Book review: “Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus”

“Can you tell me the story of your relationship with God so far?”

Forming Intentional DisciplesThis “threshold question” is at the heart of the book, Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus, by Sherry Weddell (published by Our Sunday Visitor, 2012).  Any person can be asked this question, whether that person be Catholic or non-Catholic, non-Christian, agnostic, or atheist.  How a person answers it can begin, or continue, the journey of all journeys.


But why ask such a question in the first place?  The book:

  1. presents survey data on the current state and trends of Catholics’ (as well as non-Catholics’) beliefs, church attendance, and other religion-related activities;
  2. argues the central reasons that people are leaving the Catholic Church;
  3.  recommends how to begin to reverse the trend of losing Catholics to other faiths or to loss of faith itself; and
  4. outlines ways of how to further the Church’s mission to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The book’s main premise is that a great number of present-day Catholics are not disciples of Jesus Christ.  Even though they may identify themselves as Catholic–primarily because they’ve received the sacraments of baptism and confirmation, and have taken their first Communion; and also perhaps because they go to Mass regularly–they do not have an interior, lived relationship with Christ.  That is, they live what some call “cultural Catholicism.”

Catholics who are not yet disciples can come from a wide range of vocations.  One might expect that non-disciples are only those people who may come to Sunday services, but are otherwise not active in parish life.  However, it turns out that laypeople who have served actively in their parishes for years, as well as seminarians, have shown through interviews and surveys that they were not yet disciples.

What is the effect of this situation?  Because cultural-only Catholics don’t have a lived relationship with Christ, it is more likely for them to eventually leave the Church, often to Protestant denominations, notably to some evangelical church.  Sometimes they would abandon religion altogether.  Weddell presents various survey results that describe these trends, and the numbers can be discouraging.

Weddell argues that the crisis in Catholicism, especially in the developed West, in our present era is no longer one of catechesis, but of evangelization.  Although the two are not mutually exclusive, evangelization normally precedes catechesis.  One must first be attracted to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

But what is an “intentional disciple”?  Weddell, who co-founded the Dominican-affiliated Catherine of Siena Institute to promote evangelization, uses the term “intentional disciple” as a way to emphasize that the only way to be a disciple is to do so intentionally, for it doesn’t make sense to be an “unintentional disciple.”  Intentional discipleship is none other than to do what Jesus told Simon:

Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; henceforth you will be catching men.” And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him.  (Luke  5:10-11)

Weddell has found that a big obstacle among modern-day Catholics is that there is a strong culture of “don’t ask, don’t tell” when it comes to discussing faith.  One’s spiritual journey is a private matter that should not be discussed with friends or family.  Especially strong is the pressure on those who are already intentional disciples, for those disciples to maintain a “code of silence.”  Again, it’s revealing to learn that even priests feel that the right thing to do is to enforce this code of silence, with a few saying that to encourage such discussions is to adopt Protestant ways.

Regarding the “code of silence,” one observation Weddell shares is one that I myself have been asked by friends and family on more than a couple of occasions.  Just because I talked religion more openly and was more active in Church activities, people have asked me, “Are you going to become a priest?”  It’s a funny anecdote I like to share, but it points to the misunderstanding at the root of this problem.  As Weddell writes:

“There is a strong tendency to account for those who try to live as disciples by labeling them “extraordinary,” either positively, as called to priestly or religious life, or negatively, as pretenders to sanctity.”

But shouldn’t it be the ordinary and the norm, rather than the extraordinary and the exception, for Catholics to speak comfortably with others–both Catholic and non-Catholic–about their personal journeys of faith?

The following are some quotes from the book that I found intriguing and worth further reflection.  The emphases are Weddell’s:

“Catholics who become Protestants say that their strongest reason for doing so was “that my spiritual needs were not being met.”

In the twenty-first century, cultural Catholicism is dead as a retention strategy, because God has no grandchildren. In the twenty-first century, we have to foster intentional Catholicism rather than cultural Catholicism.

[C]hanges of faith are, for most people, a journey and a search, not an instant, simple, and painless abandonment of belief.

The majority of adult Catholics are not even certain that a personal relationship with God is possible.

Millions of American adults are seeking a religious identity and are at least potentially open to the Catholic faith. At the same time, huge numbers of self-identified Catholics are not certain that a personal relationship with God is even possible, and their actions reflect it. The majority of Catholics in the United States are sacramentalized but not evangelized. They do not know that an explicit, personal attachment to Christ — personal discipleship — is normative Catholicism as taught by the apostles and reiterated time and time again by the popes, councils, and saints of the Church.

Intentional discipleship is not accidental or merely cultural. It is not just a matter of “following the rules.” A disciple’s primary motivation comes from within, out of a Holy Spirit-given “hunger and thirst for righteousness.” All things serve and flow from the central thing: the worship and love of the Blessed Trinity with one’s whole heart, soul, mind, and strength, and therefore the love of one’s neighbor as oneself.

“We will never evangelize what we do not love.” (quoted from Cardinal Francis George)

Evangelization isn’t about us. It is about Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd, seeking the lost sheep through us.

We have to come to terms with the reality that, in the United States, if we don’t evangelize our own, someone else will: evangelicals, Mormons, or independent Christians.

Many of Weddell’s points are from survey results, so if there is any room for argument about them, it would be on how to tackle the problems they describe.  Perhaps some readers will question how she reached some of her specific conclusions based on the surveys she cites, but it seems to me that the major points of fact are too straightforward to refute.

