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“Forming Intentional Disciples”: A Must-Read for Catholics

Jeffrey-Bruno

Rev Thomas Berg - published on 01/26/15

Author Sherry Weddell's book shows how Catholics must "drop their nets"

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 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 % of Americans raised Catholic are still “practicing” (which in the survey meant “attending mass at least once a month”).

*Another 38% hang on to the Catholic label — cultural Catholics — but seldom or never attend mass.

*The other 32% no longer consider themselves Catholic. Of these, 3% follow a non-Christian religion, 14% consider themselves “unaffiliated,” and 15% have joined a Protestant faith community.

Weddell observes:

[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% 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.

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