Sunday, January 18, 2009

Discipleship and Evangelization: Source of Christian Unity

The following is my homily at Blessed Sacrament Parish, Seattle, for today's readings: 1 Sm 3:3b-10, 19

; Ps 40:2, 4, 7-8, 8-9, 10

; 1 Cor 6:13c-15a, 17-20; Jn 1:35-42



The NY Times yesterday had the landing of USAirways flight 1549 on their front page.
Most of the news consists of “eyewitness accounts.”
We want to know “what was it like? What happened to you? What did you experience?”
There are more technical details in other stories about the “Miracle on the Hudson,” but they are not as viscerally interesting, and can be found on pages 17-19.
We tend to put stock in people’s experiences, and I, a very frequent flyer on USAirways, am curious to know what it’s like in case I’m ever on a flight that becomes a cruise.

Experience is a great teacher – especially our own experiences.
So a part of getting a degree in education is student teaching.
Part of seminary training is regular involvement in pastoral work under a supervisor.
My class on confessional ministry included “practice confessions,” with our own Fr. Allen as full-time penitent; acting as a middle-aged woman, a young man, a fellow beset with scrupulosity.
By the way, he made a very convincing eight-year old at her first confession.

In the ancient near east, if you were going to learn from a rabbi, or a great philosopher, you wouldn’t study books, or even sit in lectures.
You’d be like Samuel, sent to live with a master, the priest Eli.
We’re told “Samuel was not familiar with the Lord,” so when the Lord speaks to him, he doesn’t recognize His voice.
Eli becomes a mentor to the young Samuel; to share with Samuel what he had learned from his own experience of hearing the Lord’s voice and responding in obedience.
Samuel is a disciple of Eli; he lives with the priest, learns from him, and becomes a great prophet.

We see a similar pattern in the Gospel of John.
Two disciples of John the Baptist follow Jesus, who notices them shadowing him, turns and asks the very direct question, “what are you looking for?”
There answer seems peculiar at first – a non-sequitur, really – “Rabbi, (teacher) where do you stay?”
They acknowledge him as a teacher, and by asking him “where do you stay?” they’re indirectly asking, “may we stay with you, teacher, and learn from you?”
In other words, “May we be your disciples?”
He says, “Come and see,” and in the Gospel of John, “seeing” is always more than just physical vision.
It always refers as well to faith in the Word made flesh.

Notice how Andrew and his brother become disciples.
It all begins with John the Baptist, who points out Jesus as “the lamb of God,” and urges his disciples to abandon him to follow the one whose sandal straps he is not worthy to tie.
Then, after spending just one day with Jesus, Andrew grabs his brother Simon, and tells him, “We have found the Messiah.”
Simon Peter or Andrew tells Philip about the Lord, and after meeting Jesus, Philip, in turn, tells his buddy Nathanael that Jesus is the one about whom Moses and the prophets wrote.

In each case, a new disciple is made precisely because someone has told them about Jesus – not specific doctrines about Jesus (they didn’t exist as yet), but of their personal experience of him that was so powerful they abandoned their former lives to stay with him.
Discipleship is utterly dependent upon evangelization – by sharing the good news of the encounter with Jesus.
The ‘New Evangelization’ called for by Pope John Paul II, is, in his words, “not a matter of merely passing on doctrine but rather of a personal and profound meeting with the Savior."

This Wednesday evening at 7 p.m., I’ll be giving a presentation on “how to talk about your faith with others,” and I’ll give you my thesis now, so you can decide if you want to “come and hear.”
I don’t believe we can effectively evangelize until we have become disciples of Jesus ourselves.
In fact, until we have a personal and profound meeting with our Savior, I don’t think we’ll even be inclined to embrace the identity of a Christian – one who shares the good news of being saved.
Evangelization, Pope Paul VI said, is our deepest identity.
Being a Christian is about sharing good news we’ve experienced.
We want to share good news – in fact, it’s hard to keep our mouths shut when we’ve experienced something really great.
So people will talk about their experience of an improbably safe landing on the Hudson.
If the UW ever wins a football game again, trust me, people will talk about it!
When we fall head over heels in love, our friends won’t hear the end about our beloved.

