I was stunned. I had asked a prominent leader in evangelization, a priest, if he thought his parents were evangelized. He shook his head “No” and explained that he did not think his parents were disciples in the sense in which the church calls Catholics to be disciples today. I wondered: If they were not disciples, if generations of Catholics over centuries were not disciples, then have we developed too high a definition of discipleship?
In his first apostolic exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel” (No. 3), Pope Francis sounds a very open note, one that should get our full attention:
I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them; I ask all of you to do this unfailingly each day. No one should think that this invitation is not meant for him or her, since “no one is excluded from the joy brought by the Lord.”
Something like this more inclusive approach might be a key ingredient to include in our thinking about and practice of evangelization.
A few years ago, it was popular to cite some words of Pope Benedict to the effect that the church had to become smaller, to shrink in order for committed Catholics to show themselves and support each other. This seemed to lead to an attitude in which some priests were somewhat willing to see Catholics slip away because they were not “true” Catholics in the first place.
I have often observed how that “smallness” happens in parishes. A group of parishioners gets “more involved” through one or another process—perhaps a prayer group or some parish program. This group then starts looking at the rest of the parishioners as somehow “doing less” than they should. As this smaller group starts to talk, they imply that the rest of the parishioners—who come to Mass and maybe even serve in one or another ministry—are not really committed or are not really evangelized or are not really disciples. Once this dynamic sets in, you can bet the process of evangelization ministry, or renewing the parish, will come to a standstill.
Looking at Assumptions
Sherry A. Weddell, in her influential book Forming Intentional Disciples (2012), says that “in calling Catholics to a deliberate discipleship and intentional faith, our goal is not to create a community of spiritual elites. Rather it is to create a spiritual culture that recognizes, openly talks about, and honors both the inward and outward dimensions of the sacraments and the liturgy.” This is related to her argument that many Catholics receive sacraments externally without the inner transformation and conversion that they imply. “The majority of Catholics in the United States are sacramentalized but not evangelized,” she writes.
Ms. Weddell believes conversion and discipleship can be small: “If roughly 2 percent of your parishioners are intentional disciples today, why not shoot for 4 percent five years from now? If you think that roughly 5 percent are disciples right now, what could you do to help raise that percentage to 10 percent?” At this rate it would take a parish five years to double its number of “intentional disciples”; obviously, intentional discipleship, while offered to the many, is accepted only by the few. By that assumption, if it takes five years to double the number of intentional disciples, discipleship is not a mass movement. Just the opposite.
As we work our way through our vision of evangelization and discipleship, we have to be attentive at every level to debug the presumptions and unintended consequences of our approach to church involvement. If we keep raising the bar, do we not automatically at least marginalize, if not exclude, more and more ordinary Catholics? Is it possible to use ideas of discipleship in a manner that can be in effect exclusive rather than, as Jesus seems to have done, use those ideas to a more inclusive effect? Jesus reached out to tax collectors, prostitutes and those excluded by the interpretations of holiness of his day. The approach of Jesus and his followers is helpful to reflect on.
No parable, I think, says more about life in the early church than that of the sower and the seed. It is the opening parable in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew. The seed that is not productive seems to be a rather straightforward description of things that led followers away from their commitments to Christ: wealth, shallowness or fear of persecution. But of the seed that is productive, there clearly seems to be a sense of gradation. Not all the seed produces the same. As Mark puts it, “It came up and grew and yielded thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold.” And Mark wryly adds, “Whoever has ears to hear ought to hear” (Mk 4:8-9). Matthew varies the words slightly, making the same point: “But some seed fell on rich soil and produced fruit a hundred or sixty or thirty fold. Whoever has ears ought to hear” (Mt: 13:8).
We note: It is the good seed that produces in varying quantities. We hear 30, 60, 100, but are we not also encouraged by the parable to hear 10, 20, 40 or 70? In other words, the increased productivity of one range of seeds does not exclude the lesser productivity of the other seeds. This indicates a wide acceptance, in the early church, of different levels of discipleship without an assumption that everyone had to fulfill the highest expectation—to produce a hundredfold. Surely there is a huge difference between the seed that falls on bad soil, yielding nothing, and the seed that is productive. But that should not prevent us from noticing the different yields of the seeds that fall on good ground.
Not Far From the Kingdom
In Mark 12, Jesus is approached by a scribe who overhears how well Jesus is responding to those who were disputing with him. The scribe asks Jesus about the greatest commandment. When the scribe endorses the answer Jesus gave, Matthew tells us: “Jesus saw that [he] answered with understanding, [and] he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God’” (12:34). This phrase deserves to be tossed around in our apostolic minds for quite some time. Obviously the scribe belongs to a group that is, as Matthew says, “disputing” with Jesus. All the scribe does is recite back what Jesus said to him. Yet this seems to be enough for Jesus to recognize the scribe as somehow drawing close to the kingdom of God. In other words, wherever insight comes, it should be recognized and celebrated.
