The book has come at an interesting moment in my life when I find myself reflecting upon my years that I have spent in this particular parish. In a way, Weddell's book has put a name and a "system" to much of what has been my experience as a pastor in this parish. At the heart of our life together has been a lived discipleship. The focus of our life together has not been various projects and events, but rather building up our communion together by being a band of followers--disciples of the Lord. The more that we have become disciple friends, the more others have been drawn here. And the more others have been drawn here, the more we have become convinced that Jesus keeps his promises.
Weddell's book confirms with facts and figures what I suppose is instinctual to those who want to be part of the New Evangelization; namely, the status quo is not working. In a particular way, I have seen young people who are on fire for the Lord have cold water thrown on the flame of their zeal because others don't want them to be too extreme or too radical in their approach to the Christian life. There's sometimes a resistance--especially on the part of the clergy--to any signs of zeal. There's a milquetoast approach to parishes and dioceses that really suffocates the life out of people. It's as if everything is going so perfectly that we don't want to upset the perfect balance that we have. But, the fact is things are not going perfectly. If there has ever been a moment to try something new, this is the moment.
Weddell (and, of course, I am only part way through the book) identifies the critical problem as a lack of discipleship; a lack of intentional discipleship. She quotes a blogpost by an Orthodox priest named Fr. Gregory Jensen. When I read Fr. Jensen's post, I thought, "That's it!" I quote:
"I would argue what typically happens is that we ask people who haven't yet repented (and so who are not yet disciples of Christ) to take on work meant for apostles. Not only do we entrust philanthropic work to those who are not yet disciples of Christ, we also ask them to undertake evangelism and catechesis and serve on parish council. We might also bless them to attend seminary and ordain them to the diaconate or priesthood.
We do this because we are ourselves in the main not disciples of Jesus Christ. Having neglected repentance in my life, I am indifferent to it in yours . . . .Because we neglect repentance and the spiritual formation of the laity as disciples, we essentially ask people to carry burdens that are beyond their strength. Without an awareness of the gifts Christ has given them personally in baptism and without proper spiritual formation in the exercise of those gifts--and this includes an ethical formation in the limits that these gifts impose on my will--is it any wonder that people fail? We cannot ask even good and talented people who are not yet disciples to undertake the works only appropriate to apostles. And yet we do this all the time."
I think many ecclesial institutions are afraid of focusing upon discipleship because they have so many projects and good works that need to get accomplished. We are afraid that if we focus too much on the whole "Jesus" thing, we might disenfranchise people. So, we think that as long as the works get accomplished, the discipleship will somehow take care of itself. What winds up happening, however, is that it becomes increasingly impossible to accomplish all of the necessary works because the pool of committed disciples continuously shrinks. This isn't to argue that one needs to be Mother Theresa before you can serve on a parish committee. But, we really can't have somebody--no matter how well-intentioned--who is not a committed disciple teaching religious education or sitting on the Parish Council.
Similarly, when we see people who are committed disciples, we shouldn't shun them. Last week, there was an Extraordinary Form Mass at my parish and a cadre of college kids attended. Now some would say, "Well, those kids are trying to turn the clock back and we've got to get them out of that mindset." What are we doing??? A group of college kids came to Mass!! Let's encourage them! If another group (or the same group) of college kids wanted a charismatic prayer group, I'd say, "Praise God!" If they want to pray in Latin, in tongues, in English, with Gregorian Chant, Sanctus Real, or Casting Crowns, at Eucharistic Adoration, or in Bible Studies, who cares? They want to pray! They love Jesus. This is who we want to encourage.
I've often said to people, "You know, we've tried everything else, maybe we ought to give the Gospel a whirl?" People want to meet, know, and love Jesus. I admire what I see in a lot of the seminarians and youth ministers that I see coming into the life of parishes today. They are zealous for the Lord. And, even though there is still a resistance on the part of some in the Church towards anything resembling radical discipleship, I think those fortresses are crumbling. They are crumbling out of necessity. The parishes that try to perpetuate what has failed are on the path to oblivion. The focus has to be on the full Gospel, on forming disciples of Jesus Christ, and on living the Catholic life in its fullness.
One of the things that I have really loved about being a pastor is that I have become friends with my parishioners. And that friendship has made us all better disciples of the Lord. At the very heart of our life together is a friendship in Christ. This friendship in Christ has been at the heart of all of our projects and it has been the measure of all of our endeavors. The friendship is not built by avoiding certain aspects of the Gospel. The friendship has been built by embracing the fullness of the Gospel. Does that mean we all live it perfectly? Of course not. But, it does mean that at the very center of our life together is an undeniable fact. He is a fact that became flesh in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary. He is a fact that multiplied the loaves and the fishes. He is a fact that was crucified and rose. He is a fact that continues to dwell among us and to draw us to himself. He lives and is encountered in our friendship with one another. And he commands us to draw others into this friendship when he says, "Go and make disciples."