instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Forming Intentional Disciples, pt. 4

In Chapter 9 of Forming Intentional Disciples, Sherry Weddell confronts the fact that, not only does the typical Catholic parish in the United States not form disciples of Jesus Christ, typical parish culture actually inhibits the formation of disciples:
Until discipleship and conversion become a normative part of parish life, many [visitors] will walk in and out of our parishes untouched, and many Catholics who are disciples will continue to feel that they need to hide or minimize their newly awakened personal faith in front of other Catholics. The first thing that must be done is to deliberately and persistently break the code of silence if it is in place. The Catholic norm of silence about a relationship with God, about Jesus Christ and his story, about our own stories of following Christ, and about the need for everyone to decide whether or not he or she will follow as a disciple is stifling the emergence of a culture of discipleship and all that flows from it.
This is a ticklish proposition. It's one thing to tell parish leadership that they're leading the parish all wrong; you will not be the first person to tell them that.

But you may well be the first person to tell a fellow parishioner that they're being Catholic all wrong.

And they, quite likely, will return the sentiment.

Despite all of Sherry's war stories, I still insist that some of the friction is due to misunderstanding. I think there are Catholic disciples of Jesus who don't think of themselves as disciples of Jesus, who would agree with and support efforts to make disciples of Jesus if they could be made to see those efforts aren't protestantizing, who find the reasons for silence (or discretion, from their point of view) about discipleship more persuasive than the reasons for conversation.

I also think -- okay, guess that there are lots of Catholics who have a real but imperfect relationship with Jesus in His Church, the 2% or 5% or 20% at any given Mass to whom 90% of homilies are pitched, those who love God with a goodish bit of their hearts, souls, minds, and strengths. For such as these, there may be other ways of describing their relationship with Jesus that are as good or better than discipleship; the old three stages of the spiritual life, for example, or St. Catherine's stairs of loves, or St. Josemaría Escrivá's divine filiation. When those old assumptions that no longer hold, about the correlation between Catholic identity and discipleship, actually do hold, the old ways of ongoing formation can still work.

Here I'll mention two points on which I reserve my wholehearted endorsement of Forming Intentional Disciples. As someone typing this at his kitchen table, who has never to my knowledge formed an intentional disciple, and who can well imagine the counterarguments, I acknowledge the unmitigated cheek required to tell the professionals how to do their job, and yet: I found it a little off-putting to read of parish catechists identifying who are disciples and who are not. It may well be possible to do that within a group of people who talk about whether they are disciples, but in general -- and not challenging its usefulness or empirical validity -- the Five Thresholds of Conversion framework is a model of a certain process applied to human behavior. It is not the human behavior itself, nor is it necessarily a good model of every human's behavior.

Which is not to accuse Sherry, or anyone else, of treating everyone like a nail under the Hammer of the Five Thresholds of Conversion, it's just to point out that that hammer is not the only tool in the Toolbox of Christian Formation.

My second reservation is the observation that, in the testimonies of parish catechists, there is a high correlation (if it's not perfect correlation, it nearly is) between observed discipleship and observed getting-involved-in-parish-formation-programs. One might almost call this the Forming Intentional Catechists paradigm.

Now, there may be no one in the United States who has thought more about the variety of charisms God gives His people than Sherry Weddell. In fact, there's a section in Chapter 11 on how various charisms can be used "as aids on the journey to intentional discipleship." Clearly the book is not proposing that becoming active in parish discipleship formation programs is a necessary sign of discipleship. And, given the state of parish life in the United States, you would expect disciples to pitch in on discipleship programs in under-discipled parishes, even if their individual charisms aren't geared toward forming others.

Still, more could be said -- even in a book about discipleship within the parish -- about discipleship outside the parish.

Update: Don't miss Sherry's evisceration of my reservations in the comments.