Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus – Chapter 2

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. 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.

Chapter 2: We Don’t Know What Normal Is
Summarized by Brad Bursa, edited and revised November 2018

After traversing the statistical landscape in Chapter One, Weddell opens Chapter Two with another discouraging statistic: only 6% of Catholic parishes agreed that spreading the faith was a high priority compared to 57% of African American and 75% of conservative Protestant congregations. The Catholic statistic would be laughable if it were not such a brazen failure on the part of the Church to live out her identity – which Vatican II describes as “missionary by her very nature.”

What is the problem? Perhaps then-Cardinal Ratzinger comes close to an accurate description, when, in a 2000 address to catechists, he said, “A large part of today’s humanity does not find the Gospel in the permanent evangelization of the Church: That is to say, the convincing response to the question: How to live?” Humanity does not find the Gospel in the Church’s efforts. Something is lacking, for one can give only that which he has received. Nothing to give indicates nothing received. Hence the Church finds herself in the midst of a new missionary age – the time of the New Evangelization has arrived.

But what is this New Evangelization? Pope Paul VI, in 1974, identified the need not only for the Church to engage in missionary activity ad gentes (“to the nations”), but to a rapidly growing audience in the midst of a secularized West: the baptized, but no longer practicing Catholic. Pope John Paul II carried this new missionary call forward for the Church, describing the New Evangelization not as a process of re-evangelizing (“going through the motions”), but an evangelization “new in its ardor, methods and expression.” This evangelization would engage present-day culture and transmit the authentic Gospel of Jesus Christ to the modern man. In preparation for the recent Synod of Bishops, the Lineamenta describes the New Evangelization as follows:

  • In view of the significant changes taking place in our society, the Church does not give up or retreat into herself; instead, she undertakes a project to revitalize herself. She makes the Person of Jesus Christ and a personal encounter with him central to her thinking, knowing that he will give his Spirit and provide the force to announce and proclaim the Gospel in new ways which can speak to today’s cultures.
  • Transmitting the faith means to create in every place and time the conditions for this personal encounter of individuals with Jesus Christ.
  • This personal encounter allows individuals to share in the Son’s relationship with his Father and to experience the power of the Spirit.

In Weddell’s words, “transmission of the Catholic faith is not just passing on an inherited religious identity. Genuine Catholic identity flows from the experience of discipleship.” As noted in the Lineamenta, “What is not believed or lived cannot be transmitted.”

In Chapter 2 the premise of the whole book is finally revealed: The New Evangelization is necessary for the genesis of a culture of intentional discipleship, and only from this culture of discipleship will a new springtime of evangelization blossom. The call to evangelize cannot be separated from the necessity of intentional discipleship.

When one encounters Christ and freely chooses to follow Him as His disciple, one does so with the intention of following a path, a road, a journey – even though he/she does not know exactly what the journey will require.

Weddell argues that intentional discipleship must become normative within the Church. But let’s examine “normative Catholicism” more closely. Weddell describes it by identifying three concurrent spiritual journeys:

  • The personal interior journey of a lived relationship with Christ resulting in intentional discipleship.
  • The ecclesial journey into the Church through reception of the sacraments of initiation.
  • The journey of active practice (as evidenced by receiving the sacraments, attending Mass, and participating in the life and mission of the Christian community).

Ideally, every Catholic should be making all three journeys simultaneously – “a conscious disciple of Jesus Christ, a fully initiated Catholic, and an active parishioner.” Yet this is rarely the case. Nowadays “Catholic identity” refers simply to regarding oneself as Catholic and attending Mass with “reasonable regularity.” No further questions asked! Thus Weddell concludes, “Many Catholics think one needn’t ask about the first journey if the second and third journeys are in place.” Unfortunately, the common assumption is that “personal discipleship is a kind of optional spiritual enrichment for the exceptionally pious or spiritually gifted.” It is a mere accessory encouraged by a culture of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” If nobody talks about a personal encounter with Christ, the life-changing decision to follow Christ intentionally, “we are no more likely to think of it spontaneously than we are to suddenly invent a new primary color.” As a result of what could be identified as a “spiral of silence” surrounding the interior journey of discipleship, an unintentional chasm has been created “between what the Church teaches is normal and what many Catholics in the pews have learned to regard as normal. Many lifelong Catholics have never seen personal discipleship lived overtly or talked about in an explicit manner in their family or parish.”

Given the call to normative Catholicism and the unfortunate chasm created by a culture of silence, we can make at least three observations:

  • “We can no longer presume that those coming for the sacraments still understand what it means to be a Catholic or are even committed to such. Nor can we presume that they know who Christ is and have made a commitment to him as savior and Lord” (R. Martin).
  • A paradigm shift from “infant” to “adult” is needed. In other words, the current assumption is that the baptized infant Catholic will “pick up the Catholic faith from the family and the parish as naturally and inevitably as he or she learns language and culture.” The current position assumes that this Catholic identity will move seamlessly into adulthood in a process of slow and steady spiritual growth with little expectation of distinct turning points or overt “conversion.” Instead, Weddell proposes an “adult” paradigm that challenges teens and adults to become intentional disciples – this is a paradigm of (new) evangelization.
  • The Church must evangelize her baptized members in order to foster a Church that desires to share the faith with non-believers. “You can’t give what you don’t have.”

“Faith is above all a personal, intimate encounter with Jesus, and to experience his closeness, his friendship, his love; only in this way does one learn to know him ever more, and to love and follow him ever more. May this happen to each one of us.” – Pope Benedict XVI

“In virtue of their baptism, all the members of the People of God have become missionary disciples (cf. Mt 28:19). All the baptized, whatever their position in the Church or their level of instruction in the faith, are agents of evangelization, and it would be insufficient to envisage a plan of evangelization to be carried out by professionals while the rest of the faithful would simply be passive recipients. The new evangelization calls for personal involvement on the part of each of the baptized. Every Christian is challenged, here and now, to be actively engaged in evangelization… Every Christian is a missionary to the extent that he or she has encountered the love of God in Christ Jesus…So what are we waiting for?”
Evangelii Gaudium, – Pope Francis

The 2012 Synod on the New Evangelization states, “Transmitting the faith means to create in every place and time the conditions for this personal encounter of individuals with Jesus Christ. The faith-encounter with the person of Jesus Christ is a relationship with him, remembering him (in the Eucharist) and, through the grace of the Spirit, having in us the mind of Jesus Christ.”


Describe your faith-encounter with Jesus Christ and what it means to be in relationship with him.