This was the experience of St. Paul
His encounter with the Risen Jesus converted his prodigious energy; from persecuting the followers of Jesus, to proclaiming Jesus’ death as the price paid for his freedom from the obligations of the Law.
In their meeting on the Damascus road, Jesus revealed to Paul the depth of his sin: “you are persecuting me – the Risen and Ascended one.”
In that brief but powerful encounter, Paul received his Gospel: that “God made him who did not know sin to be sin so that we might become the righteousness of God in him” [2Cor 5:21]
God, in a wondrous exchange, attributed Paul’s sin to Jesus, who innocently suffered for him, and in turn, attributed Jesus’ obedience and righteousness to Paul.
This was Paul’s experience – that legal observance and sacrifice in the Temple, were rubbish compared to knowing Jesus; that whoever is joined to the Lord becomes one Spirit with him, and thus a Temple of God’s own Spirit.
So great, so profound was this experience of loving forgiveness and intimacy that he found in Jesus, that Paul could tell the Galatian Christians, “I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me!”

I have been blessed to have recently had this Gospel proclaimed to me by various people whose lives have been transformed by the experience of Jesus’ grace.
They know his love; they know he died in their place, nailing their many sins to the cross; they know in greater detail than ever before what those sins were and are; they know they’ve done nothing to receive this mercy – and their lives are marked by joy and gratitude.
They now imitate the Master they follow.

I have had glimpses of this mercy; moments, when I am touched by an awareness of my depravity and the unearned forgiveness I’m offered.
One time in particular was in the sacrament of reconciliation, when in a flood of grace I bawled like a baby – tears simultaneously of sorrow for what I’d done and joy that I had been forgiven.
This is the common experience of the Christian – and this experience of Jesus, and the Father’s grace and mercy in him, and the indwelling of the Spirit, is the source of genuine Christian unity.
If we, who are all given the mandate to “go and make disciples of all nations” by Jesus himself are to actually obey him – and this obedience is what God wants more than sacrifice or offering, we’re told in our psalm today – then first we must become disciples of Jesus ourselves.
Here are some suggestions I intend to follow myself.
1. We must realize that like the young Samuel, “we are not familiar with the Lord.” We must ask to be evangelized ourselves.
2. We don’t recognize his daily call to us. We must begin to say with all sincerity, “your servant [who has been purchased at the price of your son’s death] is listening. And then we must be attentive to the often subtle promptings of the Spirit we’ve been given. If we have an inclination, however weak, to call on a sick friend, or to pray, or to help out at the Sunday soup kitchen, or to confront a gossip at work – do it! That small voice inviting us to do good is almost certainly the Lord’s.
3. We must accept that being a disciple involves realizing “I am not my own” – my life is not about doing what I want, but doing what the Lord wants – which will be my deepest fulfillment. Jesus saw more potential in Andrew’s brother, Simon, than Simon could have possibly imagined; Simon never would have become “Peter” – the rocky foundation of the Church, without becoming Jesus’ disciple.
4. We may very well need to seek out one who knows the Lord, and hear of their experience of him and of discipleship. We need to be inspired, we need to be mentored, and eventually we need to be a mentor to others.
5. If we’ve not been overcome by a sense of our sin and the undeserved mercy of God in an encounter with the Risen Jesus, then pray for it. Beg the Lord for a double portion of the Spirit, like Elisha did Elijah.
6. And finally, if you have experienced an encounter with the Lord that has changed you in any way, speak to others about it. Experience is hard to refute, and fascinating to hear. You are most certainly not alone in that experience, and others are longing to hear that God is still at work – because that, too, is Good News.

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Thursday, October 23, 2008

Election Coverage

While I have been mostly edified by the statements several bishops (1 in 4 according to Rocco Palmo) have made on abortion in the run-up to the election, I am reminded that they wouldn't have to so frantically remind us of our moral and political obligations every election year if we concentrated a fostering cultures of intentional discipleship in our parishes and dioceses all the time. Somehow I think intentional disciples with well-formed consciences can figure out how to vote the "Christian way" without as much difficultly as it seems to be for Catholics these days. Just a thought...

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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

A remarkable life

Many of you have probably already come across the story of Thomas Vander Woude who drowned last week in a septic tank while saving his son from the same fate. I first heard about this on Sunday evening (the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross) at the 5 p.m. Mass at Church of Our Savior in New York City, where Fr George Rutler preached on his life as an example of the sacrificial love that sought always to emulate the love of Christ on the Cross even until his dying moments. The Washington Post ran a profile that only confirmed for me the truth of Fr Rutler's words. 

May the Angels lead him into paradise. 

By Jonathan Mummolo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 10, 2008; A01

If you ever ran into Nokesville dad Thomas S. Vander Woude, chances are you would also see his son Joseph. Whether Vander Woude was volunteering at church, coaching basketball or working on his farm, Joseph was often right there with him, pitching in with a smile, friends and neighbors said yesterday.