Since discipleship is a journey, Weddell gives concrete ways to help determine where people are in this journey, and how to help them discern and progress, if they are ready.  One of the first steps is the threshold question with which I began this review, which itself should only be asked when there is a certain level of trust with the other person.

One of the critiques I’ve seen about this book is its apparent de-emphasis of the sacraments.  It’s true that the book does not strongly promote the sacraments as an evangelical tool.  Weddell even has a section titled “Won’t the Sacraments Bring Them Back?”, a question she answers with No.  The presumption behind that question is prevalent particularly among older priests who served since the days when Catholicism was much more ingrained in the society.  The presumption is that Catholics who have become lukewarm will be brought back to the Church by the sacraments, such as when they get married in church.  Weddell says the surveys show that we can no longer presume that the sacraments will bring those people back.

To this same critique about the book’s de-emphasizing the sacraments, I would answer: We need to start at the right place, to meet people where they are.  Of course, living close to the sacraments is essential to spiritual growth.  But does it make sense to stress the sacraments to a person who doesn’t even know why he or she is Catholic in the first place?  To a person who doesn’t even know the story of Jesus Christ?

Weddell also mentions this point: Is it charitable for us to belittle Catholics who’ve left for an evangelical church, when we say that they left primarily so they could attend a service that featured “more entertainment”?  The data says that entertainment is not what those people were seeking.  They were seeking something much deeper, something that they perceived the Catholic Church was not providing them.

Because evangelization at its core is the proclaiming of the kerygma, Weddell devotes a chapter on a summary of the kerygma, which is “The Great Story of Jesus.”  She presents the kerygma in nine “acts,” as in the acts that make up a play.  However, I found her organization more complicated than it really needs to be.  Other readers may find her presentation of the kerygma more effective than I did.

Finally, given the current turbulent situation on Guam related to the “New Evangelization,” I feel the need to mention that the concrete ways Weddell describes on how to form intentional disciples is completely within the traditional parish setting.  She doesn’t endorse any particular lay movement.  The book’s only mention of lay movements is that they tend to reach only a very limited segment of people.  She also doesn’t necessarily advocate for increased diocesan or parish bureaucratic structures or programs.  Training on evangelization is certainly helpful, but creating new parish programs is not the point.

Instead, at the heart of this book is a simple and honest conversation between people, within an environment of trust.  Those conversations can happen almost anywhere, and should be encouraged especially in the home as well as in the parish, the workplace, or on a long flight.  I agree with Weddell’s assessment of the problem and what must be addressed.  The need is urgent.  Let us begin.

Rey Dalisay, a Third Order Carmelite, was raised on Guam and now writes from his home in Seattle, Washington.


5 thoughts on “Book review: “Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus”

  1. Thank you, Rey, for your review. I haven’t read the book myself, but suspect that Weddell’s view of the role of the sacraments in evangelization will prove to be the most contentious element of the book. For my part, my personal conversion was profoundly affected by the kerygmatic words I heard in the Sacrament of Reconciliation:

    “God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins…”

    1. thanks, chuck. i’ve actually sent a facebook message to the catherine of siena institute to ask about how the role of the sacraments. if i don’t hear back through that, i’ll send an email to one of the dominicans in their “contact us” list. (i wasn’t able to find an email address for sherry weddell herself).

      i hope that in this year of mercy, many people will answer the pope’s invitation to go to confession. what remains to be seen is whether they actually will take the time to go–assuming they even heard the invite.

      related to that is, from my experience, more than half the time, the priest confessor doesn’t enunciate those words very clearly. i’ve gone to confession enough times that i kind of know already the words he’s saying. but otherwise, the only words i usually hear clearly enough are the three words “… i absolve you …”

  2. I do see how on Guam Catholics are leaving the Church. I also believe that a personal relationship with Christ is key to keeping them. What do we have to offer these people who feel their spiritual needs are not being met? Personally, I find reading books on the faith helpful but then I love to read and am interested in living the example of Christ. The NCW preys on people’s insecurities and vulnerabilities to capture them and hold them. What do our parishes offer them? I often read books on the faith that I think would make a good selection for a reading group. Should I try and form one in my parish? Of course. I just have to have the determination and go for it.

    1. in the interview book “salt of the earth,” the interviewer asked then-cardinal ratzinger (the future pope benedict xvi): “how many ways are there to God?”

      cardinal ratzinger answered: “as many as there are people.”

      of course, he didn’t mean that all religions and beliefs are equally the same. what he meant was that every person’s way to God is a personal one. after all, Jesus called his disciples by name. so, i think that’s an important key to this. to meet each person where he or she is, and how he or she is.

      i know many people from guam who’ve left the Catholic Church, immediate family and close friends included. most of them, as i describe it, have “gone secular.” a few have gone to some protestant group, mainly evangelical or seventh-day adventist. i believe much of it was because the only Catholicism they had was cultural Catholicism, even if they went to Mass pretty much every sunday.

      but it’s very true. guam’s parishes currently offer almost nothing. they currently are in the mode that this book identifies as a big problem: a reliance on cultural Catholicism to retain the faithful. it doesn’t work.

      please do consider starting something in your parish. start with a small handful of friends and go from there. i hope your pastor will enthusiastically support it.

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