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.


2 thoughts on “Intentional Catholicism

  1. “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 a former Catholic and now an evangelical pastor, I do not find this statement in the least bit surprising. How much emphasis truly does the Catholic Church place on a PERSONAL relationship with Christ? The greatest emphasis seems to be on mass, which the vast majority of Catholics attend out of obligation and view as a ritual they truly aren’t a part of (too many barriers placed between parishner and God here, altar, vestments and the like). Its repititious nature lends itself to complacency. Add to that literally no teaching on the conversation that Jesus has with Nicodemus about the need for being “born again.” I realize that this term is despised by many Catholics and is viewed as representing a “fringe” group of zealots, but it IS GOD’s WORD, and as such, must be heeded. When one honestly steps back and objectively begins to find reasons for the above quote, one has to, in one way or another, come to terms with the following “barriers and/or distractions:” priestly vestments (the collar), an all male priesthood, celebacy of that priesthood, the altar, the Pope, Mary, the Magesterium, infalibility, Mother Church, rote prayer, praying to the deceased, etc. it is no wonder that the purity of God and His love for man gets lost, which is the very foundation of a relationship with Christ. When was the last time a homily was preached speaking pointedly and specifically to Jesus’ stepping out of eternity and into our time and space to RE-ESTABLISH THE RELATIONSHIP THAT EXISTED PRE-FALL WITH ADAM AND EVE? A social gospel, as pleasant sounding as it may be, will not draw one into a personal relationship with Christ.

  2. As a former Evangelical and now a devout Catholic, I also do not find this statement the least bit surprising. However, not for the same reasons. One dynamic that is easily missed in Dr. John’s comment is how Catholic and Evangelical communities are developed. Evangelicals are typically people who had a conversion experience while a part of another faith group, whether it be Catholic, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, or whatever. They realized that their church seemed to have very few devout believers who have also had a conversion experience such as theirs. So they leave that congregation to either start their own Church, or they join a church of people who have had a similar experience and who share in their devoutness.

    However, with Catholics, their is still only ONE Church. So the devout Catholics don’t leave the church to start their own or join another. They continue their relationship with Christ in the One Holy Apostolic Church among those who have not developed their faith or learned to live their faith in a personal way with God. So of course it looks like a lot of Catholics aren’t living their faith in a similar way as evangelicals. If those same Evangelicals would have stayed in their church to begin with, they would also be in a church that appears to only have a few devout followers.

    With that said, just as their are these devout evangelical churches out there with the majority of their members living the faith in a dynamic way, their are huge dynamic Catholic Parishes out their who are just as devout and just as much in a dynamic relationship with Jesus. Like St. Joseph Church in Erie, PA, or St. Mary’s in Huntley, IL. These aren’t people just going through the motions, these are people living out their faith.

    The rest of Dr. John’s points are merely his interpretation and opinion of scripture for which he has no authority to speak on, since he is not the Church that Christ started when he passed the Keys of the kingdom on to Peter and gave the apostles the power to “bind and lose” and the power to forgive and retain sins. The Bible says that the CHURCH is the pillar and bullwork of the TRUTH. Which Church do you follow? The Church of “My Interpretation vs Your Interpretation?” Or the only Church that can be verified to have existed since the time of Christ? My beliefs go back to Jesus and His apostles, not just the things they wrote down that the Catholic Church declared to be inspired, but also the teaching and traditions that the Holy Spirit has led her in through the years. And the gates of hell will not prevail against her.

    Sorry for my bluntness, but it’s frustrating to here the Church of Christ being misrepresented.

    Peace in Christ.

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