This summer, while I was sitting at a computer at our local public library, my attention was captured by a discussion taking place at the work desk. A child had come in to report progress on the library's summer reading program. I can tell you very little about the child; the work desk was out of my view.
No, what made this brief event remarkable to me was the reaction of the library staffer. Her voice, raised in volume by her enthusiasm for her task, easily carried over to where my daughter Lily and I were sitting. She responded excitedly to the youngster's reading accomplishment. She asked questions about the books the child had read and sounded thrilled to hear that the child had enjoyed reading them.
This was clearly more to her than just a passing out of a balloon or a certificate; this was an opportunity to celebrate and inspire the growth of a young reader, and she treated it like the most important thing she would do all day--which, in fact, it may have been.
She was welcoming. She was effusive. She was passionate.
She was intentional.
Reflecting later on, I found myself asking this question: How often are we Catholics as intentional about living and sharing our faith in Jesus Christ as this librarian is about sharing her love of reading?
The Church's recent focus on "intentional discipleship" addresses the fact that there is currently room for improvement in the spiritual atmosphere of many individual Catholics and Catholic parishes. It encourages us all to examine the state of our Church and our role within it as twenty-first century Catholics, and it points toward a vision of a Church that is in truth what it is meant to be: a light unto the world.
Parishioner, John Brock, describes what intentional discipleship means to him: "It is a deep, personal relationship with Christ; an acute awareness of the Holy Spirit; and a profound sense of the presence of God in your world. When you can let yourself into this presence, you can be a true disciple of the living God."
INTENTIONAL DISCIPLESHIP: WHY?
In her book Forming Intentional Disciples, Sherry A. Weddell presents a look at the current state of Catholicism, and there are numerous ch
allenges. Surely readers are familiar with statistics about falling Mass attendance and the number of baptized Catholics who now attend evangelical churches. And let's not forget the people who are still in the pews but not feeling spiritually nourished; some will leave, seeking something that works better for them, while others will stick around, more out of habit than out of any joy they are feeling when they attend Mass.
Weddell's research reveals some things that will surprise many Catholics. For example, forty percent of Catholics responded that they don't think a personal relationship with God is possible.
It appears very likely that, while you may feel God's presence, the person next to you in church doesn't even believe it is possible to do so. Keep in mind that this person next to you has likely received the sacraments. This person may attend Mass regularly. He or she may even take a leadership role in parish affairs.
People like this are what the intentional discipleship movement would call "sacramentalized but not evangelized." They take part in the traditions and culture of Catholicism out of a sense of tradition, habit, or obligation--not from a personal connection to Jesus. They are sometimes called "cultural Catholics," and research suggests that there are a lot of them.
St. Mary of the Lake parishioner Peggy Neubeck has seen this in her own life: "I believe that we do not understand the depth and the meaning of the Catholic Church. So many do not know WHY they are Catholic; they just are, and they go to Mass each week because that is what you are supposed to do. That was me up until a few years ago."
When a cultural Catholic drifts away from the Church, the conventional thinking has been that the sacraments will bring them back. The idea is that marriage, the birth of a child, and other life events provide an occasion for fallen-away Catholics to get back into practice. But with all of the options in our society (including mainline Protestant churches, evangelical churches, and, of course, no church at all), they aren't coming back the way they used to.
There is another group that deserves our attention as well. If a faith-filled, passionate person leaves the Church, it may be simply because there is not a spirit of evangelization present. Worshipers whose "hearts are on fire" but who sense a lack of discipleship in the parish--a "mind your own business" approach--may feel unwelcome and leave the Church out of a sense of isolation. Their departure is a keen loss to the Church.
In short, the intentional discipleship movement invites parishes to re-examine what is "normal" in our daily lives as Catholics. It would seem that talking about one's joy in the Christian life is not what most Catholics would consider "normal." Consider this quote from Weddell's book, attributed to the late Avery Cardinal Dulles:
"When asked whether spreading the faith was a high priority of their parishes, 75 percent of conservative Protestant congregations and 57 percent of African-American congregations responded affirmatively, whereas only 6 percent of Catholics did the same."
