In my early days as a Catholic, I was always asking the wrong question, and reducing cradle Catholics to incredulous silence. Many of my problem questions were related to a single over-riding concern: wasn’t the Catholic faith supposed to change people’s lives? Over time, I began to recognize the startled look that would cross a priest’s face when I would say things like, “I must be receiving the Eucharist improperly” or, “I must not be confessing properly. It’s supposed to change me, isn’t it? I don’t seem to be changing. I must be doing it wrong.”
When I started graduate school, the issues became more global. When I did a paper on RCIA , I made an appointment with the local diocesan director of RCIA. I wondered aloud: Did parishes keep in touch with those received at Easter and monitor their Christian growth? Did they follow-up when a new Catholic stopped coming? The director gave me “the look” and responded that it would be invasive of the spiritual privacy of the newly baptized to keep in touch.
When I asked the director of Catholic education in the same diocese if they attempted to evaluate what children actually “caught” of the faith when attending Catholic schools, she shook her head. They had exposed the children to a certain number of liturgies, classes, and a Catholic “atmosphere.” She make it clear that to ask what the children understood of the Catholic faith, much less believed when they graduated, was to make a heavy handed numbers game of a delicate spiritual “mystery.”
I finally pulled a real whopper. I naively blurted out “Was “Fr. X effective?” at a parish committee meeting. When the woman across the table from me erupted in rage at my presumption, I finally understood. I was violating another one of those deeply held Catholic norms that wasn’t in the catechism but all “real” Catholics instinctively know. Never ask if you are being effective, never ask if you are having the desired spiritual impact. I sat through the rest of that meeting in stunned silence, thinking “I will never, never, never ever be Catholic enough. I will never understand Catholics if I live to be 100.” The irony is that the priest in question was none other than Fr. Michael Sweeney with whom I eventually founded the Institute. It turned out that he was asking similar questions!
These days, I’m more sensitive to the feelings of cradle Catholics but I’m still asking the same question. At every Making Disciples seminar, we ask, “What percentage of your parishioners would you consider intentional disciples?” Since participants are pastors, parish staff and leaders from dioceses all over North America and elsewhere, this always produces vigorous discussion and fascinating responses. Usually we discover that no one present has ever thought about this particular question before and it takes some wrestling to become clear about what is being asked. What do we mean by the term “intentional disciple”? Is an intentional disciple the same as a “practicing Catholic”? How would you recognize someone as an intentional disciple?
And then the educated guesses begin: Five percent? Ten percent? The highest estimate so far came from members of a tiny parish with 350 members who estimated 30% of their members would qualify. The grimmest assessment came from a west coast-based group of leaders who together came up with a startling ballpark figure: that probably less than 1-2% of their parishioners were intentional disciples of Jesus Christ! They all worked at big, extremely active parishes. And yet, the fact that most members of their parishes were not yet disciples had escaped them until that moment.
Over the past 10 years, I have worked with hundreds of parishes in 70 dioceses and I can only think of a couple that I wouldn’t call busy. Most appear to be busy seven days a week. Every inch of available time and space is filled with people and programs and yet parish leaders seldom ask, "What is the real, personal and spiritual impact of our busyness? Are we changing the lives of people?” We energetically move people through institutions and programs but suddenly freeze when it is time to evaluate what is the actual spiritual impact of our efforts.
The Vatican announced a few days ago that twelve million new Catholics were added to the Church in 2004. That’s wonderful, but as Catechesis in Our Time puts it so powerfully, many baptized Catholics are “still without any explicit personal attachment to Jesus Christ; they only have the capacity to believe placed within them by Baptism and the presence of the Holy Spirit.”
You have read it in the Scribe before: Disciples and Apostles don't “just happen.” Vocations don’t “just happen.” Weeds happen.
Disciples, apostles, and vocations are the result of an intentional plan and effort of a Christian community. A community that knows that if you build people first, they will create and sustain our institutions. A community that dares to ask, “Are we doing what Christ commanded us to do? How can we help every baptized Catholic experience a life-changing encounter with Jesus Christ? Are we challenging our parishioners to become intentional disciples of Jesus Christ? Are we helping them to become well-formed apostles who are effectively discerning and answering God’s call?"