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

Of Halloween Candy and Evangelization

When I was a kid, my favorite stop on Halloween was a house one block over from ours. Besides being friends and super-nice people, they gave out large boxes of Cracker Jack to the neighborhood kids. (And keep in mind this was in the era of good Cracker Jack prizes.) We also had a number of houses that gave out full-size candy bars and other treats that made our little hearts warm when offered in lieu of “tricks.”

In contrast, my heart always sank when I would hold out my bag and watch as some off-brand chocolate (sure to be chalky), Halloween-themed gummy things (sure to be flavorless), or hard pink gum pellets (sure to glue your mouth shut) fell in.

It’s a safe bet which houses were remembered and put on the mental “must visit” list for next year, and which treats languished in the bottom of the bag until all the good stuff had been consumed.

For better or worse, our parishes are in a similar position to those Halloween stops of my youth. Some have much to offer those who cross their thresholds: a welcoming community, well-celebrated liturgies, opportunities for outreach and education, and beautiful church buildings. Others — too many, if surveys and statistics are accurate — offer the ecclesial version of waxy chocolate bars and stale bubble gum.

Is it any wonder that so many people leave our parishes on Sunday morning without spiritual fervor when we offer them cheap treats? The crisis of evangelization in the Church will not be fixed by bland, flavor-less programs or communities that seek to preserve “our way of doing things” at all costs. The New Evangelization begins with quality outreach designed to serve the local community.

A big box of Cracker Jack or a limp purple lollipop. Which type of parish do you think seekers will come back to again and again in their search for meaning and a spiritual home?

Photo Credit: .robbie via Compfight cc

Book Review: When Other Christians Become Catholic

Tomorrow I will head to Chicago for the annual meeting of the Federation of Diocesan Liturgical Commissions. It’s not my usual annual conference — and I’m not even a liturgist! — but the attendees will be participating in a consultation process with the USCCB’s Committee for Divine Worship on the National Statues for the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA), so our director for the Office for Worship and the Catechumenate asked if I would like to tag along given the catechetical import of the topic.

One of the pieces of “required reading” we were given to prepare for the consultation process is Fr. Paul Turner’s When Other Christians Become Catholic (Pueblo, 2007). This short tome covers a number of issues related to the reception into the Church of Christians from other ecclesial communities. This includes an overview of the history of how other Christians have been received, starting with the early years of the Church when adherents to heretical sects (such as the Arians) joined the true faith; a look at how other Christians receive members into their communities; and a look at issues that still remain with the process as it was renewed after Vatican Council II.

WOCBC-turnerFr. Turner’s overarching message, however, is to remind us that when other Christians choose to enter into full communion with the Catholic Church, they are not doing so in a vacuum or as if their previous faith commitments were invalid. This is both a theological and a pastoral point: theological in that we must take seriously the validity and reality of the person’s baptism, even if that baptism occurred in a community not connected with the Catholic Church. The question of whether to recognize other baptisms was decided in the affirmative by the ancient Church; this presupposes that God is really and truly acting in their lives even before their movement towards the Catholic Church.

The point is pastoral because, in practice, many Christians come away from the process of reception into the Church with the impression that their baptisms were somehow “lesser” because they did not occur in a Catholic context. Fr. Turner puts the blame for this squarely on the practice of including baptized candidates for full communion in the same preparation program as unbaptized catechumens who are preparing for full initiation (Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist), culminating in a combined rite at the Easter Vigil. As Fr. Turner states,

By adopting Easter as the paradigmatic occasion for celebrating the rite of reception, the Catholic Church in the United States has reframed the meaning of the rite and its attendant preparation into something more resembling a conversion, a dying and a rising – rather than an evolution, a coming to full communion… Such a conversion is a symptom that something has gone wrong with the rite of reception. The council envisioned an ecumenically sensitive rite that would promote the concept of one baptism among Christians. But the rite of reception is being celebrated as a near equivalent with the initiation of the unbaptized.

This will, no doubt, be a major topic of conversation at this week’s FDLC meeting as we discuss the National Statutes.

The only downside to Fr. Turner’s book is a linguistic one; because the book was published in 2007, it does not take into account the 2010 translation of the Roman Missal. As a result, his discussion of such texts (including an otherwise excellent examination of the text of the Mass for Christian Unity) do not reflect the current liturgical language, although his overarching points are still relevant.