When Joseph, 20, who has Down syndrome, fell into a septic tank Monday in his back yard, Vander Woude jumped in after him. He saved him. And he died where he spent so much time living: at his son's side.

"That's how he lived," Vander Woude's daughter-in-law and neighbor, Maryan Vander Woude, said yesterday. "He lived sacrificing his life, everything, for his family." 

Read the rest of the story here. 

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Saturday, September 22, 2007

"Growing True Disciples"

This post is a nice follow-up to the one just made by Sherry, I think. I had been working on this yesterday and today, and just saw her post when I prepared to upload this.

I just finished reading a book by George Barna, the president of Barna Research Group, Ltd., a marketing research firm that focuses on issues related to faith and culture. He's an evangelical whose company has conducted research for hundreds of churches and parachurch ministries.

His book, "Growing True Disciples," is interesting in terms of his insistence that the focus of Christian ministry is to encourage and facilitate discipleship. Similarly, Pope Paul VI said in Evangelii Nuntiandi that the Church exists to evangelize, and the purpose of evangelizing, is, of course, to make disciples of Jesus. Barna's book looks at models of promoting discipleship used by different Protestant churches. All of the models demand a lot more from the individual than most Catholics are used to giving. The point that's made clear in the book is that discipleship usually doesn't "just happen," just as any significant change in the way we live doesn't "just happen."

Acts 2:42-47 describes (perhaps ideally) what the early church community looked like. What it describes is a group of people who are completely "sold out" to Jesus; who seek to not only follow his teaching, but to allow his life and power to flow through them. They have made following Jesus the focus and content of their life: all else is secondary

Early on in the book (p. 27), Barna lists the characteristics of a true disciple. They are challenging:

"Disciples experience a changed future through their acceptance of Jesus Christ as Savior and of the Christian faith as their defining philosophy of life.

Disciples undergo a changed lifestyle that is manifested through Christ-oriented values, goals, perspectives, activities, and relationships.

Disciples mature into a changed worldview, attributable to a deeper comprehension of the true meaning and impact of Christianity. Truth become an entirely God-driven reality to a disciple. Pursuing the truths of God becomes the disciple's lifelong quest."

Of course, there's something missing here, yet is present throughout the disciple-making models he presents: a community of faith.

All of his models insist upon regular participation in a church community. It is through engagement with the word (and thus the Word), communal prayer, encouragement from other Christians, and accountability to others - as well, of course, through grace - that disciples are formed. As Catholics, we also include active, conscious participation in the sacramental life of the Church as a crucial, non-negotiable element.

While Barna's book has its flaws, and I don't agree with all of his presuppositions, I appreciate the unrelenting emphasis upon discipleship. He challenges pastoral ministers like myself to ask tough questions like, "Is my preaching, counseling, teaching, and leadership in and out of worship effective in assisting people to become disciples?"

I also have to ask myself if my life reflects the life of a true disciple. Do I consistently obey Jesus' commands and His Church's teachings? Do I love other people in practical ways that cause me to "pour out my life" for them? Have I put the attractions and distractions of this world in their proper place and focused my desire upon knowing, loving and serving God? Is my life "a living Gospel for all people to read"? Am I sharing my faith with others who do not know Christ?

In short, is my life bearing fruit worthy of a follower of the risen Lord?

One of the practices of most of the Christian communities that are successful in promoting discipleship is the setting of personal spiritual goals and practices that may help reach those goals. These goals must be practical, achievable, and specific; not simply "I will be more loving," but "I will stop gossiping about Mary Jane and instead spend time getting to know her better, choosing to discover her good qualities, and pointing out those good qualities as attributes that give glory to God."

That may be a little too specific, but you get the idea.

So that's my project for the next week or so: to re-evaluate my life and pinpoint some areas where I want to grow in my relationship to Christ and the Church, and come up with a gameplan. Maybe I'll share some of what I discover with you. Feel free to do the same.

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Monday, September 17, 2007

A Few Words in Favor of Zealotry

John Allen has an article on why Fr. Peter Phan's book, "Being Religious Interreligiously: Asian Perspectives on Interreligious Dialogue" is being investigated by the CDF and the U.S. Bishops' Committee on Doctrine. The latter is questioning whether Fr. Phan's writing is obscuring three important points:
The uniqueness of Jesus Christ and the universality of his salvific mission
The salvific significance of non-Christian religions (without connection to Christ and the Holy Spirit)
The uniqueness of the church as the universal instrument of salvation

It's an interesting article, and I linked it in the title of this post. What struck me most, however, was the difference between what John Allen was reporting about Fr. Phan's writing, and what I was reading this weekend while traveling back and forth across the country.