Even more, Matthew’s great pa-rable of the final judgment (25:31 ff.) should give all believers pause. In this image, the king gathers all the nations of the world (the word nation has special impact for Jewish listeners because it represents the gentiles and, therefore, presumably those who are not chosen) and divides them as a shepherd might, between sheep and goats. When Jesus explains why the sheep are entering the kingdom (because they fed, clothed and visited him), the hearers are shocked. “When did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink?” In other words, the righteous, the saved, are not even aware that they are doing the king’s will. They are not even aware of their righteousness or even of all the motives for righteousness. Of course, they fed, gave water, helped and visited. The accursed, the goats, did not do these things for Christ’s “least ones.” Can it be that people are involved in God’s grace without even the dimmest recognition of it? Can it be that God’s grace is far wider than those who are consciously followers and, even more, than those who are “intentionally” followers of Christ?
The story of the good thief should make us wonder what and whom in Luke’s community this unexpectedly attentive criminal represents. What personal experience did he have with Jesus? Were there early Christians who got only a glimmer of Christ, but for whom that seems to have been enough? And look at Paul’s tolerance for preachers who preached out of false motives—“as long in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is being proclaimed” (Phil 1:18). How does that standard hold up when it comes to strict orthodoxy? We Catholics in particular need to recall how often in our eucharistic prayers we refer to those whose faith God alone knows.
A Discipleship of Inclusion
Of course we need to call all Catholics to the fullness of discipleship, expressed through their involvement with the word of God (conversion and relationship), prayer (private and communal through liturgy), community (connectedness with other disciples in faith and life) and service (reaching outward to those who are not being served, helping all live a fullness of life). We can never let up on this. Catholics need to be continually called to more explicit commitment to Christ, which includes a more open sharing with the world of the grace that comes from Jesus. Catholics need ongoing conversion as part of their being followers of Jesus.
But instead of setting up criteria and then judging one another according to those, can we just presume an ideal and acknowledge that we all, even the most committed and active disciples, inevitably fall short of that ideal and that as part of a continuum of discipleship, all Catholics may be exercising more or less involvement with their faith and faith community? Instead, for example, of thinking of our children who do not attend church as frequently as some older Catholics as if they were fallen-away cretins, maybe we could think of them as people to be invited to fuller discipleship, given the variations of their lives and experiences. Can we not think of these people as being on a continuum with the more active?
In this more inclusive model of evangelization and discipleship I am trying to sketch, we do not have “true” disciples and “not disciples,” but a church in which, at different times, we produce fruit that may range from 5 percent to 95 percent of the ideal yield, to use the Gospel metaphors. What we do as a church is continually call ourselves to produce more, whoever we are, as the fruit of our baptism. What we see in each other are the seeds of discipleship, some of which have sprung into plants while others still lie latent. What we acknowledge about all of us is our ongoing need for greater conversion, for reconciliation and the expression of God’s grace in more explicit ways in our lives.
Are there stages of discipleship? We can certainly recognize phases of discipleship as we look back on our faith lives. They may not necessarily follow those Sherry Weddell outlines (trust, curiosity, openness, conversion, intentional discipleship) in any strict order. At varying times in our lives as disciples we have experienced deepening trust or been drawn along by curiosity about one or another aspect of faith or powerfully experienced Jesus’ presence or, perhaps, have powerfully experienced something like God’s absence (our own “dark nights of the soul”) or have been clear in the direction of our vocations or have been confused. Catholic mystics have taught us well about phases of discipleship. The founder of the Paulist Fathers, Servant of God Isaac Hecker, experienced years of what seemed like internal confusion as part of his journey in faith but came to see this as the work of the Spirit. The Spirit, Hecker would say, can work through all—and many different—phases of our spiritual lives.
‘Open the Doors’
Might a more inclusive attitude end up enabling lax discipleship? Perhaps. But giving the impression that evangelization and discipleship are almost “elitist” might do something worse than encourage lax discipleship; it might lead people to dismiss church, discipleship and evangelization altogether. Everyone remarks about the growing number of young people who respond “none” to the question of their preferred faith. One feature of the growth of this group is surely a pushing back at churches that seemed to be pushing against them, as the 2010 book American Grace, by Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell, shows.
Of course it is premature to generalize about the ministry of Pope Francis. But one thing is clear: He is not interested in exclusive or exclusivizing notions of faith. “Open up the doors,” he says. Let’s get away from our small-minded approaches. He mentions the unmarried pregnant woman who comes to get her baby baptized—how, in place of some of our approaches, we should celebrate this woman and warmly welcome her and her child. He washes the feet of Muslim women. He prays with evangelical pastors. He places in the same category as ordinary evangelizing ministry caring both for Catholics who go to Mass every Sunday and for Catholics who have a strong attachment to the church but do not go to Mass (“The Joy of the Gospel,” No. 14). It is as if Francis is pointing out a vast ocean of divine love and grace and inviting us all to swim in it, letting as many into that ocean as possible.