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I've been a priest for 35 years. "Wait a minute," you might be saying to yourself. "I thought this blog about supporting the formation and discipleship of lay Christians.
You're right. It is.
Thirty five years' ago, through my parents' assent and the sacramental power of the Church, by water and the Holy Spirit, I received my baptism. In that moment, I became a new creature--united forever with Christ and with the Church as a member of His Body. Incorporated. Adopted. Grafted to the very Being of the Word Made Flesh. God's scandalous Love for me reached into the darkness of my fallen humanity so that I might share in the very Life of Christ. And, if I share in the fullness that is Christ's Life, then I must also share in the priestly, prophetic, and royal dimensions of that life. Not metaphorically. Not analogously. But ontologically--at the deepest level of being. I have, because of Christ, been made priest, prophet, and royal child for the sake of the world. So says the Apostle Paul, the scriptures, and the unbroken teachings and traditions of the Church:
Christ, high priest and unique mediator, has made of the Church "a kingdom,priests for his God and Father." The whole community of believers is, as such, priestly. The faithful exercise their baptismal priesthood through their participation, each according to his own vocation, in Christ's mission as priest, prophet, and king. Through the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation the faithful are "consecrated to be . . . a holy priesthood (CCC 1546)
I am a member of the universal priesthood of Christ.
And, if you are reading this blog, there's a good chance that you are, as well. We are priests--sacramentally configured by our baptism for service to the world. Again, the Church isn't speaking poetically here, creating some uplifting language to make us feel good about ourselves. Rather, she is pointing to a part of our ultimate identity in Christ, reminding us of exactly who we are. Not over and against the ministerial (ordained) priesthood--who are sacramentally configured for service to the People of God (the universal priesthood)--but in conjunction and collaboration with them in Christ's mission to the world.
This is radical, life-altering reality. The fact that bringing it up tends to annoy both 'liberal' catholics (who see too much of an emphasis on 'old language' and the possibility that highlighting the nature of the common priesthood would interfere with their bid to take on the responsibilities of the ministerial priesthood ) and 'conservative' catholics (who sometimes overemphasize the dignity of the ministerial priesthood above that of laypeople and who sometimes see any discussion of the priesthood of believers as a threat to the ordained priesthood instituted by Christ) reinforces to me that this really is the way God intended it to be.
And so, we are priests in every facet of our lives. Around the water cooler at work, in line at the grocery store, in school, driving on the road, in relationship with our families--there is always a priestly dimension to our lives.
Well great . . .what the heck does that really mean?
In the Judeo-Christian tradition, a priest is one who offers sacrifices, who intercedes for others. As sharers in Christ's own priesthood, which fulfills and completes the Old Covenant priesthood, laypeople are to offer our lives--our giftedness, our talents, and our resources--for the sake of the world. We are to work, and pray, and labor for the restoration of creation "to its original dignity." (Christifideles Laici)
What would the Church look like if every lay person were to receive adequate catechesis and formation around the reality of their priesthood--a formation that would acknowledge the dignity, jurisdiction, power, and authority that we have been given by virtue of our life in Christ. What would our world look like?
Our priesthood finds its fullest expression in the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. It is the foundation of the great work to which we have been called. It is also the greatest gift of our priesthood--that we are given to participate, not watch, in the deepest expression of Love in the Universe.
Too often, catholics, especially those active in an organized ministry, see the Mass as mainly a moment of refreshment and refueling so that we can be nourished for our real work in the world or at the parish. And while it's true that we receive strength and grace by receiving the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ, viewing the Sacrifice of the Mass primarily through that lense denies the full reality of what is occurring. For the Mass is not simply a moment of sanctuary for the faithful; it is, fundamentally, an action of the whole priestly community and the deepest activity of the universal priesthood.
As Christ is made present at each mass through the sacramental power of the ministerial priesthood, the world is made present at each mass through the action of the universal priesthood. We, as priests, are called to bring the world--its needs, its struggles, and its hopes--to the Eucharist. Not simply in a general way, but in a way specific to the interactions we have in our own lives. Each of us as individuals know people who are suffering and struggling, people who need prayer and real physical, emotional, and spiritual help. It is these individuals that we each bring to the Eucharist so that as a community of priests we may intercede for the world.
