Intentional Catholicism

One of the really good books I’ve read in the last month is Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus, by Sherry A. Weddell, which was sent to me for review by The Catholic Company. The holidays have delayed my writing more extensively about it until now (although you’ll find some early observations here and here). Nonetheless, I’ve been consistently recommending it to friends of mine who are parish priests or who are otherwise involved in adult faith formation and parish evangelization efforts. It is, in my view, an important read for all of us.

Weddell’s book is premised on (1) the recognition that most American Catholics are “still at an early, essentially passive stage of spiritual development,” that is, that they are not yet active disciples of Christ, and (2) the understanding that as long as that is the reality, “the theology of the laity and the Church’s teaching on social justice and evangelization will remain beautiful ideals that are, practically speaking, dead letters for the vast majority of Catholics.”

The book begins with the most helpful and extensive analysis of the Pew “Religious Landscape Survey” that I’ve seen. The survey findings are cited frequently but few have made an effort Weddell does to really parse through what those findings mean – including pointing out where the findings are inconsistent with the judgments and assumptions people in parish work often proceed under.

In my view the most crucial Pew finding to the subject of forming intentional Christian disciples is that only 60% of Cahtolics believe in a personal God and only 48% “were absolutely certain that the God they believed in was a God with whom they could have a personal relationship” (a finding that completely floored me and that equally surprised several people to whom I mentioned it). As Weddell notes this means that the fact that someone calls himself or herself Catholic “does not mean that someone necessarily believes in the God at the heart of Catholicism” and that the majority of Catholics in the United States “do not know that an explicit, personal attachment to Christ – personal discipleship – is normative Catholicism as taught by the apostles and reiterated time and time again by the popes, councils, and saints of the Church.”

From this shocking finding, Weddell moves on to a wonderful discussion of what it means to be a disciple of Christ and of the need to help each person make a personal choice to live as a disciple. She is absolutely right: this is not optional, but central to who we are.

The book then has a series of chapters on what Weddell terms the five thresholds of conversion, which thresholds have to do with one’s lived relationship with God. The five are: initial trust, spiritual curiosity,spiritual openness, spiritual seeking, and intentional discipleship. It is important for those involved in evangelization to understand what the thresholds are and how to identify where people are on the road. This is an understanding that should affect how we structure our RCIA and other adult formation programs.

Following the discussion of the thresholds of conversion, Weddell has a wonderful chapter titled “Do Tell: The Great Story of Jesus.” The chapter presents the various “Acts” of the great story of Jesus “organized with postmodern sensitivities in mind.” The reminder that we need to think about HOW we tell our story given the lived reality of postmodern young adults is crucial. (As an aside – this discussion is prompting me to think hard about how those of us with an Ignatian Spirituality should think about our presentation of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius – something that I find very exciting.)

I pause here with some frustration. This post is already long and there are any number of other things I’d like to say about Weddell’s wonderful book. (The front page of my copy is filled with scribble of noteworthy pages.) So let me say simply this: Read the book.