Faithful Aspirations: How can we make room for everybody in the church?

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.

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Craig McKee
5 years ago
If we were perhaps to start taking the scriptural story of the LOAVES AND FISHES as our foundational Eucharistic paradigm instead of the LAST SUPPER, might not many of the "problems" hinted at here be obviated? Unfortunately, the clerical recalcitrance of the gatekeepers on both sides of the Atlantic will never stand for it, hence the continuing need for articles of this ilk. Luckily for us, the Holy Spirit is still wreaking havoc with their terrestrial game plans, especially since she inspired them to elect a Bishop of Rome named Francis, whose main criteria for "admission" seems to be "Are you joyful?" If not, maybe we can help.
Martha Tonn
5 years ago
I have read Sherry Weddell's book, Forming Intentional Disciples, at least three times cover to cover, and have re-read some sections perhaps as many as a dozen times, and I am mystified by how Fr. DeSiano can come away from a careful reading of the book with the idea that Ms. Weddell advocates any kind of exclusionary or elitist vision of evangelization and discipleship. In fact, perhaps the key premise of her book is that personal discipleship, understood as a lived relationship with Christ, belonging to the Church through the sacraments of initiation, and ongoing involvement in the life and mission of the Church is NOT "a kind of optional spiritual enrichment for the exceptionally pious or spiritually gifted." (chapter 2). It's for every Catholic and everyone that wants to be Catholic. You can't get any more inclusive than that. The book does not advocate anywhere that parishes should exclude anyone who doesn't live up to a certain set of ideals or expectations, nor does it suggest that such Catholics should be marginalized. The idea of doubling the number of intentional disciples over a 5-year period is simply one suggestion that Ms. Weddell offers as a concrete strategy to parishes that want to become more mission-oriented, as Pope Francis and his predecessors have been urging us to do. Pope Francis is surely calling us to open the doors, but not to stop there, to also go out to people. Yet he also recognizes that the cultural norms that shape many of our lives also rob us of joy. "The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience. Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades. This is a very real danger for believers too. Many fall prey to it, and end up resentful, angry and listless. That is no way to live a dignified and fulfilled life; it is not God’s will for us, nor is it the life in the Spirit which has its source in the heart of the risen Christ." (EG, no 2) The goal of discipleship presented in Forming Intentional Disciples is not to create a spiritual elite. Just the opposite; it is to ensure that everyone, "inside" or "outside" the Church hears the invitation of Jesus to "come follow me" and by following him, finds the joy that only knowing and loving him can bring.
Kristen Hoffmaster
5 years ago
Can it be that people are involved in Gods grace without even the dimmest recognition of it? This is a good question. Jesus teaches us that to enter the Kingdom of heaven we must become like little children. I wonder if children are aware of the grace they bring to a given situation? Are they aware of the fruit they produce when they laugh out loud at random or when their eyes fill with tears over situations that many of us might not even notice. Is it possible to be so consumed with love that you are an intentional disciple although you have never been catechized or instructed in the official sense? Is it possible that there is a quiet mother somewhere who has given birth to one or two children and who spends her days nurtuting them; she seems not to produce much fruit, no one has converted in her name or by her example but her son or daughter, because of the love he or she received, goes on to found an order or discover a cure or lay down his life for others. How can we know when someone is producing fruit? It is too beautiful a mystery perhaps.
Kristen Hoffmaster
5 years ago
Can it be that people are involved in Gods grace without even the dimmest recognition of it? This is a good question. Jesus teaches us that to enter the Kingdom of heaven we must become like little children. I wonder if children are aware of the grace they bring to a given situation? Are they aware of the fruit they produce when they laugh out loud at random or when their eyes fill with tears over situations that many of us might not even notice. Is it possible to be so consumed with love that you are an intentional disciple although you have never been catechized or instructed in the official sense? Is it possible that there is a quiet mother somewhere who has given birth to one or two children and who spends her days nurtuting them; she seems not to produce much fruit, no one has converted in her name or by her example but her son or daughter, because of the love he or she received, goes on to found an order or discover a cure or lay down his life for others. How can we know when someone is producing fruit? It is too beautiful a mystery perhaps.
Katherine Coolidge
5 years ago
As a pastoral minister, I have used the information contained in Ms. Weddell's book in numerous workshops, presentations and trainings, presenting to over a hundred clergy, religious, lay ecclesial ministers, parish leaders and ordinary lay Catholics. It also shaped many initiatives at the parish level of which I have been a participant. When taken as a whole, the tools presented in this book: the thresholds of conversion, how to hold a threshold conversation, the story of Jesus and how to share it, foster anything but an elitist mentality among the participants. For those who have read this book independent of any presentation, the response has been overwhelmingly the same. For when ordinary Catholics who grieve the loss of post-modern young adult children, middle-aged once active parishioners to the evangelical churches or the land of the "nones" (spiritual but not religious), I often witness a hushed reverence, and an unanticipated joy at the prospect of tools that can help them build a bridge of trust to family, friend, neighbor, where once one did not exist. The opportunity to respectfully, compassionately, listen to the spiritual journey of another, in place of attaching a label, opens their eyes to a new way of evangelizing: through spiritual accompanying one another, at the grassroots, as inspired by the words of The Joy of the Gospel (173). Their eyes light up and the voice says "Yes!" to the words of C.S. Lewis, "Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses." I often hear stories of healing and reconciliation with family, friends, neighbor from those who have read the book, or attended some parish training where these tools were presented. Those involved in parish ministries find these tools very applicable to present and future parish programming--including the programs offered by the organization for which Fr. DeSiano is president. For those who persevere to the end of her book, Ms. Weddell summarizes the sentiment expressed by so many who have found her work a way forward in today's world with this quote, again from Lewis: "It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbor. The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbor's gloy should be laid on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken."--Weight of Glory
John Corr
5 years ago
It seems to me that the Church was shrinking in the U.S. and Western Europe before anyone thought it might be good idea. It is especially sad to see how many young people do not find the Church relevant.
5 years ago
Too often the ideal for who is a true disciple or a true Catholic has been judged in the same way that the world judges: the more busy, the more involved, the better the Christian, i.e. the extroverts win the prize. This is negating the value and self-donation of all those whose call is to the hidden way of contemplation. Perhaps we should take to heart Matthew 7:1ff, "Stop judging, that you may not be judged."


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