And then, impelled by the Love of Christ, we bring the Eucharist back out into the world. This is what it means to be fully, actively, and consciously engaged in the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Not simply to pay attention to the readings, or to bring just our own lives to the altar, but to fully live out our priesthood by bearing the world to the altar, and then bearing Christ to the world--working for all that it truly, authentically human in the cultures and societies in which we live.
We don't hear about this reality much. And it's a shame. Why not?
How can we best exercise our priesthood? How do we form laypeople for their priestly role? How can we collaborate with the ministerial priesthood for the fulfillment of Christ's mission in a way that honors and nurtures our particular areas of authority and jurisdiction. Hopefully, those of you who are reading this and reflecting these questions will share your thoughts.
Some great points from the Zenit translation of a December 2, 2005 Advent homily given to Pope Benedict XVI and the Curia in preparation for Christmas by Fr. Cantalamessa, Preacher for the Papal Household
You can find the whole homily, which is quite long, at the Zenit website. But I just wanted to pull out a few particuarly interesting points for discussion.
"Even more worrying is what is observed in society in general, including those who define themselves "Christian believers." In what, in fact, do those in Europe and other places believe who define themselves "believers?" In the majority of cases, they believe in a supreme being, a creator; they believe in "the beyond."
But this is a deist faith, not yet a Christian faith. Taking into account Karl Barth's well-known distinction, the latter is religion, not yet faith. Different sociological researches note this fact also in countries and regions of ancient Christian tradition, as the region in which I myself was born, in the Marcas. In practice, Jesus Christ is absent in this type of religiosity. "
All the authors of the New Testament show that they presupposed the existence and knowledge, on the part of readers, of a common tradition (paradosis) which goes back to the earthly Jesus. This tradition presents two aspects, or two components: a component called "preaching," or announcement (kerygma) which proclaims what God has wrought in Jesus of Nazareth, and a component called "teaching" (didache) which presents ethical norms for correct conduct on the part of believers. Several Pauline letters reflect this distribution, because they contain a kerygmatic first part, from which a second part derives of a parenetic or practical character.
The preaching, or kerygma, is called the "gospel"; the teaching, or didache, instead is called the "law," or the commandment of Christ that is summarized in charity. These two things, the first -- the kerygma, or gospel -- is what gives origin to the Church; the second -- the law, or the charity that springs from the first, is what draws for the Church an ideal of moral life, which "forms" the faith of the Church. In this connection, the Apostle distinguishes before the Corinthians his work of "father" in the faith from that of the "pedagogues" who came after him. He says: "For it is I, through the Gospel, who has begotten you in Christ Jesus" (1 Corinthians ).
Therefore, faith as such flowers only in the presence of the kerygma, or the announcement. "How are they to believe -- writes the Apostle speaking of faith in Christ -- in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without a preacher?" Literally, "without some one who proclaims the kerygma" (choris keryssontos). And he concludes: "So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ" (Romans ), where by "preaching" the same thing is understood, that is, the "gospel" or kerygma. 3. Rediscover the Kerygma
This situation greatly affects evangelization today. The Churches with a strong dogmatic and theological tradition (as the Catholic Church is par excellence), run the risk of finding themselves at a disadvantage if underneath the immense patrimony of doctrine, laws and institutions, they do not find that primordial nucleus capable of awakening faith by itself.
To present oneself to the man of today, often lacking any knowledge of Christ, with the whole range of this doctrine is like putting one of those heavy brocade capes all of a sudden on the back of a child. We are more prepared by our past to be "shepherds" than to be "fishers" of men; that is, better prepared to nourish people that come to the Church then to bring new people to the Church, or to catch again those who have fallen away and live outside of her.
This is one of the reasons why in some parts of the world many Catholics leave the Catholic Church for other Christian realities; they are attracted by a simple and effective announcement that puts them in direct contact with Christ and makes them experience the power of his Spirit.