In a wonderful book by Fr. Robert Barron, "the Strangest Way," Fr. Barron quoted Fr. Anthony de Mello (another theologian whose writing was discussed by the CDF posthumously) as saying that attachment is "anything in this world - including life itself - that we convince ourselves we cannot live without." Fr. Barron continues, "The implication, of course, is that in Christ we CAN live without anything in this world, and to know that in our bones is to be detached, spiritually free. To live in the infinite power of God is to realize that we NEED nothing else, that we CRAVE nothing more, that we CAN LET GO of everything else...To become focused on something less than God (anything created, including our own lives) is therefore to place ourselves in spiritual danger and desperately frustrate the will." (pp. 50-51)

It is Jesus who reveals this truth in a variety of ways, "How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom," "Sell all you have and give to the poor, then come follow me." The poor, meek, sorrowful, persecuted for the sake of Jesus are blessed precisely because they are not attached to things, status, and good feelings, but are attached to Jesus, for whom they willingly suffer persecution.

This is a kind of zeal that is seldom found within Catholic Christianity these days. We reserve such singlemindedness to the saints. Part of the testimony at the canonization process of St. Dominic reads, "he was zealous for souls, fervent in prayer and preaching, and unrelenting in his pursuit of heretics. He loved poverty, was strict with himself, but kind towards others. He was chaste, humble and patient, calm under persecution, and joyful amid tribulations. He was deeply religious and held himself in low regard."

Another book I'm reading is by the Evangelical George Barna, head of the Barna Research Group. In "Growing True Disciples" he writes about the cost of discipleship, "When we hear that the apostles were followers of Jeesus, the image that comes to mind is of people who tagged along after the Lord..." but "Each of the twelve disciples abandoned his profession. Each lived a minimalist lifestyle, carrying frew possessions and having no enduring sense of residential stability. The disciples learned new principles constantly and were expected to apply those principles on demand. Although all they tried to do was help people, they suffered persecution because their Teacher and His ways were so radical and threatening to some of society's powerbrokers...There were no textbooks on which they could rely, so they had to be constantly alert and retain all of the information and insights gleaned during their training stage. In short, they had no life apart from what they were being trained to do. Being a follower of Jesus Christ was an all-consuming obsession."

While many Christians would agree with that description, we tend to hear it as what described the Twelve, rather than as a model for all disciples of Jesus. Barna disagrees. "[Jesus] is seeking people who are absolutely serious about becoming new creations in Him - individuals who are fanatics, zealots, mesmerized, passionate about the cause, completely devoted to mimicking their model down to the last nuance. Discipleship is not a program. It is not a ministry. It is a life-long commitment to a lifestyle." (pp 18-19).

We can't be zealous in following Christ simply because he can help us lead a fulfilling life, or because he can help free us from attachments that screw up our priorities and make us addicted. We can be filled with zeal in following him only if we believe he is truly God incarnate, the sole Way, Truth and Life. While that zeal and full commitment might be preached differently in different cultures (and inculturation is a key point among many theologians working in non-Western cultures), the starting point is always Jesus, and not the culture.

I would propose that it might well be the postmodern West that will be the most opposed to the kind of zeal called for in the Scriptures, and the western consumer-oriented culture in which it might be the most difficult in which to be a passionate - and unencumbered - disciple of Jesus

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Sunday, February 4, 2007

I Have a Dirty Secret

Amy Wellborn's "Open Book" blog has an interesting post on "Reverts", that is, Catholics who left the Church, then returned (click on the title of this post to go there). The "dirty secret" is a journey of faith (and doubt or disinterest or disdain or disillusionment, etc.) that, believe it or not, everyone seems to have. We Catholics seldom ask for permission of one another to talk about that journey, which is why I'm jokingly calling it a dirty secret. There are quite a few stories of reversion there, but I'd like to make a few observations about what I've seen on that thread. However, I encourage you to go see for yourself!

OBSERVATION A: There are some patterns regarding why people left that emerge:
1) poor catechesis in Catholic schools, including catechesists with disdain for anything smacking of the pre-Vatican II Church (Catholic school education really takes a beating, I'm afraid)
2) little or no catechesis - Christmas/Easter nominal Catholic households;
3) "falling away" after marrying a non-Catholic
4) It seems that these folks had no relationship with Christ on anything but an intellectual level. This is not explicitly mentioned on any post, as far as I could tell, but every reason for falling away seems to focus on some intellectual defect of faith. Even those who mentioned prayer, spoke of it as a kind of ritual in their "pre-falling away days."

