Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus – Chapter 3

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 3: The Fruit of Discipleship
Summarized by Brad Bursa, edited and revised November 2018

Sherry Weddell begins this chapter by giving two examples of dynamic parishes that have made the move to forming intentional disciples. Both of these parishes are quite extraordinary in their evangelical spirit. Following this very good news Sherry begins to explain some very important points about discipleship.

Cultivating Discipleship: The presence of a significant number of disciples changes everything: a parish’s spiritual tone, energy level, attendance, bottom line, and what parishioners ask of their leaders.

The Holy Spirit is planting charisms and vocations of amazing diversity in the hearts of all people. Like the grace of the sacraments, they are real, but they are not magic. Just as the gifts of children must be fostered deliberately and with great energy by parents if their children are to reach their full potential, so vocations must be fostered by the Church.

Our problem is not that there is a shortage of vocations but that we do not have the support system and leadership in place to foster the vast majority of the vocations that God has given us. The whole Church bears responsibility for the charisms and personal vocations of each member.

Pastoral Governance: The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “The ministerial priesthood is at the service of the common priesthood. It is directed at the unfolding of the baptismal grace of all Christians” (1547).
“The ministerial priesthood differs in essence from the common priesthood of the faithful because it confers a sacred power for the service of the faithful” (1592).

The Church teaching spells out in considerable detail what this would mean. Priests are to do the following:

  • Cooperate with the laity in their mission to the world.
  • Listen to the laity.
  • Recognize lay expertise.
  • Awaken and deepen lay co-responsibility.
  • Invite lay initiative.
  • Help all explore and discern vocation.
  • Form and support secular apostles.

Participation of the Laity: A dramatic increase in the number of baptized Catholics in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is putting tremendous pressure on the priest-lay person relationship. The global population has quadrupled in the last century (from 291.4 million in 1910 to 1.196 billion as of 2010).

Priests have always loomed larger in the Catholic imagination than in actual fact. There were 48,415 more priests in the world in 2010 than in 1950 and 57,652 more seminarians than in 1950. But because of staggering growth
in the number of Catholics, bishops and priests make up only a tiny fraction (0.035 percent) of the body Catholic. As of 2010, 417,340 priests and bishops were serving approximately 1,195,582,000 men and women. It is the laity – the common priesthood – that constitutes 99.962 percent of the Church. In 1978, lay Catholics were only 10.8 percent of the Church’s recognized workforce. Thirty years later, in 2009, lay catechists and missionaries made up roughly 72 percent of the 4.8-million-person “Workforce for the Church’s Apostolate.”

In the twenty-first century, God seems to be doing something new again to meet the needs of our time. Millions of lay men and women are answering God’s call to evangelize and nurture the millions of new brothers and sisters God is sending us every year.

No matter how many institutions we sustain or how much activity goes on in our parish or diocese, if new intentional disciples are not regularly emerging in our midst, our ministry is not bearing its most essential fruit.

The Heart of Vocation: Discipleship is the necessary seedbed without which Christian vocations of any kind cannot germinate and grow.

We cannot ask even good and talented people who are not yet disciples to undertake the works appropriate only to apostles. And yet we do this all the time.

Discerning ecclesial vocations, especially priestly vocations, is critical for the American Church, because half of our currently active diocesan priests will retire by 2018. Our Catholic population is about 77.7 million, approximately 75 percent higher than it was forty years ago, when it was served by roughly the same number of parishes. Most dioceses in the country are feeling a shortage of clergy. The good news is that if we evangelize, it is not hard to turn our parishes into rich seedbeds of fertile vocational soil.

Discerning Charisms: Our parishes need to become places where it is normal for adult Catholics to ask, “What is God calling me to do?” Over the years we have discovered that a powerful way to foster a parish culture of discernment is by beginning with the discernment of personal charisms.

Charisms are some of the many graces that we receive in baptism and confirmation. A charism is “a favor” or (in St. Thomas Aquinas’s terminology) a “gratuitous grace” given to a member of the body of Christ to empower him or her to build up the Church and to witness Christ to the world. Charisms are supernaturally empowered ways in which God’s mercy, love, healing, truth, beauty, and provision will reach others through us. Most importantly, charisms, unlike natural talents or skills, can never be kept to ourselves or used deliberately for evil.

Like personal vocations, charisms almost always manifest after the point in our life when our faith becomes personal and we begin the journey of discipleship.

When a Catholic community begins to foster discernment of the charisms, the disciples begin to experience the living reality that “I have been appointed and sent by Christ.”

We’ve seen over and over, with the 65,000 Catholics who have experienced the Called and Gifted process, that recognizing one’s charisms unleashes amazing creativity and initiative.

If we do not see the parish as a center of evangelization and apostolic formation, we are denying priests and their pastoral collaborators one of the great, abiding joys of ministry and one of the most powerful protections against cynicism and burnout.

If we focus on making disciples and equipping apostles first, the rest will follow. We won’t have to worry about our institutional gaps. The disciples and apostles we form today will found and sustain our institutions and structures tomorrow, and the Holy Spirit will gift and inspire them to do things that we have never dreamed of. What we are called to do is to truly see and then make disciples of the anointed ones who are wandering in and out of our parishes right now.


Weddell quotes a parish asking, “Would anyone besides parishioners notice if the parish wasn’t here?”

Why is this a good question to ask?

How would you go about answering it for our parish?