"Our knowledge of Jesus needs above all a first-hand experience: someone else's testimony is of course important, for normally the whole of our Christian life begins with the proclamation handed down to us by one or more witnesses. However, we ourselves must then be personally involved in a close and deep relationship with Jesus."
We are already getting some great comments of considerable diversity on “The Question That Must Not Be Asked” post below. The two I quote below articulate the poles of American Catholic experience regarding the issue of discipleship with particular clarity:
“Sherry, I think it's great that you converted, but I don't really want that sort of Protestant kind of discipleship in our parishes. Catholics lives in a different sort of culture. If we wanted a different kind, we'd convert to a Protestant denomination. You expect vivid, dramatic change, which is a Protestant (rather evangelical Protestant) characteristic. Catholic culture is different. Change happens more by osmosis. What gives you the right to come in and demand that Catholics change their culture to suit you?”
“You expect vivid, dramatic change, which is a Protestant characteristic” Hmmm – you mean like Protestants like St. Paul, St. Francis of Assisi, St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross(Edith Stein), etc.
“Bingo! You just described why I left the Catholic Church. There was no instruction or encouragement in living a Christian life. Hope this doesn't offend, but it honestly was my experience.”
No offense taken. I think we are listening to the same cultural reality being described from two very different perspectives.
I know from my travels that many cultural Catholics in the US do tend to regard any clearly differentiated experience of conversion or spiritual awakening as “dramatic” and therefore “Protestant”. Part of this is a consequence of living in the only western country with a huge and exceptionally vibrant evangelical Protestant movement which tends to hold up the St-Paul-on-the-road-to-Damascus experience” as the paradigm for conversion. (You don’t often hear these kinds of comments from Catholics in Australia, for instance)
But I would like to point out a few things:
1) The experience of a clearly transforming conversion, whether dramatic, quiet, or in-between, is not Protestant. Like the Bible, evangelicals got it from us. If clear, transforming conversion were a Protestant invention, we would not expect to see it occur among Catholics prior to 1517. As anyone familiar with pre-Reformation history or the lives of the saints, life-changing conversions – and some exceedingly dramatic - are a routine part of wholly Catholic practice and spirituality.
2) We need to distinguish between a “clearly differentiated conversion” and “dramatic” conversion; between the beginning of “initial faith” and the on-going life of faith that result in salvation and the beatific vision.
Salvation is neither the fruit of a single event or decision but neither is it the result of a long, unconscious, impossible-to-differentiate-one-moment-from-the-other, glacial ooze that mysteriously but triumphantly results in complete sanctity at the end of one’s life.
As St. Augustine pointed out: God does not save us without us. We simply cannot be saved “unconsciously” or without any volition on our part. Cradle Catholics cannot simply be carried passively along by the culture into which we were born. At some point, we have to choose to accept the grace offered to us and to follow Christ as a disciple. And it is that choice, however it is made, however long it takes, however quiet or dramatic the circumstances, that is the issue at stake in intentional discipleship
Transformation into the image of Christ is a life-long weaving together of a series of larger and smaller “conversions” manifested in long intentional obediences in the same direction. But because human beings live in time and space, the process begins somewhere. Like falling in love, the awakening of initial faith is often experienced as a “big bang” rather than a tiny whisper, although a whisper would do. The initial discovery of another’s beauty and loveability isn’t the same as a life-time of faithful marriage but without the discovery, the marriage would never have taken place. Like falling in love, initial faith changes you and changes the direction of your life.
If we lived in a world without any love songs or love stories, one might come to the conclusion that the phenomena of “falling in love” was rare instead of universal. Similarly, there is more than one way to interpret a culture in which people regard “conspicuous conversion” as foreign and excessive and in bad taste and “non-Catholic”. It could be simply that that profound conversion is going on all over the Catholic world and it is simply bad taste to acknowledge it publicly – a sort of “don’t do it in the streets and frighten the horses” approach. Pretty dramatically at odds with Christ’s commandment in Matthew 28 but possible.
Or – there is the possibility that many Catholics have never experienced initial conversion and hence, have nothing to talk about. Intentional discipleship can’t help but seem “foreign” to those who have never experienced it. If the pastoral leaders we have worked with are even remotely close to the mark, 90 - 95% of Catholics in the pews are not yet intentional disciples.
