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 the first and third Sundays of each month in the bulletin and include on line. I hope this book will spark interest in our discussions about what is happening in the Church among our family members and friends and encourage us to take action to respond to the signs of the time. The book is readily available on line. This chapter summary is the final one in the series.
Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus, by Sherry A. Weddell
Chapter 12: Expect Conversions
Summarized by Brad Bursa, edited and revised November 2018
We should understand that the manifestations of major conversion in a person’s life are a common part of a new disciple’s experience. How open are we to support this dramatic change in someone’s life?
One consequence of the lack of culture of discipleship is that Catholics often don’t expect to witness God at work. We plan and work as though the mission of the Church depends entirely upon our hard work, cleverness, and institutions.
For many centuries, the Church has taught that God gives us our intellect, will, and strength to use in his service. Catholicism famously honors the intellect in its relationship to faith. But we are seriously mistaken if we think and plan as though all we can expect to see happen in our parishes is what we could expect to see happen in any secular nonprofit filled with clever people. If we are going to seriously evangelize our own, we had better be prepared for the Holy Spirit to do things in people’s lives and in our parishes. We have to expect and plan for conversion and the fruit of conversion. How does one “plan” to cooperate with the work of the Holy Spirit? Certainly one important piece is to become clear about your basic Kingdom priorities.
Kingdom Priorities: Seven key elements that are universal and need to be addressed by any parish community that desires to make disciples:
- Identifying the Unbelieving and the Unchurched
- Sharing the Good News
- Evangelizing: How and Where?
- Forming and Equipping Disciples
- Transforming Society: Compassion and Mercy
- The Financials/Parish Resources
In the absence of discipleship-centered Christian community, even the most independent and committed Catholic cannot flourish, and they begin to wither – and even leave the Church.
The Power of Christian Community: Many priests and lay leaders who are disciples and who long to evangelize experience a devastating isolation. The reason for their despair is always the same: the lack of a community of spiritual friends with whom they could walk the path of discipleship. Many Catholic leaders say that they are exhausted because they feel completely on their own, that they have no meaningful support in their parishes or dioceses except for their spiritual directors.
St. Thomas Aquinas wrote over seven hundred years ago that the fruitfulness of the sacramental life is dependent upon the intentional support of the community as well as that of the spiritual life of the individual. Apologist Ralph Martin commenting on this wrote, “The ongoing fruitfulness of a sacrament is tied to the quality of the follow-up or the environment of faith in which one lives, and the ongoing receptivity to the work of the Holy Spirit in the particular grace of the sacrament. Thomas acknowledges – even in his time – that the clergy are too busy to undertake this responsibility solely by themselves, but must involve the lay faithful in the task of follow-up.”
We know that the first year after one finishes RCIA or goes through a major conversion is critical and can be surprisingly difficult as the new disciple faces many unexpected obstacles and decisions. We also know that many converts ultimately “drown” in the vast, lonely Catholic ocean. If we are serious about making disciples, we must intentionally support them once they are made. As we make disciples in our congregations, some kinds of community will form naturally, but we will need to support spontaneous networks of friends with intentional discipleship-centered community building.
Lay the Spiritual Foundation of Prayer: Resistance to spiritual culture change is to be expected and happens on many levels. This is why organized, sustained, corporate intercessory prayer for the spiritual renewal of our communities is essential. Sustained intercessory prayer for the spiritual renewal of one’s parish can change the spiritual atmosphere of a place and increase the frequency of external and internal actual graces. Parish leaders who are serious about making disciples are discovering how critical it is to deal with spiritual opposition through prayer.
The infinitely good news is that God has made provisions for all our weaknesses and needs, and for our mission of evangelization. But like discipleship, obtaining this provision requires that we embark on a spiritual quest. Much of God’s provisions come to us in response to the sustained prayer of his Church as she prepares to run the race of discipleship in a given time and place.
In the end, the Catholic understanding of salvation is incorrigibly communal. We are all in this together, because none of us are saved by ourselves alone: we are saved as members of the Church, the body of Christ. The hand cannot say to the foot, “I do not need you.”
The Weight of Glory: It should not surprise us that a parish-wide culture of intentional discipleship is built and reinforced by the love, charisms, prayer, sacrifices, energy, and discipleship of many people, not just pastors and staff and “officially” recognized leaders. In order to evangelize our own within the Church and those who lives we touch outside, we need to deliberately form a wide range of Catholic disciples to:
- ask where people are in their relationship with God;
- listen well, respectfully, and prayerfully;
- recognize spiritual thresholds in one another;
- respond helpfully to one another’s current spiritual needs;
- articulate the basics of the Great Story in a way that invites intentional discipleship;
- challenge one another to make the decision to follow Jesus as a disciple;
- celebrate and support intentional discipleship.
There is great cause for hope. The Holy Spirit has our back; he is creating a vast community of love in which, slowly but surely, we are learning the steps of the Great Dance of the Blessed Trinity. Jesus promises to be with us always, even to the end of the world. And because of this we can trust that he will give his Church what is necessary in this hour, as in all hours past, to meet the challenge of this time. We can, in a word, pray for and expect conversion.
How is our parish prepared for the Holy Spirit to work in the community? Does our parish handle change well? Or is change a struggle?
What is one step you are willing to take to become an advocate for intentional discipleship in our parish?
Studies show that one of the most effective ways to keep young people involved in their faith communities is through Christian service. What sustained, ongoing service opportunities are available to young people in our parish? How are they encouraged to reflect on these experiences and connect them to their relationship with Jesus Christ?