Book Review: Sherry A. Weddell, Forming Intentional Disciples: the Path to Knowing and Following Jesus (Our Sunday Visitor: 2012).

intentional-discipleship-195x300Book Review:  Sherry A. Weddell, Forming Intentional Disciples: the Path to Knowing and Following Jesus (Our Sunday Visitor: 2012).

As a Protestant Christian who later journeyed into the Catholic Church, I remember my frustration in conducting Protestant campus evangelization with non-practicing Catholics.   When I shared the Gospel with such people they would invariably repent with tears and then return to the Catholic Church.  What G. K. Chesterton called the “unseen hook and an invisible line” would draw them back to the Catholic faith.   After all, any fallen away Catholic is only one confession away from being reconciled to the Church.

In this new must-read book, Sherry Weddell shows how this unseen Catholic magnet is no longer working in the postmodern world.  Recent surveys of adults reveal that “only 30 percent of Americans who were raised Catholic are still ‘practicing’” the Catholic faith (p. 24).  In fact 10 % of all Americans are ex-Catholics.  She notes that nearly four times as many adults have left the Church as have entered it and the flow of Americans into Protestantism is more that three times larger than the movement into Catholicism (p. 26).  She notes that conventional Catholic wisdom placed hope in the return of many of these young Catholics when it came time to get married or to have their children baptized. Won’t the Sacraments bring them back?  Weddell notes that an increasing number of Catholics are choosing not to marry at all.   The Church witnessed a nearly 60% decline in the number of marriages celebrated between the years 1972-2010.  Even among those who do choose to get married 40% of Generation X and Millennial Catholics were not married in the Church.  Since more than 50% of Catholics are now Gen Xers or Millennials this has serious implications for our future.  Weddell issues a challenge, “In the twenty-first century, cultural Catholicism is a dead retention strategy, because God has no grandchildren” (p. 39).  Perhaps even more alarming is the recent survey that revealed only 60% of Catholics believes in a personal God rather than an impersonal force (p. 43).  The news is not all bad, of those who have left the Church and even among those with no Church background a large number of people are ‘religious seekers’ who are curious and seeking but just haven’t found what they are looking for.  These people need to be deliberately evangelized by the Church.

How do we get Catholics to deliberately evangelize their friends and neighbors?  UsingLineamenta or ‘the guidelines for discussion’ from the recent Synod of Bishops on ‘The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith,’ Weddell notes that the faith must be transmitted, which means that conditions must be created for a personal encounter with Jesus Christ.   As the Lineamenta noted, “What is not believed or lived cannot be transmitted. . . “ (L 12).  Weddell highlights a significant problem by defining what she calls ‘Normative Catholicism’ which involves three concurrent spiritual journeys (p. 54).  She describes the first as the “personal interior journey of a lived relationship with Christ resulting in intentional discipleship.”  The second is “the ecclesial journey into the Church through reception of the sacraments of initiation.”  While the third is “the journey of active practice (as evidenced by receiving the sacraments, attending Mass, and participating in the life and mission of the Christian community)” (p. 54)  The problem is that many Catholics do not know what ‘normal’ is and they treat personal discipleship as a kind of optional accessory, or perhaps even spiritual elitism.  Weddell notes that there often exists a kind of culture of silence about personal discipleship which makes it difficult for many Catholics to fully experience the fruit of discipleship.  She also notes that the traditional model of Catholic discipleship was often based on childhood faith rather than adult intentional faith.

Using thriving parish models, Weddell shows how cultivating intentional adult disciples changes a parishes spiritual tone, energy level, attendance and leadership.  She describes the impact of this discipleship on priests and laity.  The Church must actively discern and foster spiritual charisms among all baptized.

Weddell moves on to discuss the nature of grace and the sacramental life.  It seems many Catholics have a very passive approach to the sacramental life.  The reader is reminded that our dispositions and cooperation with God’s grace are profoundly important for living the life of grace through the Sacraments.

The final portion of Weddell’s book discusses what she calls the five thresholds of conversion. Weddell notes that evangelization starts before catechesis.  Unevangelized Catholics are not ready for catechesis (p. 125). She notes that the National Directory of Catechesis calls for the preliminary steps of pre-evangelization and initial proclamation or missionary preaching before catechesis (NDC, p. 49). Adapting some previous research on conversions, Weddell proposes five thresholdsof conversion: initial trust, spiritual curiosity, spiritual openness, spiritual seeking, and finally intentional discipleship (p. 129-130).  Weddell describes trust as a basic felt trust in someone or something which becomes a bridge to positive association with Jesus Christ or the Church. Our greatest tool in creating this trust is love.  The second threshold is curiosity.  We must carefully match our response to the level of the person’s curiosity.  Weddell suggest that this takes place in three stages: awareness of new possibilities, engagement with Christian friends or reading about Jesus, and finally exchange where the person begins to actively ask questions and exchange ideas (p. 145). The third threshold is openness to change.  This stage may be slow and difficult or quick and it is often prompted by a major life event. Weddell has some helpful suggestion on how to foster openness.  The final thresholds of conversion are seeking and intentional discipleship.  Again Weddell has practical advice to share on moving from openness to seeking and finally to intentional discipleship.

Weddell is to be commended for opening our eyes to what is arguably the defining problem of our age and yet not being a prophet of doom, she clearly presents the solution.  We must take on the yolk of intentional discipleship and lovingly proclaim Christ to the world.

Review © Scott McKellar 2013

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