3) I do think that you are right. It is a matter of culture. Not of Scripture or magisterial teaching or the writings of the saints, which as Keith points out, all urge us to conversion and transformation and never mind about whether it is dramatic or not. In fact, I have a new name for the culture you describe: The culture of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
"Don't Ask, Don't Tell" culture operates at several levels:
1) Never ask where George or Sue or Tasha is in their relationship with Christ.
Never, never ask them directly: Where are you in your relationship with God at this point in your life? Never ask "would you consider yourself an intentional disciple?" Asking directly seems to violate some kind of unspoken bargain - if you show up (i.e., attend Mass, are "active" in the parish, we won't ask you what your lived relationship with God is really like.
We can tell this is an unspoken bargain because of the universal knee-jerk response that we get from cradle Catholic (not converts!) pastors, pastoral associates, theologians etc. across the board when we suggest that we ask - even in the most gentle, natural, unobtrustive way. They almost all immediately say the same thing:
"We don’t do "me and Jesus"! That's Protestant, foreign, evangelical, invasive, judgmental, etc. Who am I to judge someone else's spiritual state?"
Of course, we haven't said anything about "me and Jesus" nor are we advocating it - but just where did the idea that to ask someone *directly* about their lived relationship with God is anti-Church, non-ecclesial, non-Catholic, and judgmental become so universal? What has given us the unspoken conviction that *not to ask* is truly Catholic?
What makes us assume that to ask is to judge instead of an essential pre-requisite to serving them effectively? In so many other areas we stress that to ask and to listen carefully and respectfully (about their family's needs, their sacramental needs, the needs of the homeless, etc.) is charitable. What had convinced us that to acquiesce in a situation where only 5% of our people, on average, are disciples is somehow the definition of charity?
2) Never ask if we (pastoral leaders) are doing what we are supposed to do. Just stay busy. Focus on programs and institutions. Never, never ask what impact our activities are having on the vast majority of parishioners. Never, never ask if we are being effective at the fundamental thing Christ asked us to do - make disciples.
I took part in a theological symposium in Chicago last summer on the parish and was stunned to hear a brilliant Roman professor of ecclesiology (who is familiar with our work) articulating the classic understanding of the pastoral office: to teach, to sanctify, to govern. I had always assumed that the point of teaching, indeed, the test of teaching was "are others learning?", that the point of sanctifying was to help others become holy, etc.
As I listened, I realized that the focus of classic Catholic theological reflection on the topic was all clerical - i.e., on the correct steps that the priest was to take. No where in the presentation was there any awareness or curiosity about the spiritual and personal impact of the actions on the recipient of those actions. No one was asking “Are those being ministered to actually learning, becoming holy, etc?
While I had run into this constantly on the ground in conversations with innumerable priests and parish associates, now I realized that it was also rooted in the ecclesiology that came out of the Reformation experience. (Formal ecclesiology was a by-product of the 16th century when Protestantism challenged the Church’s sense of herself in a whole new way. Robert Bellermine’s work is usually regarded as the first comprehensive Catholic attempt at ecclesiology), Protestants were attacking the objective value and efficacy of the priesthood and the sacraments so Catholics naturally focused upon defending the faith at the controversial points.
Five centuries later, we live in a profound different situation and need to look again at the other side of the equation. It was this realization that led me to write “’The Question that Must Not Be Asked”
3) Don't tell: Don't clearly articulate the kergyma in order to awaken personal faith. It is too invasive, too simplistic, too embarrassing, too Protestant, too much like a TV preacher, etc.
To be honest, I've seldom met a cradle Catholic priest or pastoral leader who 1) has actually thought about the content of the kerygma and attempted to articulate it; and 2) is wrestling with the idea that we could be undermining people's salvation by not preaching it. In 19 years as a Catholic, I've seldom heard it clearly preached or intentionally articulated by Catholics to other Catholics.
The vast majority of priests, pastors, and pastoral leaders I've dealt with function as practical universalists: that short of mass murder, everyone is going to heaven and so why bother with basic proclamation - especially about the Paschal Mystery - and therefore, the issue of intentional discipleship?
