation process with the US Bishop’s Committee on Divine Worship regarding edits to the National Statues on the RCIA.

(With a new translation of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults on the horizon, this is an opportune time to reevaluate the national statues in light of our pastoral experience since implementing the RCIA in America.)

In addition to the consultation process we heard from a variety of voices, most notably from the staff of the USCCB Secretariat of Divine Worship; a report on a recent survey by CARA about the RCIA in parishes; pastoral and theological reflections by Fr. Ron Lewinski and Fr. Paul Turner; and Parish Day presentations by Jim Schellman and D. Todd Williamson. Here are some of my takeaways that I tweeted from the meeting.

Dear Catechists: Please Stop Talking About Emmaus

One of my favorite hashtags on Twitter is #UnpopularOpinion. People use this hashtag to tag their contrarian opinions about subjects both topical and mundane.

In that spirit, I would like to formally state that I think the “Road to Emmaus” story is overused in the field of catechesis.

That’s not to say that there aren’t important themes in the story or that it isn’t an important touchstone in understanding the relationship between Jesus Christ and his disciples. Rather, I think that given the current crisis of discipleship in the Church and the lack of a clear Christian worldview in our culture, it is not the most appropriate biblical story to draw on to understand the work of evangelization and catechesis.

People seem to forget that the disciples on the road to Emmaus are… well… disciples. They already had a strong, developed relationship with Jesus before the crucifixion. Their only problem was in misunderstanding the nature of the Resurrection. If, as studies show, so few in our parishes can truly be described as disciples, then the relevancy of this particular story to the current catechetical culture seems tenuous.

That, of course, begs the question: What story should we be talking about?

For your consideration, I offer this episode from the Acts of the Apostles:

And he rose and went. And behold, an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a minister of the Can’dace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of all her treasure, had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. And the Spirit said to Philip, “Go up and join this chariot.” So Philip ran to him, and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet, and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” And he said, “How can I, unless some one guides me?” And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.

Now the passage of the scripture which he was reading was this: “As a sheep led to the slaughter
or a lamb before its shearer is dumb,
so he opens not his mouth.
In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken up from the earth.”

And the eunuch said to Philip, “About whom, pray, does the prophet say this, about himself or about some one else?” Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this scripture he told him the good news of Jesus. And as they went along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “See, here is water! What is to prevent my being baptized?” And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him. And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord caught up Philip; and the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing.

Here we have a story that more clearly represents our present evangelizing and catechetical challenge: leading a person with limited exposure to the person and story of Jesus Christ into a relationship with him and his Church.

The eunuch had no lived relationship with Jesus. There isn’t even any indication that he knew his name! St. Phillip, beginning with the eunuch’s rudimentary knowledge of the prophet Isaiah, unfolds the Christian message, leading him to Jesus and entrance into his Body through baptism.

This is the same journey many people must make today. For some, as the eunuch, this may involve a journey that takes them through the RCIA and the Sacraments of Initiation. For others it may mean reconciliation and a return to the Church of their youth. Either way, we should not assume that a living, active relationship with Jesus Christ exists; it must be cultivated and encouraged. That is our challenge today and why this story should be close to the hearts of evangelists and catechists.

What other biblical stories do you think shed light on the work of the New Evangelization?

Who Will Reap the Seeds You Sow?

Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” – Matthew 9:35-38

In catechesis we often say that we sow seeds that may not bear fruit for many years — long after the young people in our programs have passed from the parish or school. And this is true. We don’t know what value a kind word or lesson may have or what fruit it may bear in the future.

But too often I think we fail to recognize that, even if we don’t reap those seeds, someone will. At some point someone will have to help guide those young people into a deep, mature, intentional faith in Jesus Christ. But are we training people to reap that harvest?

I don’t see a lot of evidence that we are. I see a lot of catechetical training emphasizing the sowing of seeds, but not so many giving practical skills and resources for walking with people — once they’ve heard the kerygma proclaimed — into a fully lived Christian faith.

The business world has long known this. Handing off work is one of the major points of inefficiency in production and services. When I worked in Catholic healthcare there was a major effort to make sure that patients were only transported for a procedure in another department when that department was ready. If you transport the patient and no one is there to receive them, it results in frustration for everyone.

If the workers are few — so few that there are not enough to gather what has been sown — is it any surprise that the fruit turns bad, rotting in the fields? Perhaps we need to think of two types of catechists necessary for the flourishing of the Christian community: the sowers and the harvesters. Perhaps we need to be intentional about how we put each type to work in our programs. And maybe we need to give each some specialized training so that, once called, they can perform their ministry appropriately.

How can we ensure that the workers will be there when it is time for the harvest? How are you planning for and supporting the workers?

3 Starting Points for Encouraging Non-Practicing Catholic Families

5139215570_fa0b898570_bMy friend Marc has a challenging post up about what we are teaching Catholic families about who and what they are. After reading through the questions posed for the Extraordinary Synod on the The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization — and its assumptions about the faithful’s familiarity with documents such as Gaudium et Spes and Familiaris Consortio — Marc muses

Is the Vatican so out of touch with the faithful? These are very intellectual questions that assume a lot of knowledge. Do they really think most Catholics read and understand these documents and terms?