Virtually all of the comments indirectly point out the importance of parents sharing their faith with their children. I don't mean just sending them to Catholic school. In fact, many of the comments indicate that was the beginning of the end of their faith. Rather, parents need to talk about why they believe what they do. They need to talk about their relationship with Christ, the relationship between Christ and the Church (local and universal), and how that relationship effects their decisions. Many of those who "fell away" had parents who were nominal Catholics who probably couldn't do that, because that relationship wasn't there.

OBSERVATION B: There are some people who seem to speak of "unintentional disciples". For example,

"There should also be a "tweener" category: between convert/revert and life long Catholics. A category for those who never left the Church (hence, never converted or reverted in that sense), but weren't really conscious of being Catholic in a deliberate way (hence, not exactly the witness of saints). Sort of auto-pilot Catholics, who one day for whatever reason, shut off the auto-pilot and start flying manual."

and

"I'm not a convert, because I am a cradle Catholic, but I never totally made a concious decision to LEAVE...it never mattered at all. Period. Being Catholic was inconsequential to anything else in my life."

This is why our blog is called "Intentional Disciples." Faith that justifies is conscious, i.e., intellectual assent to truth and informed by love in such a way as to issue forth in "good works." A well-formed faith transforms our life with God's grace.

OBSERVATION C: There are some interesting examples of what could be cultural Catholicism. This post was from a female religious, and I choose to believe there's a lot more to her faith than this:

"I've had the grace to be Catholic my whole life. It had a lot to do with my Irish grandmother's fierce clinging on to the faith because of the effects of Britain's persecution of the Irish Catholics."

OBSERVATION D: Many people who wrote comments came back to the Church because of the Mass, but more seemed to come back because of intellectual reasons. In some ways this doesn't surprise me, since people who read blogs might tend to be more intellectually inclined, and many of them spoke of leaving for intellectual reasons. The following beautiful anecdote stood out to me because it was more of a personal experience of the presence of God. What was fascinating, however, was that the writer felt it necessary to somehow apologize for her subjective experience!

"I was reading C.S. Lewis' "Mere Christianity" alone in my room one night, and ... there's really no other way to put this ... I had an experience of God. I felt God's presence in the room with me. I felt that His eyes were on me. I didn't hear voices or anything like that. I just felt His presence in a way I never had before and never have since. A Psalm 139 kind of experience.

Reading back over that last paragraph, I know this is the kind of thing that makes non-believers, and maybe even believers, think "hallucination, send this woman to a shrink." I would have said so myself to anyone who described such a thing to me. I can only say it was the most real thing I've ever experienced.

I can't say how anyone else views my story, but here is what I see: God saved me with what He had to work with. I had a wonderful mother who never stopped praying for me, and who, together with my sister, ended up living with me and being a model of faith. I had a habit of reading romance novels and just happened to pick up one that would stir my desire for a relationship with God. I was a bit of an Anglophile, and here was the English master of Christian apologetics ready to hand. Rationalism was initially a stumbling block to my faith, and God pulled me over with a unique experience of grace."

I believe experiences like this are not as rare as one might think from reading this thread on "Open Book."

OBSERVATION E: While some Catholics who have commented on Intentional Disciples seem to take offense at the idea that Catholics might speak about their faith, apparently a good number are willing to write about their faith journey at great length. Certainly my experience as an interviewer of people who have gone through a Called and Gifted workshop has shown me that Catholics are often quite willing to share their stories - and all of those stories are beautiful in one way or another.

Which leads me to invite you to share a "dirty secret" here. If you will, would you describe what has made a big difference in your life of faith?

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Saturday, February 3, 2007

Totalitarian Faith Enfleshed

Br. Matthew's post made me think of an example of "totalitarian faith" as expressed in a particular person's life. Would that it were my own... Nevertheless, here's an example.

About two years ago, I met a young adult male, then 33 years old, who I'll call Adam. Just six months previous to my meeting him, he had undergone a huge conversion that had radically changed his life. He had quit drugs, alcohol, promiscuity, swearing, and was attending daily Mass, praying throughout the day, reading scripture and studying the catechism. All of this was due to an encounter with the love of Christ, which itself was an answer to five years of graced prayer in which he asked to know that love. I don't know that I've ever seen someone so beautifully changed by Christ.

But I was a little unsettled in some of our early conversations. I had learned to be wary of the enthusiasm of new converts. They want to do all kinds of crazy things, like enter religious life or the seminary – so we require them to live their faith for a few years before doing something precipitous. His enthusiasm was wonderful, but I wanted Adam to be prepared for the fact that this fervor wasn’t going to last. One evening while we were sitting at the kitchen table, I gently tried to warn him to be prepared for his spiritual intensity to wane. I likened it to the infatuation we have when we first start dating someone. Adam responded indignantly: “Why should my love for Jesus simmer down? I don't want it to. I don't ever want to forget what God has done for me. I don't want to go back. I don't want to lose God."