God saves us without us. Just get ‘em in the door but even if they don’t seem to darken the door, they will come back someday. On their own terms and their own time. When they get married, when they have children. (Despite that fact that surveys tell us over and over that huge numbers of today’s young adult Catholics are not coming back for marriage and not baptizing their children because the last vestiges of Catholic practice have ceased to have meaning), Nothing eternal is really at stake.
Almost always, if someone doesn't function as a universalist, I find they have been 1) influenced by evangelicalism and/or the charismatic renewal or 2) have a charism of evangelism (which trumps culture any day and ensures that you cannot not ask the question), or, 3) increasingly, that they have been influenced by us. When and how the initial proclamation of the gospel dropped from the picture, I don't know.
Peter Kreeft, a well known Catholic professor at BostonCollege, asked every student he had for many years, "if you died today, would you go to heaven and why?". Nearly all were the product of 12 years of Catholic schools; nearly everyone expected to go to heaven because they were a basically good person; very few students *even mentioned Jesus* as part of the reason.
That’s the product of a Don't Ask, Don't Tell culture that doesn't not preach the kergyma to its own and does not consider intentional discipleship to be normative.
I was perusing the latest issue of Christianity Today--one of the things that I love to do when I have a few moments of leisure--and stumbled upon a rather short review of a book entitled, Simple Church: Returning to God's Process for Making Disciples. Reading the entry, I really began to think about the practical implications of focusing energy, bandwidth, and resources on making disciples at the parish level.
A few paragraphs jumped out at me as I reflected on the review:
Churches with a clear disciple-making process are vibrant and growing. "Vibrant" churches do four things: design a simple disciple-making process, organize key programs to accomplish this, unite all ministries around the process, and eliminate everything else. (emphasis mine)
Forgetting for a moment the question as to whether or not this four-fold process is, actually, the "right" way to go about making disciples (and I think that merits a post or posts all on its own), the last part of the process "eliminate everything else" really caught my eye. With the proliferation of various ministries ocurring at the parish level (one need only look at the front of any bulletin in Catholic parishes), what are the implications for focusing on creating intentional disciples?
The lack of regular, sacrificial giving among catholic parishioners (itself a probable symptom of lack of intentional discipleship among communities at large) often means that our parishes are resource-starved. But resouce limitations are certainly not constrained just to the financial. With an often small amount of time, talent, and treasure, how do we deploy the temporal and spiritual resources of the parish to best form disciples and equip apostles?
According to the reviewer of Small Churches, the authors have an idea:
Some of the book's best advice concerns dropping programs that seem to be successful but contribute nothing to mission.
That is certainly a focused approach--though one in which I believe most pastors and pastoral leaders won't have the fortitude to tackle. Given the shifting and complex web of "politics" that exists within any human community, how can parish leaders discern along these lines and help communicate the fruits of that discernment to the community?
Anyone with a sufficiently "cunning" mind can show how a particular ministry contributes to mission. For example, would the popular Moms (Ministry of Mothers Sharing) ministry "make the cut" once parish leadership decided that the community would need to focus on mission-centered ministries? Certainly one could say that supporting mothers contributes directly to the mission of the Church as mothers are raising the next generation of disciples and apostles.
These are difficult waters to navigate--made all the more difficult in that our contemporary catholic communities haven't really begun to explore them.
It's not that the experience was bad--quite the opposite in fact. However, there was a moment on Friday night, as Fr. Michael Sweeney spoke about the Theology of the Laity, when "things" just clicked so profoundly that it was as if God thwapped me in the head.
Let me explain.
I had been a youth minister, retreat director, Confirmation coordinator, and catechist for about 13 years. In that time, I had never received any formation for those roles. I was lucky enough to have attended Chaminade High School--a great Catholic Prep school on Long Island--and free enough to study theology and Church history on my own time. I had struggled along for 13 years, picking up bits and pieces of things (small group discussion questions, teaching methodologies, knowledge of ecclesiology, icebreakers) from my various experiences. If you had asked me then, I might have said that I even felt well prepared. After all, I was--seemingly--effective at what I did, and I felt like I generally knew what I needed to do to help the young people in my charge.
