Tag Archives: forming intentional disciples

Thresholds of Conversion and RCIA

trust in god

This is a much-discussed topic at the moment. A lot of us are waking up to the fact that the ‘catechetical’ aspect of RCIA is the relatively ‘easy’ bit. We have some clear guidelines for catechesis (e.g. through wonderful organisations such as the Association for Catechumenal Ministry). It should be Christ-centred, scriptural, liturgical, systematic, kerygmatic. OK – so far, so good.

The difficult thing is the evangelisation bit.

One priest shared with me recently that when he moved to a parish, he implemented a thorough and solid doctrinal programme for the RCIA. And do you know what? The outcomes of this resulted in conversions seemingly no deeper than the previous, less thorough, less doctrinal programme had yielded. 

This is something we really need to take on board. Doctrinal catechesis does not necessarily lead to conversion.

I have been re-reading Forming Intentional Disciples on the thresholds of conversion (for a summary, see pp.129-130). Just to recap:

1. Trust: A positive experience, or friendship, which leads someone to have a relationship of trust with God or the Church

2. Curiosity: Someone is intrigued to know more – about Christ, or about some aspect of the faith

3. Spiritual openness: The person acknowledges to him- or herself that they are open to the possibility of personal change (this is not yet commitment to change)

4. Spiritual seeking: Moving into this threshold involves shifting into an active gear – an active search to know this God who is calling him or her begins.

5. Intentional discipleship: The decision to “drop one’s nets”, to make a conscious commitment to follow Jesus in the Church

Sherry Weddell suggests that the fourth threshold (spiritual seeking – the first active stage) is the perfect time to enter the formal Catechumenate in RCIA. This makes sense to me. Only when one is actively seeking God is one open to receive catechesis, the handing on of Christ and the Faith of the Church in relation to him. This fits in well with some principles in the General Directory for Catechesis. There it speaks of the importance of the “activity” of the catechised (n.157) – catechesis reflects the pedagogy of God himself, which invites an active response. Unless someone is at the beginnings of a relationship with God, there is little hope of a response in the way that catechesis, by its nature, requires.

So, this leaves us with a big question… How can the evangelisation/enquiry period of RCIA usher a person from ‘curiosity’ (which presumably they have in order to come at all) through to ‘spiritual seeking’ before they celebrate the Rite of Acceptance?

This big question can be broken down into smaller ones, which I am pondering, and invite you to share your thoughts on, too!:

  • What length of time should generally be expected for this shift to take place? Is a standard enquiry period of 12 weeks long enough?
  • How soon do we discover which threshold a person may be at? Perhaps a conversation with a priest or experienced catechist or sponsor early on could help to establish this.
  • What precise goals can we create for enquiry to lead someone towards the beginnings of an active faith?
  • And what do we do when someone cannot manage to pass through the thresholds, but is eager to enter the Catechumenate?

Some biggies… but ones I think we should tackle! 😉

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“Where next?”

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It often happens that you get to the end of a really fruitful programme/course/series in your parish, and people start to ask, “What’s happening next?” “We want to continue, this has been the experience of something new!” If your parish has a strategy for adult formation, then the answer is easy, because perhaps you have a number of options lined up for people who have just dipped their toes in.

But, the reality is, there are few parishes out there with a strategy for adult formation. If only!

And yet, the time at the end of a course that has awakened people’s faith, ignited their enthusiasm, and formed community, is absolutely crucial. All these little ‘sparks’ of faith and enthusiasm have been lit, and we now need to take responsibility to ‘fan’ them into stronger flames, help conversions deepen, mature, and equip people to start reaching out to others.

Firstly, if there is any chance at all of forming a small team of intentional disciples to look at adult formation, if your priest is keen, and together you can draw up a strategy, I think this is ideal. This way, a team can look at the general demographic of the parish in the light of “intentional discipleship” – what do people need? Which ‘thresholds’ are people stuck on? Which particular groups of people do we need to reach out to? There is never a single answer to address everyone’s needs, which is why I think parishes that offer lots of different formation alternatives, at different levels, are the most successful.

