Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus – Chapter 1

A message from Fr. Bennet Tran, Pastor:  One of the more significant books that has influenced my thinking and ministry is Sherry Weddell’s Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus. I hope that we as a parish will engage with the insights offered by Weddell. In the coming months, we will print a summary of a chapter of the book every other week in the bulletin and include it in these e-newsletters. I hope this book will spark interest in our discussions about what is happening in the Church among our family members and friends and to take actions to respond to the signs of the time. The book is readily available on line.


Chapter 1God Has No Grandchildren
Summarized by Brad Bursa, edited and revised November 2018.


The first chapter is discouraging. Sherry Weddell has to explain the present situation of the Catholic Church in America before she begins to offer suggestions and solutions. So do not let this discouraging news below sit by itself. There will be insightful ways out of our present situation in the next chapters.


Sherry Weddell’s reporting is done by reputable research into the thinking of present day American Catholics.  The book begins by reporting that only 30% of Americans who were raised Catholic are still practicing – meaning they attend Mass at least once a month. Roughly half of these are at Mass on a given weekend; meaning that only 15% are practicing according to the teachings of the Church. Another 38% hold on to their Catholic identity but seldom or never attend Mass. The final 32% – almost a third of all adults who were raised Catholic in the United States – no longer consider themselves to be Catholic at all. 3% are now part of a non-Christian faith. 14% consider themselves unaffiliated. 15% are now part of some Protestant faith tradition. The lion’s share of Catholics who enter the Protestant world become evangelicals.  According to the third American Family Survey from 2017, 34% of the U.S. population identify as “nones” (“atheists,” “agnostics,”’ “nothing in particular”), up from 32% in 2016.


Fully 10% of all adults in America are ex-Catholics. 2.6% are converts to the Church. In other words, nearly four times as many adults have left as have entered the Church. The life blood of new members being transfused into the Church is a steady trickle, while the blood being lost is a hemorrhage. The annual number of adult converts received into the Church dropped over 35% from 2000-2009. Conclusion: God has no grandchildren.


In contrast, Catholic pastoral practices still assume that religious identity is largely inherited and stable throughout one’s life span. So firm is our sense of Catholicism as a “faith into which one is born” that many Catholics are surprised to discover that millions of their brothers and sisters are converts.


Intelligent Catholics casually dismiss evangelical worship as mere “entertainment” while showing no understanding of what motivated millions of their former Catholic brothers and sisters to embrace that form of worship in the first place. The “entertainment” thesis reflects our Catholic insider judgments about what we presume must have motivated those who have left the Catholic Church for evangelical communities. But none of us had ever heard a living former Catholic use that language.


Nearly half of cradle Catholics who become “unaffiliated” are gone by age eighteen. Nearly 80% are gone and 71% have already taken on “unaffiliated” identity by their early twenties. Attending CCD, youth groups, and even Catholic high schools, made little or no difference in a decision made by an American Catholic to become Protestant or become “unaffiliated.”


Our Catholic practice still operates on the presumption that although most Catholic teens vanish after Confirmation, they will find their way back when they are ready to get married and especially when they have children. One huge problem with this paradigm is that Catholic marriage rates are, in fact, plummeting. The number of marriages celebrated in the Church decreased dramatically, by nearly 60%, between 1972 and 2010, while the U.S. Catholic population increased by almost 17 million. The 35% drop in adults entering the Church through RCIA since 2000 may well be related to the dramatic drop in Catholic marriages.


If younger Catholics are not going to Mass or getting married in the Church, why would they bother to raise their children in the faith? We can no longer depend on the rites of passage or cultural, peer, or familial pressure to bring the majority back. If this trend does not change, in ten years it will cease to matter that we have a priest shortage. The Builders of the Church in America will be largely gone, the Boomers retiring, and our institutions – parishes and schools – will be emptying at an incredible rate.


In the twenty-first century, cultural Catholicism is dead as a retention strategy, because God has no grandchildren. In the twenty-first century, we have to foster intentional Catholicism rather than cultural Catholicism. This is the theme of her entire book.


The majority of American adults who change from their childhood faith do so in a series of steps rather than a single giant leap. Changes of faith are, for most people, a journey and a search, not an instant, simple, and painless abandonment of belief. These people are already seeking. Our job is to reach out deliberately and intentionally to help them find the pearl of great price.


Nearly a third of self-identified Catholics believe in an impersonal God. On a variety of questions asked about how they view God, the research shows that only 60% of Catholics believe in a personal God. 29% said that God is an “impersonal force.” Only 48% of Catholics were absolutely certain that the God they believe in was a God with whom they could have a personal relationship.


So we live in a time of immense challenge and immense opportunity. Millions of American adults are seeking a religious identity and are at least potentially open to the Catholic faith. At the same time, huge numbers of self-identified Catholics are not certain that a personal relationship with God is even possible, and their actions reflect it. The majority of Catholics in the United States are sacramentalized, but not evangelized. They 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 popes, councils, and saints of the Church…We have to explore what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ in the midst of his Church.


G.K. Chesterton writes of the “unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander the world, and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.”

Does that description resonate with your experience of faith?

Does it remind you of any Catholics who have returned to the faith?

Can you describe the experience of someone you know who came back to the Church after an absence?