But make no mistake about it--there was nothing intentional in my formation.
And then I stumbled into a C&G Workshop being offered in Puyallup, Washington around the year 2000. That fateful Friday Night, it was as if all of the bits and pieces that I had struggled to collect suddenly were connected by the strongest of ties. I often say that the C&G Workshop was like a lens through which all of my stumbling around, seeing "through a glass darkly," ended in a moment of startling resolution.
I knew who I was--who God had called me to be. And I understood the nature of the Church and its relationship to the world in a way that I had never been able to before. Suddenly, there was an urgency to my work with youth and young adults. I just needed to share this with them!
God has led me through a wonderful path since then. Not only has my work with youth and young adults expanded, but I have had the opportunity to give retreats and talks, and plan events and programs of formation for laypeople of every age. I've also had the great grace to work alongside and support the endeavors of parish leadership as they try and transform their communities into Houses of Lay Formation.
Formation (and discernment) for mission is one of the single greatest challenges that faces the Church today. For Catholics in particular, we face a cultural inertia that I believe prevents us from unleashing the full grace that God offers us to accomplish His work on earth. The whole Body needs to wake up. It is not enough if the eye and the ear are awakened to this challenge--the mouth, heart, hands, and feet must awaken as well.
As for me, one of my favorite ways to participate in this mission is to teach Called & Gifted Workshops.
I guess I like to watch other people being hit by 2 x 4's.
I'll be in and out today as Fr. Mike Fones, my Dominican Co-Director, got in town at midnight last night and is scheduled for his third round of shoulder surgery this afternoon, so I will be ferrying him to and fro in drug-seeking behavior mode.
That rarest of rare birds, an obsessively fit Dominican, he is a weight-lifter and has been lamenting his shriveling frame during his recuperation so we are praying that surgery number three will do the trick. Your prayers for him would be greatly appreciated.
Fr. Mike, who usually strikes innocent bystanders as the world's nicest guy, is, in fact, a dangerous man. (I think the shaved head and goatee gives him the classic look of a James Bond super villain myself.)
The look you see here is the look that send shivers down my spine. It means that he has either 1) thought of some new way to torture me or 2) has thought of something new for us to do. Either way, its trouble. The fact that he was holding St. Cyril of Jerusalem's Catechetical Lectures at the moment this picture was taken is just another part of that deceptive "angel of light" persona. The orange glow from the wall behind really brings out the Jesuitical gleam in his eye. Tres OP.
I've heard stories about this for at least 10 years now. A new dvd is being produced telling the stories of 5 Muslims from 5 different countries who became disciples of Jesus because they encountered him in a vivid dream or vision. Shades of St. Paul on-the-road-to-Damascus! Read about it at http://www.lausanneworldpulse.com/worldreports/595
January, 2007 is a great time to be discerning God's next step for you. Consider attending a Called & Gifted workshop and learn how to recognize the signs the charisms (spiritual gifts) that you received at Baptism which enable you to be an instrument of God's love, mercy, truth, and provision for others. Join the 24,000 Catholics in 73 dioceses on 4 continents who have attended live Called & Gifted workshops and discovered the difference that discerning charisms can make in your life and the lives of others.
Called & Gifted workshops run from 7:00 - 9:30 pm on Friday night and 9:30 - 4:00 pm on Saturday. There will be eight opportunities for you to attend a Called & Gifted around the country in January:
January 12/13 Houston, TX Nampa, ID
January 26/27 Bothell, WA Spokane, WA Boise, ID San Francisco, CA Colorado Springs, CO St. Paul, MN
For location and to register, visit our website calendar www.siena.org.
In my early days as a Catholic, I was always asking the wrong question, and reducing cradle Catholics to incredulous silence. Many of my problem questions were related to a single over-riding concern: wasn’t the Catholic faith supposed to change people’s lives? Over time, I began to recognize the startled look that would cross a priest’s face when I would say things like, “I must be receiving the Eucharist improperly” or, “I must not be confessing properly. It’s supposed to change me, isn’t it? I don’t seem to be changing. I must be doing it wrong.”
