The Story of My Life (or, Why Sherry is a Goddess) Print
Written by Michael Fones   
Wednesday, 24 January 2007 16:37
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.