Sherry Weddell’s book, Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus, is an excellent resource for those seeking to understand and implement missionary discipleship in the Church today. Co-founder of the Catherine of Siena Institute, Ms. Weddell has been part of the New Evangelization since the 1990’s and her book reflects the wisdom of one who has “walked the walk.”
The statistics Forming Intentional Disciples presents are scary, but need to be to faced head on. “The truth will set you free” (John 8:32) and the truth is that very few Catholics, even those who are visibly active Catholics, are living as missionary disciples – termed “intentional disciples” by Ms. Weddell. For example, “Only 60 percent of Catholics believe in a personal God” (p.43) Delving into what a relationship with Jesus Christ entails, Ms. Weddell makes a strong case that most Catholics are not disciples and that, currently, “the common working assumption…[of] personal discipleship [is that it] is a kind of optional spiritual enrichment for the exceptionally pious or spiritually gifted.” (p.55)
“The Catholic faith is not just passing on an inherited identity. Genuine Catholic identity flows from the experience of discipleship.” (p.53) Because we tend to focus on the Catholic “label”, we often think evangelization has occurred when it has not. “We typically presume that pre-evangelization and initial proclamation just happen automatically during basic catechesis.” (p.126) But in fact, that rarely occurs. Because of our history as unwanted immigrants in a predominately Protestant nation, we have tended to play a defensive strategy that emphasizes catechesis. While vitally important, catechesis is only relevant for those who have been evangelized, who have faith in the person of Jesus Christ, and are in a relationship with Him no matter how deep or shallow. To put it bluntly, catechesis without evangelization often results in “well catechized pagans” some of which are indeed baptized and sacramentalized, but do not have grace that “has been actively received and is bearing fruit.”(p.99)
Ms. Weddell’s fourth chapter, Grace and the Great Quest, does a wonderful job exploring how grace impacts our lives and how we receive grace. Specifically, she discusses how sanctifying grace normally comes from “a properly disposed reception of the sacraments.” (Emphasis original, p.98) Simply put, our intentions matter when it comes to the grace received from the sacraments and while we do nothing to save and sanctify ourselves, we do participate in God’s grace by free cooperation with that very same grace. Directly quoting St. Augustine and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Ms. Weddell observed “God created us without us: but he did not will to save us without us” (Augustine) and “to attribute the efficacy of prayers or of sacramental signs to their mere external performance, apart from the interior dispositions that they demand, is to fall into superstition.” (CCC 2111) (p.100) Rightly, Ms. Weddell points out that we are often “happy” with exterior signs of conversion (like attending Mass), but disregard or ignore the necessity of a true interior conversion (that is known by bearing fruit as an “intentional disciple” of Jesus Christ). “We have come to accept passivity as “normative” Catholicism because the majority of Catholics [in the U.S. and Canada] are, in fact, spiritually passive. All the statistical indicators suggest that the majority of our “active” members are in early and essentially passive stages of spiritual development.” (p.151)
The Five Thresholds
A major piece of her book is understanding the “Five Thresholds of Conversion” which lead one to missionary discipleship. They are:
Initial trust – “Without some kind of bridge of trust in place, people will not move closer to God.” (p.129)
Spiritual curiosity – “Intrigued by or desiring to know more about Jesus, his life, and his teachings or some aspect of the Christian faith.” (p.129)
Spiritual Openness – “Open to the possibility of personal and spiritual change.” (Emphasis original, p.130)
Spiritual Seeking – “The seeker is engaged in an urgent spiritual quest, seeking to know whether he or she can commit to Christ in his Church. ” (p.130)
Intentional Discipleship – “A conscious commitment to follow Jesus in the midst of his Church as an obedient disciple and to reorder one’s life accordingly.” (p.130)
Understanding these five “thresholds” is not the magic wand that leads to faith, but a phenomenal tool to identify where individuals are on their faith journey. With this understanding, we can tailor our personal evangelization so as to be helpful rather than a nuisance (or even a hindrance).
“Let me stress that we cannot bring anyone to faith through pressure, guilt, argument, or cleverness. Conversion and true faith are works of the Holy Spirit. But it is also true that we can, by our responses, help or hinder another’s journey. Responding to seekers in a way that does not accept and honor their lived experience may cause them to “freeze” or even move away from God. Understanding the thresholds can help us help them or, at least, help us to not get in the way of what God is doing.” (p.132)
They also serve to remind us that our own spiritual journeys were not as simple as we remember for it is easy to look back in time – from the lens of our fruitful relationship with Christ in God’s grace – and think that overcoming the thresholds is “simple.”
“As evangelizers, we need to make a real effort to imagine; to see Christ, the faith, and the Church through the eyes of outsiders. The same threshold can seem overwhelming and insurmountable to them while looking very simple and obvious to us.” (p.130)
Personally, when I reflect on my faith journey, I remember great torment when I began to even consider being open to the possibility that I needed something other than myself. Yet now, when encountering others who have not come to know Him as I have, I am still guilty of forgetting how momentous my conversion was and making light of their struggles. I am so blessed that I forget what it was like without God…and how terribly difficult and painful simple survival was. Ms. Weddell sums this up well: “One on the verge of openness can feel as if he or she is teetering on the edge of an abyss, while the lifelong Catholic wonders what all the fuss is about.” (p.157)
All in all, Forming Intentional Disciples accomplishes what the title implies: it gives evangelizers solid tools to help form intentional disciples for the Catholic Church. Her book was very well written, well researched, and personable. She did not write about what to do so much as what she has learned through her years of evangelization. The focus on a relationship with Jesus Christ and being “intentional” about being His disciples really sets the tone of the book and makes it a wonderful resource to inform and inspire action – substantial action that, through the Holy Spirit, will bear much fruit for God’s kingdom.
I recommend this book to all evangelizers.