I was struck silent. I didn't have an answer. What I had just witnessed was the virtue known as "the fear of the Lord." Not a fear that God would punish, but a fear of losing a relationship with Him.

So I began to re-read some of St. Paul's letters. I figured Adam's experience was like Saul's encounter on the road to Damascus. I read St. Paul saying to the Ephesians, "you must lay aside your former way of life and the old self which deteriorates through illusion and desire, and acquire a fresh, spiritual way of thinking." (Eph 4:22-23a)

And "May Christ dwell in your hearts through faith, and may charity be the root and foundation of your life. Thus you will be able to grasp fully, with all the holy ones, the breadth and length and height and depth of Christ's love, and experience this love which surpasses all knowledge, so that you may attain to the fullness of God himself." (Eph. 3:17-19) Both of those quotes sounded like Adam's experience.

I asked myself, "Had Paul's love for Christ, initiated on that lonely stretch of road, 'simmered down?'" He boasted that, "five times at the hands of the Jews I received forty lashes less one; three times I was beaten with rods; I was stoned once, shipwrecked three times; I passed a day and a night on the sea. I traveled continually, endangered by floods, robbers, my own people, the Gentiles; imperiled in the city, in the desert, at sea, by false brothers; enduring labor hardship, many sleepless nights; in hunger and thirst and frequent fastings, in cold and nakedness. Leaving other sufferings unmentioned, there is that daily tension pressing on me, my anxiety for all the churches." (2 Cor. 11:24-28)

Of course, we know Paul eventually could add imprisonment and beheading for his faith in Jesus to his list of trials. No, rather than "simmering down," that relationship with Christ only grew stronger through the years, as any good relationship does.

Then I read Galatians, and came across these words, "I have been crucified with Christ, and the life I live now is not my own; Christ is living in me. I still live my human life, but it is a life of faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me." (Gal 2:19b-20)

What had always sounded like an exaggeration was what I was witnessing in Adam. He'd practically said as much. I was ashamed to realize that my own love for Jesus – a love that had led me to give my life as a religious - had waned. I had lost what passion I had had for Christ. I had taken back the life I'd once offered. And I had taken that loss of zeal as normative.

Now when I think of intentional discipleship, I often think of Adam, and how Christ has changed (and continues to change) his life. Is it too much for us to hope to know something of the love of Christ in this lifetime? Are we willing to take the Gospel seriously enough to allow it to challenge our "common sense" and even change us? Are we willing to cooperate with God's grace to love each person we meet as though Christ were standing before us? Are we afraid of no longer "fitting in" with our families and friends if we our faith, expressed as a relationship with Christ and His Body, becomes the center of our life?

I find myself shaking my head as I read the Scriptures these days, because it seems clear to me that Adam's behavior is much closer to what Christ asks of us than my behavior. Jesus teaches a crowd and his disciples, "Whoever would preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will preserve it." (Mk 8:35) It would seem that only one who is prepared and willing to risk all for Jesus and for the gospel will truly become himself or herself. It would seem that if we are to know Jesus intimately, we have to answer his call. Certainly my friend Adam has learned a lot about Christ in a short time because he tries to take Jesus at His word, and tries to cooperate with God's grace in order to live according to that word.

Adam's not afraid to speak of what Christ has done for him, and his words are supported by his actions. Both have evangelized me, so that I am seeking a renewed relationship with my Lord.

Is it possible that our expectations of what it means to live as a Catholic Christian are set too low – especially for ourselves?

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Friday, January 26, 2007

The Importance of Soil Type

I am on the road this weekend, and am typing this in the Phoenix airport prior to boarding for sunny St. Paul, MN. I may not be able to keep up with the posts and comments, but thought I'd leave a brief reflection on Wednesday's gospel, Mark 4:1-20 because I believe it connects with the important issue of disposition and grace.

Jesus is talking about various dispositions of people who encounter the Word that he sows. I propose that he may also be speaking of the various reactions that people have to him, as well, since he is the incarnate Word. Notice that there are a variety of responses. Some have the word snatched by Satan as soon as they hear it. It's taken before it can begin to take root at all. Some respond with joy, and the word begins to root in them, begins to change their life and their behavior, but then the trials that inevitably come with living as a disciple of Christ leads to their abandonment of following him. Still others hear the word, but the distractions and cares of life "and the craving for other things" squeezes out the transforming power of the Word.

