Sherry Weddell’s book is making the rounds in a lot of Catholic circles: in parishes (including mine), on Catholic blogs, and among people concerned about evangelization. It’s a good thing that it is.
Ms Weddell lays it down hard in chapter one, “God Has No Grandchildren,” giving us page after page of statistics that blow away a lot of Catholic assumptions about faith. One thing I found surprising that the author was surprised about was that 60% of Catholics believe in a personal God. Frankly, I think we’re making progress there. From what I recall of my parents’ peers in the Catholic parish of my youth, is that they would be uncomfortable with such language. It would seem “too Protestant.” When Catholics got personal in previous generations, it was about doing good works. Or the Blessed Mother.
Otherwise, the numbers don’t look great. We’re losing people and failing to address opportunities we’re given.
Ms Weddell then turns to the people we’ve got. Lots of believers, but only a fraction of whom are actual disciples who follow Christ’s mission and live it in their lives. I have to agree.
I’d say that a solid minority of clergy are disciples. Maybe the percentage ticks up a bit for women religious and involved lay people–both professional ministers and active parishioners. But I think most Catholics are either stuck in a duty-bound routine, or they have yet to really wake up and engage the grace of the Holy Spirit.
The author drops in a few success stories: parishes and individual ministers who have done good work empowering lay people to be disciples. She claims that should be the focus:
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.
This is absolutely right. Things that get in the way of developing discipleship are the kinds of things from which I need to extract myself. The same is true of my brothers and sisters in professional ministry–clergy and laity alike.
Ms Weddell touches on a few aspects of the Church’s unfortunate culture of entitlement in chapter four, then delves deeply into a series of thresholds through which people move in order to become disciples. We use similar material to form our student leaders, and train them to recognize the sequence of trust, curiosity, openness, seeking, and finally intentional discipleship.
The author theorizes that a lot of Catholics get started in renewal movements, but get bogged down in the middle, mainly because their spiritual needs aren’t being met. Maybe we leaders are happy to have our retreats filled, and we chalk up the participants as “saved” or such, and we move on to the next “program.”
A lot of this material was suggested or hinted at in the US bishops’ document Go and Make Disciples. Some ideas were new to me. My own sense is that we are on the cusp of a great renewal–finally, the beginning of the fulfillment of Vatican II and what popes, theologians, and lone voices have been calling for in the past half-century.
I think any Catholic can read this book, but unless you’re willing to put into practice the principles, it won’t do much good. Maybe a little blood rushing, a confirmation or two about what you’ve always thought about modern Catholicism. Maybe confirming some sections of the Church you’ve dismissed.
Every parish that’s serious about survival (let along thriving in a postmodern culture) could read this book and start implementing. Sherry Weddell has traveled a lot, done countless workshops over the past decade. She has her finger on the pulse. If your parish has a pulse (or wants to get one) read the book.
Some readers will put this book down and feel discouraged. Help and companionship on the road of being a disciple is out there. You just have to look for it.
My parish uses the Siena Institute materials on discernment–it was going on before I joined the crew in 2008. Our situation is potentially more frustrating–we have up to a 30% turnover in members every year.