But the other thing I thought was–should I have been teaching them this stuff? I’ve never even considered having a class for families on who and what they’re supposed to be. Parents would never come.

But if we don’t somehow teach them, how will they know? How will families understand themselves and what they’re called to be?

I’ve been wondering something similar for some time, although I also wonder if we’re teaching families what they should be doing to practice the faith at home. So many Catholic parents don’t even seem to be doing the basics anymore. And if they aren’t going to Mass on Sunday or praying before meals, do we really expect them to be sharing their faith in any meaningful way with their children?

(I could probably insert a whole sidebar here on the implications of Forming Intentional Disciples; suffice to say that it’s clear most Catholic parents wouldn’t meet Sherry’s criteria for intentional discipleship.)

I don’t think the answer is to hand out copies of Familiaris Consortio to every Catholic family and expect them to read it. So where do we start?

  1. Talk about the domestic Church. We need to remind parents that their families are a microcosm of the universal Church. Just as we gather together in parish communities to celebrate our faith, serve one another, and give thanks to God, so too are families called to do the same. This isn’t an “add-on” or something we do when we have extra time, but an integral part of what it means to be family in a Catholic context. Reminding families who they are — and using the language of the domestic Church — is one way to get them thinking about and moving towards this reality.
  2. Encourage greater Mass attendance. By that I don’t mean haranguing parents to be at Mass every Sunday. Rather, we should encourage them to take small steps towards greater participation. For a family that only attends at Easter and Christmas, maybe that means going once per month. For a family that participants more frequently, moving towards regular weekly attendance. And for families that are already attending every week, encouraging adding a daily Mass every week. The point is small improvements that can build on each other, not going immediately from 0 to 60.
  3. Reinforce family meal time and prayer. We’ve all seen the statistics that show how regular family meal times leads to better grades, a reduced likelihood of drug and gang involvement, and better mental and physical health. So why do so few families practice a daily shared meal? This simple step can help re-prioritize a family’s activities, help make connections to the Eucharist, and expand their faith lives through shared prayer and conversation. Activities such as The Meal Box (which my kids love) are a great tool to facilitate this interaction.

How do you think we can reach Catholics families and help them pass on the faith to their children?

Photo Credit: More Good Foundation via Compfight cc

New Resource: Sacred Scripture and the Christian Life (A Short Study)

A few weeks ago, while our local Lumen Veritas youth group was gathering, I offered a faith study opportunity for any parents willing to hang around and listen to me drone on for a hour or so.

With the end of the Year of Faith close at hand we thought it would be good to take a look at the role of Sacred Scripture in the life of the Church through the lens of Vatican Council II. To that end I created a “short study” guide with excerpts from Sacrosanctum concilium and Dei Verbum, as well as the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults and Verbum Domini, and some reflection questions to facilitate the conversation:

I’ve released the study guide under a Creative Commons license, so feel free to print it out, make copies, and adapt it for your own use. Just make sure to credit the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois for its original creation.

Our plan is for me to do similar events for the parents once a month or so; if I create more resources like the one above I’ll be sure to share them here.

Thoughts on the Day: Feast of St. Charles Borromeo

cborromeoToday the Church celebrates the heroic sanctity of St. Charles Borromeo, Archbishop of Milan (d. 1584). St. Borromeo is one of the patron saints of catechists, owing in large part to his role in the writing of the Roman Catechism during the Council of Trent. This was the first universal catechism of the Church and held a place of preeminence within catechesis that only ended with the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church in 1992.

It may be tempting to characterize the time of the Counter-Reformation by an austere and humorless defense against Protestantism (and St. Borromeo was certainly known for those qualities!) but even in the Roman Catechism we see a focus on the encounter with Jesus Christ as the ultimate end of evangelization and catechesis:

The whole concern of doctrine and its teaching must be directed to the love that never ends. Whether something is proposed for belief, for hope or for action, the love of our Lord must always be made accessible, so that anyone can see that all the works of perfect Christian virtue spring from love and have no other objective than to arrive at love. (Roman Catechism, no. 10)

As we remember St. Charles Borromeo we ask for his intercession as catechists and for the strength, wisdom, patience, and love to bring those in our care to a full and lasting encounter with our lord and savior, Jesus Christ.

Book Review: Mentors for the New Evangelization

mentorsThis past summer at the St. John Bosco Conference I picked up a copy of Sr. M. Johanna Paruch’s new book, Mentors for the New Evangelization: Catechetical Saints of North America (Catechetical Institute at Franciscan University, 2013). I’m glad I did — the books is a treasure trove of inspiring stories from the saints of North America who evangelized and catechized the continent.

The book focuses both on familiar names (St. Juan Diego, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, Ven. Fr. Michael McGiveny) and lesser-known saints (St. Marguerite Bourgeoys, Bl. Marie of the Incarnation).

Each chapter focuses on one or two saints and includes a biographical sketch, a reflection based on the life of the saints, questions for further reflection, and a prayer. The biographies are straight-forward if leaning towards hagiography. The reflections and prayers would be ideal for use in a small group setting or retreat for catechists; I can imagine a catechetical leader presenting information on each saint and then leading a period of reflection based on the material.

Mentors for the New Evangelization is an ideal resource for those who wish to know more about the history and persons behind catechesis in North America. It would make a great addition to any catechetical library.