Note the craving for other things probably means other goods, since we are created by God to pursue the good. It's just that they are lesser goods – including our families, our careers, our pursuit of justice and human rights and every other good thing that is not God. Now, please do not think that I'm suggesting we abandon our spouses and children, or quit our jobs and join religious life. Rather, I'm proposing that the following of Christ must come first, and in following Christ, all of our other relationships and pursuits will be transformed. We will love our families better, serve them more wholeheartedly, and promote their personal and spiritual growth more if we are in communion with Christ. We will approach the sacraments with greater "active, conscious participation" when our relationship with Christ is our first priority. As Pope Benedict XVI said at his inauguration Mass, "If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. No! Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide."

These various responses to Christ and his word point to the importance of our disposition when we approach the sacraments, our prayer, our relationships with other people – every aspect of our life of faith. This is why we at Intentional Disciples are so focused on the need for intentionality in our life of faith. We can't just "go through the motions" and presume that grace will be imparted. Nor are we suggesting that our disposition is simply our own work. St. Thomas Aquinas observed that

"even the good movement of the free-will, whereby anyone is prepared for receiving the gift of grace is an act of the free-will moved by God. And thus man is said to prepare himself, according to Prov. 16:1: "It is the part of man to prepare the soul"; yet it is principally from God, Who moves the free-will. Hence it is said that man's will is prepared by God, and that man's steps are guided by God." (ST II, I, 112, art. 2)

Our disposition is critical in the fruitful reception of God's grace in the sacraments, but even that good disposition is a result of our cooperation with the grace of God, whether that be habitual or actual grace. Yet we have to cooperate! As St. Augustine said, "God will not save us without us."

They're calling my flight. Gotta run. I hope this helps you understand our focus on intentionality a bit better - think of it as a bit of fertilizer for your soil!

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Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The Story of My Life (or, Why Sherry is a Goddess)

I took a LONG time to add a response to the debates about "Intentional Disciples" at the Commonweal and Disputations blog, and I'm not going to let that time go to waste, so I'm going to post my response here, too. Sherry, JACK, and Keith responded to most or all of the questions, so I thought I'd share a bit about how working within the Institute has changed my life, my understanding of priesthood, and the role of the laity.

An intentional disciple is what I believe an "active Catholic" should be. Someone who has a relationship with Christ that shapes the way they treat other people, forms the decisions they make in the workplace, market, home, and parish community. That relationship draws them to the Eucharist where they offer all that they have and are with Christ to the Father in the Spirit, and gratefully receive the grace that enables them to deepen that relationship. An intentional disciple recognizes the sins that separate him or her from the community and from Christ and renew their baptismal grace at reconciliation. An intentional disciple's faith seeks understanding through reading and praying over scripture, other spiritual reading, and the teachings of the Church. The intentional disciple gives of themselves and their resources in joyful service to others.

About two years ago a thirty-four year old man at a parish where I help when I'm in Colorado Springs told me about a powerful conversion he had undergone. He blew me away one evening when, during a conversation, he paused, got a big smile on his face, and said, "Fr. Mike, let's be saints!" I realized I had forgotten the point of this whole drama we're living. The intentional disciple, I believe, is conscious of the daily invitation of Jesus to, "come, follow me," and they intentionally seek to respond. Perhaps my description of the intentional disciple in the previous paragraph sounds like someone on the way to becoming a saint. I hope so, because that is our goal, isn't it? I'm not talking about being recognized as a saint by the Church (we'll be dead by definition, so what will we care?). I mean we should have the hope to be united with Christ and all those who are in him in eternity, and live as though that truly is our goal! Of course, it's not something we earn, but a gift offered to us. But we have to cooperate with the grace that's offered us throughout our days, and that takes intentionality!

And that's why I think "intentional discipleship" is important. When we live with our end in mind, we live differently. I'm not promoting a "pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die" quietism that doesn't care about the plight of the poor or the ravages of injustice. Quite the contrary. Intentional disciples are aware of God's love for them as well as for everyone else who is alive, and they reach out in true charity – love- to those around them. We all know exceptional Catholics in our parishes and dioceses whom we admire. Do we desire that others should be like them? Do we want to be like them – not in the details of their life, but in the willingness to entrust our lives to God and see where we're led? We enshrine saints in our stained glass windows and think of them as the exceptions, when surely Christ wants them to be the norm!

