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.
Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus, by Sherry A. Weddell
Chapter 8: Thresholds of Conversion: Seeking and Intentional Discipleship
Summarized by Brad Bursa, edited and revised November 2018
The purpose of RCIA is to help people become conscious, intentional followers of Jesus. There needs to be a total openness to seeking how Jesus is the center of all we do as Catholics. With a greater focus on Christ and the call to conversion, the catechumens and candidates can noticeably become hungry for solid catechesis.
We need to do what Peter did on the day of Pentecost, when 3,000 people were present: to speak about Jesus whom we have crucified and whom God has raised and to bring that person to the point that he or she, cut to the heart, asks, “Brethren, what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37). We will respond as Peter did, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you” (Acts 2:38) if you have not been baptized, or if you have already been baptized, go to confession.
Those who respond to the proclamation will join themselves – today as in that day – to the community of believers. They will listen to the teaching of the apostles and will partake in the breaking of the bread. Depending on each person’s calling and response, little by little they will be able to make the immense heritage arising from the kerygma (the basic proclamation of faith) their own. Jesus is not accepted on the word of the Church, but the Church is accepted on the word of Jesus.
Our primary task when someone has reached the threshold of seeking is to help him or her focus on the person of Jesus and the central challenges of the kerygma, leaving other doctrinal issues for later.
It is ultimately the Church who is proposing Jesus Christ, her Lord and the living heart of all that she believes and holds dear, to seekers. If we did this consistently, we would not have millions of Catholics in Protestant congregations telling people that they left because they hadn’t encountered Christ in a living way as a Catholic. “Me and Jesus” would cease to be an issue if Catholics routinely encountered Jesus Christ in a life-changing way in the context of their own parishes.
Heading into “The Zone”: We have found it useful to think of the two thresholds of seeking and intentional discipleship as a whole, as well as considering them as two separate stages. What both thresholds have in common is that they are active rather than essentially passive like the earlier thresholds of trust, curiosity, and openness. That’s why we sometimes talk of seeking and intentional discipleship together as “The Zone.” The Zone is the place of active wrestling with and serious contemplation of the following of Christ. When an individual crosses the line into active seeking, things really start to change. When large numbers of parishioners are actively seeking or are disciples, the spiritual atmosphere in the parish heats up dramatically.
Seeking – “Dating with a Purpose”: To enter into the threshold of seeking requires a certainty that a personal relationship with God is possible, because that is, after all, what one is exploring. Seeking is like “dating with a purpose” but not yet marriage. People in the grip of spiritual seeking are no longer speculating about interesting questions with no stake in the outcome. On the contrary, they are now wrestling with a life decision that really matters.
Seekers Seek Jesus: The seeker seeks Jesus Christ and not just God in a general sense or as the “divine” or “impersonal force,” or a “Higher Power.” Seeking is centered on the possibility of committing oneself to follow Jesus of Nazareth as his disciple. At the same time, seeking is not yet intentional discipleship. You are only seriously thinking about dropping your nets and following Jesus into the unknown.
Seekers realize that following Christ has personal implications: it will make real demands on their priorities, time, money, relationships, and all other areas of life. By the time a spiritual traveler has crossed into seeking, he or she feels comfortable spending a lot of time with Christians. It is as a seeker that many begin to pray seriously, become aware of personal sin, and feel the need for personal repentance.
As we move through the thresholds, our knowledge of Jesus and our openness to him should be steadily increasing. Catholics on the way to discipleship can and should be exposed to parts of the Great Story of Jesus (the kerygma) from the threshold of curiosity on. They will need to understand the whole by the time they make a decision whether or not to “drop their nets.”
Moving from Openness to Seeking: We can often help those on the frontier of seeking by inviting them to experiment with the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. The threshold of seeking is also an excellent time to help them explore the vast diversity of prayer within the Catholic tradition. Introduce them to other disciples so that they can experience the beginnings of Christian community. It can be very powerful for seekers to hear the journeys of new disciples. Seekers need to see what life is like for an authentic disciple of Jesus whose struggles are real – and whose victories are therefore believable. Offer to pray with your seeking friends. Share how the sacraments, the Mass, and the life of the Church have nourished your relationship with Jesus.
Sin Matters: We need to help seekers confront the issues of relativism, personal sin, and “Lordship” – all three of which are rooted in some of the most profound difficulties postmodern people have with the Catholic tradition, since all of them evoke a fear of the loss of personal autonomy. We can help our friend see that the Catholic tradition honors freedom but teaches that freedom is ordered toward virtue and that its misuse will guarantee the loss of freedom.
Intentional Discipleship: Once our friend has passed through the threshold of pre-discipleship, she will come to the point where a final decision whether or not to follow Jesus is required of her. You cannot seek forever. The point is that a human being reaches the moment where – with complete freedom – she chooses to sell all she has to purchase the Pearl of Great Price and become a follower of Christ. This is as far from a passive act as a person can get. It requires a searching and deliberate act of the will. That is why the prior journey through the thresholds is so vital. Everything has prepared us for and led us to this moment of decision.
Dropping your nets and taking the first steps into the world of intentional discipleship is, then, a supremely active choice. Catholic friends, family, and the parish community play a critical role in helping individuals, whether already baptized, or not, make this life changing decision. Of course, it is possible that those on the brink of intentional discipleship may say no. That is not the end of the world. If someone says no, the first and most obvious thing to do is ask, “Why not?” In other words, find out what the blocks are. Then try to address those blocks or help your friend set them aside for now. Spiritual warfare often becomes very intense on the verge of discipleship. Tremendous obstacles can suddenly appear. Because of this, sustained intercessory prayer for those making their decisions is crucial.
Becoming a Disciple from a Christian Background: Obviously, merely being baptized in a Christian community of any type does not necessarily result in a commitment to discipleship. The liturgical life of the Church is ideally suited to making the decision to “drop the net” and follow Jesus, for both individuals and the larger Catholic community. Nothing fosters a widespread culture of discipleship like seeing new disciples from all backgrounds emerge in the parish.
When a Leader Isn’t Yet a Disciple: One practical issue that has come up often of late is that of how to help existing leaders – sometimes highly visible diocesan and parish staff – negotiate their own personal journeys to discipleship. As leaders, we need to think through, in advance, how to help all in our parish who are not yet disciples to negotiate that journey. The issue at stake is extraordinarily high for individuals, for the Christian community, for the Church, and for the world.
Would you feel comfortable inviting a seeker to experience the demands and challenges of true discipleship?
Have you made an intentional decision to drop your nets and follow Jesus Christ? If so, when did you make that decision? If not, what is keeping you from making that decision?
What sacrifices or challenges have you experienced in your spiritual journey? How have you overcome them? How could you help someone else encountering similar experiences?