Nevertheless, the book is highly recommended for it’s overall theme and discussion of the historical and ecumenical nature of welcoming other Christians into full communion. When Other Christians Become Catholic is a valuable resource for pastors, evangelists, and RCIA leaders and team members.

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?

Notes – Catholic Schools: Centers of the New Evangelization

Today I’m at the National Catholic Educational Association’s Convention and Expo in Pittsburgh giving a presentation entitled “Catholic Schools: Centers of the New Evangelization.” Below are my notes and materials from the presentation as well as links to additional resources. Don’t forget to follow me on Twitter where I’ll be posting notes, thoughts, and pictures from the conference!

Presentation

Notes

Resources

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?

Sacrosanctum Concilium and the Roots of the New Evangelization

Second Vatican Council

Our diocesan Office for Worship and the Catechumenate has been celebrating the 50th anniversary of Sacrosanctum Concilium with a brown bag lunch series on different aspects of the document. (We’re using this video resource from Liturgy Training Publications as the basis of our reflection, aided by some wonderful handouts produced by Eliot Kapitan, the director of the sponsoring office.)

The first session began with this brief video clip:

In the course of our discussions I realized something that hadn’t occurred to me before: the roots of the New Evangelization can be found in the four aims of the council as laid out in the opening of Sacrosanctum Concilium:

This sacred Council has several aims in view: it desires to impart an ever increasing vigor to the Christian life of the faithful; to adapt more suitably to the needs of our own times those institutions which are subject to change; to foster whatever can promote union among all who believe in Christ; to strengthen whatever can help to call the whole of mankind into the household of the Church. The Council therefore sees particularly cogent reasons for undertaking the reform and promotion of the liturgy. (no. 1)

If we break this paragraph down, we see that the council is concerned for

  1. reinvigorating the life of the faithful;
  2. renewing of the structures of the Church;
  3. drawing all Christians to greater unity;
  4. and calling all people into Christ’s Church.

This maps very nicely to the Church’s understanding of the New Evangelization — that it is firstly a self-renewal of all Christians, called to ongoing conversion, who strengthened by their faith in Jesus Christ then turn and invite others to rediscover and share that faith. That the council should echo what we now call the New Evangelization should not be so surprising, since the New Evangelization is itself a restating of the Chruch’s primary mission: to make disciples of all nations.

These themes are echoed throughout the council documents in various ways. As we continue to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the council we would do well to reflect again on the great challenge presented to us by the council fathers to renew our Christian walk and make Christ known to the world.

Postlude: After I mentioned this insight on Twitter, Timothy O’Malley of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy wrote me to mention that he has a book coming out on just this topic. I’ve put it on my wish list and will be sure to review it once I’ve read it!

Evangelii Gaudium: The Characteristics of an Evangelizing Community

cross

Last week before heading out the door for an extended Thanksgiving holiday with my family in Kansas City I downloaded, printed, and stuck in a binder Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation in response to the recently concluded Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelization. My hope was that I’d find some time to read and reflect on the exhortation during the trip.

I only finished the first chapter, but already feel like I could spend 5 years just reflecting on and implementing those 42 pages. (And I still have 175 to go!)

Folks are breathlessly tweeting and blogging about the exhortation (and rightfully so!) and its impact on our understanding of evangelization and pastoral outreach. So far I’ve been particularly taken with no. 24, in which Pope Francis outlines characteristics intrinsic to an evangelizing community. As I read them, evangelizing communities

  1. know that evangelization begins with God’s initiative
  2. have an endless desire to show mercy
  3. get involved in word and deed with other people
  4. take on “the smell of the sheep”
  5. patiently support and stand by people in their faith journey
  6. are concerned with the fruits of their efforts
  7. express their faith joyfully

In the following sections Pope Francis goes on to describe how these characteristics might be lived out in parishes, dioceses, other Catholic institutions, and even in the office of the papacy. These paragraphs should be required reading for anyone interested in how the mission of the Church is lived out in real situations and places. (I certainly wish we’d had this document when we started our department’s Journey of Discipleship project!)

As I indicated, there is a lot to unpack in the pope’s first major solo document to the Church and I’ll be posting more thoughts and reflections in the coming weeks. In the meantime: get reading!