My understanding of priesthood and ministry has deepened. I am called to serve the Church (meaning all the baptized) by being an instrument of Christ to help sanctify, teach and govern the parish in such a way that more and more Catholics respond to the invitation of Christ to enter into a love relationship with him: to respond to the love he's already shown them. That relationship cannot thrive unless it is nurtured in community by others who share that love, deepened by prayer, nourished by the grace offered through the sacraments, and expressed in love for others, especially the least and the lost who are Christ "in distressing disguise." Everything I do as a priest must have that end, and every activity I engage in must be examined to see if it is effective in achieving that end. It means I have to stop thinking in terms of developing programs and focus on developing people. From what I've seen of intentional disciples, they will not only maintain the structures and programs we have, they'll develop new, creative ventures not only for our parishes, but for the secular world in which we are inserted.

Unfortunately, I think as Catholics we do one another and the power of God a disservice by having expectations that are ridiculously low. For example, in 2001 the Campus Ministry sub-committee of the USCCB commissioned the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) to study the impact of campus ministry involvement on the religious beliefs and behaviors of Catholic graduates. What distressed me about the survey (and I realize good surveys are very difficult to produce) were both the questions asked and the results! The survey was based on the six aspects of Catholic campus ministry enumerated in a 1985 USCCB document called, "Empowered by the Spirit: Campus Ministry Faces the Future." I won't go into the details of the survey, although you can read it above.

The questions on the survey, I believe, were attempting to identify "active Catholics." The results illustrate the relationship between participating in campus ministry during college and more frequent Mass attendance, higher parish registration, and greater involvement in parish and other religious activities. 40% of those who were involved in campus ministry attend Mass at least once a week, compared with 30% who were not involved. 17% of those involved in campus ministry reported they were "very involved" in their parish, compared with 8% who had not been involved in campus ministry. Yet among those who had the benefit of participating in campus ministry, only 34% said they considered helping the needy to be an "essential part of their faith", and only 65% said that their faith was "among the most important parts of their lives." The results were lower (27% and 52%, respectively) among those who had not participated in campus ministry.

I find the results distressing, especially since I devoted twelve years of my life to campus ministry. But I also find the questions distressing. When trying to determine the effectiveness of campus ministry in providing leaders for the future, the focus was on lay ecclesial ministry, religious life and priesthood – ignoring leadership in the secular realm. Also, the questions regarding leadership asked if the respondent had ever considered, these ministries, not whether, in fact, they had actually become leaders in those areas. Finally, and I'll get off my soapbox here, the question regarding the importance of faith simply asked if faith was "among" the most important parts of their life. How does one interpret that? Is it among the top two? Five? Ten? Even when a respondent could expand "most important parts" to whatever size necessary to include faith, less than two-thirds of those who had participated in campus ministry managed to squeeze faith in. Is this what we mean by "active Catholic?" I hope not, and we dishonor Christ, the Gospel and the saints and martyrs if we do.

I am learning that as a priest I have to be aware of my own charisms (or spiritual gifts) to better know where Christ is calling me, and to know where I need to collaborate with those with different gifts. As a priest I am called, according to a number of different magisterial documents to "recognize, uncover with faith, acknowledge with joy, foster with diligence, appreciate, judge and discern, coordinate and put to good use, and have 'heartfelt esteem'" for the charisms of all the baptized. (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, 30; Decree on Ministry and Life of Priests, 9; I Will Give You Shepherds, 40, 74; Lay Members of Christ’s Faithful People, 32) This is a radically different approach to ministry than I have witnessed, experienced or attempted. But this is rather ironic, since I didn't feel called to priesthood because I wanted to administer a large, complex business called a parish or maintain programs irregardless of their effectiveness. I felt called to first of all be changed by Christ and his people, then to help others respond to his call and be empowered by him to change the world.

In my close association with the work of Sherry Weddell, Fr. Michael Sweeney, and their collaborators, I have followed the connections they have discovered in a host of documents that outline a challenging and Spirit-filled description of the mission of the Church, the integral and primary role of the laity in that mission, and the role of service to the laity that is mine as a cleric. It's breathtaking and heartbreaking at the same time; breathtaking, because of its beauty, and heartbreaking because it is so seldom realized.

I am blessed to have been led by God to the Institute. I hope you consider taking a look at what I believe the Holy Spirit is doing through us. You might check out a pamphlet that Fr. Michael and Sherry produced called The Parish: Mission or Maintenance, on the untapped potential of the parish in the formation of lay apostles. Sherry wrote another pamphlet on the parish as a house of formation for adult Catholics called, "Making Disciples, Equipping Apostles" . They will help you have a better feel for what the Institute's about.

Oh, and I threw that stuff about Sherry being a goddess in just so you'd read this terribly long post.

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