My friends know that I appreciate candor, and that I can be frank to a fault. I don’t tolerate it well when everyone in the room is desperately trying to ignore the proverbial eight-hundred pound gorilla sitting in the corner.
Author Sherry Weddell does not tolerate this well either.
And she would like us – “active” and presumably committed Catholics, lay, religious, consecrated and clergy – to focus on one rather large gorilla sitting in the corner of our contemporary Church: the reality that a disturbingly large proportion of Church-going Catholics fail to live as disciples of Jesus – as intentional disciples.
That message is at the heart of a sorely needed reality check she provides in her new book, Forming Intentional Disciples: the Path to Knowing and Following Jesus.
She begins by sharing some disturbing statistics she has extrapolated from her own analysis of a 2008 study by the Pew Research Center. Among them:
• Only 30 percent of Americans raised Catholic are still “practicing” (which in the survey meant “attending Mass at least once a month”).
• Another 38 percent hang on to the Catholic label – cultural Catholics – but seldom or never attend Mass.
• The other 32 percent no longer consider themselves Catholic. Of these, 3 percent follow a non-Christian religion, 14 percent consider themselves "unaffiliated," and 15% have joined a Protestant faith community.
“[W]e have asked hundreds of diocesan and parish leaders from sixty dioceses throughout the English-speaking world this question: What percentage of your parishioners, would you estimate, are intentional disciples? To our astonishment, we have received the same answer over and over: ‘Five percent.’”
More troubling still is her discovery – after working with hundreds of parishes, and personally interviewing a couple thousand practicing Catholics, most of whom described themselves as “active” and “heavily involved” in their parishes – that many of them have tremendous gaps in their understanding of the faith. They might be in Church every Sunday: ushers, lectors, parish secretaries, religious ed teachers and so on. Yet Weddell not infrequently discovered many who – upon sharing with her their own experience of the faith – did not believe in the divinity of Jesus, or who intimated that that they don't even believe in a personal God at all! Her personal experience in these one-on-one encounters seems to confirm one of the most disturbing implications of the Pew study. Weddell explains:
“It is especially sobering to learn that when Pew surveyors asked the question, ‘Which comes closest to your view of God: God is a person with whom people can have a relationship, or God is an impersonal force?’ 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.”
This is tragic. But this is the reality on the ground in today’s Catholic Church. And we should be thankful to Sherry Weddell for forcing the issue, and presenting a clear strategy to bring these brothers and sisters of ours to a personal relationship with Jesus, to a state of being intentional disciples.
One of the most important contributions of Forming Intentional Disciples is Weddell’s articulation of what she calls the “thresholds of conversion.”
The idea is simple.
“Catechesis” in the Church is meant for those who are already deeply committed to Christ as disciples; catechesis is meant to build on a foundation that already exists. But non-believers, or those who have become estranged from the faith, or those who only understand Jesus notionally (but not personally) are almost certainly not ready to be “catechized.” That’s why, as Weddell points out, the problem we are facing in the Church today – though often chalked up to “poor catechesis” or “poor adult faith formation” – is way beyond resolution through “better” catechesis.
To be genuinely catechized (nourished in an ever deeper understanding of the faith) presupposes that one is already a disciple of Jesus in mind and heart. What Weddell and her collaborators have discovered and demonstrated over the past decade is that many of our baptized Catholics never made it to that threshold; in fact they are quite a few thresholds away from getting there. Consequently, attempts to “catechize” them are often futile. They must be met where they are and gently coaxed and accompanied to discipleship.
To get there, most people need to cross at least four other thresholds: first they need to trust – to trust those in whom they see modeled something which they themselves lack: a robust and joyful living of a personal relationship with Jesus. Having crossed this threshold, they would then ideally become imbibed with curiosity about Jesus. That curiosity would then be nourished and grow to genuine openness to learning more about Jesus, which would then move them to seek Jesus actively; then – and only then – they would be in a position to take the final step to following Jesus as an “intentional disciple” in the midst of his Church.
Catechists, and evangelizers, and many a committed Catholic are often frustrated in their attempts to draw others back to Church for the very simple reason that we have failed to understand the psychology of this fundamental process of going from non-practicing (or non-believing) to committed discipleship. Weddell’s paramount contribution – and what makes Forming Intentional Disciples one of the most important books written in the past decade on the topic of evangelization – is precisely to focus our attention on this process, to explore it, and help us to understand it so we can become much more effective in our evangelizing efforts.
In an online interview with her Bishop Michael Sheridan of the diocese of Colorado Springs, she notes that when she and collaborators at the Catherine of Siena Institute began using the term “intentional disciple”, they drew fire from many different groups. Were they being elitist? Judgmental? But here again, if Weddell has touched a nerve, that may well indicate that she is exactly right in her assertion that a vast majority of Catholics lack in their self-understanding the very category of committed, active “discipleship” that should be in the very DNA of baptized Christians.
So what does she mean by the term?
“All we meant,” she explains to Bishop Sheridan, “was ‘intentional’ as in Peter and his brother, on the sea of Galilee… They dropped their nets, and they followed him.” You don’t do that accidentally… you don’t do it in your sleep… And neither can any of us be disciples in our sleep!”
Deliberate, conscious discipleship.
On one occasion when I was speaking recently to Weddell – who is herself a convert to Catholicism from Evangelical Protestantism – I asked her if she is optimistic about the prospects of the New Evangelization. “Of course I’m optimistic,” she responded without missing a beat, “because I am watching people do it.” In further explaining her optimism, she added: “I come from a world [evangelical Protestantism] where this is normal – making disciples. The question is not whether this is possible, but what are the resources at our disposal. The Church has already supplied us with everything we need.”
To be sure, Sherry Weddell has supplied us with one amazing resource – Forming Intentional Disciples – which is must-reading for any Catholic who wants to be realistically, honestly and effectively engaged in the drama of making disciples.
Father Thomas Berg is a priest of the Archdiocese of New York and Professor of Moral Theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary (Dunwoodie). More of Fr. Berg’s publications are available at www.fatherberg.com.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.