This significant difference says a lot about Catholic life today. If we are called by Jesus to "Go and make disciples of all nations," there is clearly room for improvement. The intentional discipleship movement shows a way to transform our Church into what it could and should be with God's help.
Don't be afraid. Ask the Holy Spirit to open your heart to know how God wants you to participate. -Dave Harvey
INTENTIONAL DISCIPLESHIP: HOW?
Like most things in life, spiritual development is a matter of progression, or moving "forward." With this in mind, Weddell presents five thresholds that a person moves through in faith: initial trust, spiritual curiosity, spiritual openness, spiritual seeking and intentional discipleship. Some Catholics have not passed through even the first of these thresholds; others are all the way through to intentional discipleship, living and sharing the joy of Christian life continuously. Most of us, I suspect, are somewhere in between.
The question of why most of us don't live as intentional disciples seems to lie in our human tendency to cling to the safety of familiarity. It is very comfortable to do as we have always done or live as we have always lived, but growth comes from doing what one has never done before. Crossing a threshold of faith can feel like that. That's why we need the support of our faith community.
John Brock sums up this discomfort like this: "The closer a person gets to the divine, the scarier it can become. Values change and, ultimately, this leads to changing behavioral patterns which can be threatening to our self. Maybe the biggest challenge for most of us is that we will move toward the unknown."
In her book, Weddell presents a stirring description of an annual event in Colorado called the Leadville Trail 100. In this "Race Across the Sky," participants attempt to walk or run 100 miles in just over a day. What makes this event so unique, Weddell writes, is that no one runs alone. Runners are assigned a minimum of two assistants; in many cases, a large contingent of family or friends takes the time to be present to help provide one runner with whatever he or she needs, whether it be food, water, first aid or just encouragement and praise.
Weddell proposes that a focus on intentional discipleship could produce a "Leadville Effect" in Catholic parishes--an atmosphere that joyfully encourages, supports and celebrates the growth of each member. Some of her chapter titles--"Break the Silence," "Do Tell," and "Expect Conversion"--point toward the role of the entire community in increasing the spirit of evangelization in a parish community.
Here at St. Mary's, a focus group of parishioners and parish staff has been working toward this goal. These dedicated people have taken a leadership role in building a community spirit of intentional discipleship in our parish.
One very noticeable result of the focus group's efforts has been talks given recently at Mass by Peggy Neubeck and Kelly Potz. These parishioners spoke about their personal joys and struggles in living a Christ-centered life. Through their words, they answered the call of intentional discipleship to know, follow and share. Mass attendees responded to each of these speakers with enthusiastic applause.
Says Kelly, "I want to see our parish come alive and thrive with the love of Jesus. I want our community to be overflowing with joy and the fullness of life that only Christ can bring."
Peggy adds, "For me, intentional discipleship is a personal journey to make myself aware of what is really important in the life God gave me and understanding the beautiful Catholic Church that Jesus gave us. It is then working to show people that have been placed in my life the love that Jesus wants us to pass along to each other."
Parishioner Dave Harvey also emphasizes the share aspect so important to intentional discipleship: "My motivation is two-faceted. First, I'm called to share what's been given to me. I've received life, eternal life, as a believer in Jesus Christ and I want others to experience that same life-giving joy. Secondly, as a convert to Roman Catholicism, I see a gap in the lives of my brothers and sisters. That gap is a lack of a personal experience with the risen Lord and a lack of understanding what it means to be a disciple of Jesus."
Peggy Parenteau, who along with her husband John heads up the St. Mary's team that serves meals to the poor in the Loaves and Fishes program, sees service toward others as the key to intentional discipleship.
She says, "I love the community of St Mary's. I feel I, as one person, can make a difference. I believe intentional discipleship is showing a commitment to my faith and fellow human beings by my actions. Actions speak louder than words. Go out there and try to make a difference."