When I started graduate school, the issues became more global. When I did a paper on RCIA , I made an appointment with the local diocesan director of RCIA. I wondered aloud: Did parishes keep in touch with those received at Easter and monitor their Christian growth? Did they follow-up when a new Catholic stopped coming? The director gave me “the look” and responded that it would be invasive of the spiritual privacy of the newly baptized to keep in touch.
When I asked the director of Catholic education in the same diocese if they attempted to evaluate what children actually “caught” of the faith when attending Catholic schools, she shook her head. They had exposed the children to a certain number of liturgies, classes, and a Catholic “atmosphere.” She make it clear that to ask what the children understood of the Catholic faith, much less believed when they graduated, was to make a heavy handed numbers game of a delicate spiritual “mystery.”
I finally pulled a real whopper. I naively blurted out “Was “Fr. X effective?” at a parish committee meeting. When the woman across the table from me erupted in rage at my presumption, I finally understood. I was violating another one of those deeply held Catholic norms that wasn’t in the catechism but all “real” Catholics instinctively know. Never ask if you are being effective, never ask if you are having the desired spiritual impact. I sat through the rest of that meeting in stunned silence, thinking “I will never, never, never ever be Catholic enough. I will never understand Catholics if I live to be 100.” The irony is that the priest in question was none other than Fr. Michael Sweeney with whom I eventually founded the Institute. It turned out that he was asking similar questions!
These days, I’m more sensitive to the feelings of cradle Catholics but I’m still asking the same question. At every Making Disciples seminar, we ask, “What percentage of your parishioners would you consider intentional disciples?” Since participants are pastors, parish staff and leaders from dioceses all over North America and elsewhere, this always produces vigorous discussion and fascinating responses. Usually we discover that no one present has ever thought about this particular question before and it takes some wrestling to become clear about what is being asked. What do we mean by the term “intentional disciple”? Is an intentional disciple the same as a “practicing Catholic”? How would you recognize someone as an intentional disciple?
And then the educated guesses begin: Five percent? Ten percent? The highest estimate so far came from members of a tiny parish with 350 members who estimated 30% of their members would qualify. The grimmest assessment came from a west coast-based group of leaders who together came up with a startling ballpark figure: that probably less than 1-2% of their parishioners were intentional disciples of Jesus Christ! They all worked at big, extremely active parishes. And yet, the fact that most members of their parishes were not yet disciples had escaped them until that moment.
Over the past 10 years, I have worked with hundreds of parishes in 70 dioceses and I can only think of a couple that I wouldn’t call busy. Most appear to be busy seven days a week. Every inch of available time and space is filled with people and programs and yet parish leaders seldom ask, "What is the real, personal and spiritual impact of our busyness? Are we changing the lives of people?” We energetically move people through institutions and programs but suddenly freeze when it is time to evaluate what is the actual spiritual impact of our efforts.
The Vatican announced a few days ago that twelve million new Catholics were added to the Church in 2004. That’s wonderful, but as Catechesis in Our Time puts it so powerfully, many baptized Catholics are “still without any explicit personal attachment to Jesus Christ; they only have the capacity to believe placed within them by Baptism and the presence of the Holy Spirit.”
You have read it in the Scribe before: Disciples and Apostles don't “just happen.” Vocations don’t “just happen.” Weeds happen.
Disciples, apostles, and vocations are the result of an intentional planand effort of a Christian community. A community that knows that if you build people first, they will create and sustain our institutions. A community that dares to ask, “Are we doing what Christ commanded us to do? How can we help every baptized Catholic experience a life-changing encounter with Jesus Christ? Are we challenging our parishioners to become intentional disciples of Jesus Christ? Are we helping them to become well-formed apostles who are effectively discerning and answering God’s call?"
This blog has been in the works for months but it took a series of Rocky Mountain snowstorms and the Christmas holidays to give me the time to get it up and going. The first picture is my dining room window garlanded in snow as a result of the pre-Christmas blizzard. I took the picture of Pike's Peak overlooking the city of Colorado Springs while snow-shoeing in a city park on New Year's Eve.