Secondly, if there is no possibility of such a strategic approach – perhaps your priest is not really on board, or perhaps it seems you are the sole intentional disciple in your parish! – you can still ask some of the questions above, only on a smaller scale. Above all, pray. Learning how to discern the next steps is essential, and this means frequent prayer to the Holy Spirit to show us the way. We might want to ask ourselves: Which is more urgent – deeper formation for those already committed, or primary evangelisation of the Mass-on-Sunday-Catholics? Perhaps the former needs to happen first, in order to gather a team for the latter? Prayer must underpin our efforts – especially if we are few in number, and especially if we have lots of different ideas – so that the Holy Spirit may lead us to invest our efforts where God wills – and this will be different from parish to parish.

It’s important to remember, too, that the evangelisation and formation of our parish is a matter of pastoral governance, which means that our priest needs to be at the heart of it – he’s the spiritual father of this community. So, while we are free as a bird when it comes to evangelising our friends (in fact, it’s a duty of our Baptism), when it comes to the parish, we need the priest at the centre (even though he’s not the one doing everything – and he shouldn’t be). Maybe in some cases the very first place we need to start is in praying for our priest…

Finally, nearly two years ago, I wrote this post on leadership after being at the HTB Leadership Conference and being blown away (excited to be going again in May!). (There is nothing like a bit of evangelical Christian passion and vision to blow away the negativity and blame-game-approach we often experience in the Church (sorry… but it’s true)!) One of the main points I took away was that you do not need a position to lead. Often we wait for someone to ask us to do something. But if you see something that needs to be done, and you have a passion for it, just go ahead and do it! That was two years ago and it’s still with me…


Three Journeys

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I’m re-reading Forming Intentional Disciples, people… Yes, in fact, I think I could read it three or four times. You might want to revisit with me some of the key points, because often we can read something, think how wonderful/true/insightful that is, and then promptly forget about it. In this instance, the concept that has struck me is the idea that discipleship involves three distinct journeys, which should happen together, but often are treated separately. Just to remind you (from p. 54):

  •  The personal interior journey of a lived relationship with Christ resulting in intentional discipleship;

  • The ecclesial journey into the Church through reception of the sacraments of initiation;

  • The journey of active practice (as evidenced by receiving the sacraments, attending Mass, and participating in the life and mission of the Christian community).

The interactions of these three journeys play out in many ways. We all know swathes of Catholics who have completed the middle (sacramental) journey without the first or the third becoming a reality. Perhaps they are even lapsed. We might even know many who are well-advanced in the second and third journeys – they bake cakes for the fundraising event, take their children to and even teach on sacramental programmes, and sit on various parish committees.

But if the evidence of the book is correct and only 5% of parishioners are “intentional disciples”, this means that a staggeringly large percentage (95%?) are ‘stuck’ in this third journey. Perhaps they enjoy the community of their church, perhaps they appreciate the liturgy, perhaps they are keen for their children to be brought up in the faith. But they have not experienced the life-giving and transformative power of a personal, intimate, daily relationship with Jesus Christ.

Which is what it’s all about!

Let’s be clear that this is the main reason of existence for our parishes. We can draw people in to sing in the choir, be on a buildings committee, help with a First Communion programme. But unless these are the first steps into a living relationship with Jesus, we seem to be missing the point.

What do you think? In your experience, how do you see the interactions of these three journeys in your own parish life? 


Quick Takes…

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I love what Mgr. Charles Pope has written in this article on the plan he’s made for children’s catechesis in his parish. What I love most is his realisation…

It became clear to me in that moment that we could no longer do business as usual when it came to catechesis.

I love it because it is so courageous to stand back, look at what you’re doing (which you may have thought is GREAT for so long) and to say – in all honesty – is this working? What Mgr. Pope identifies as key is telling the kerygma. He does it in three sections – Sin – Redemption – Grace. It seems to me that sometimes the most effective plans for catechesis are the most simple.

~2~

I stumbled across Mgr Pope’s article on the Forming Intentional Disciples Facebook Forum, which, if you have not been there yet — is BUZZING. Go and check it out! I cannot keep up with it, truth be told, let alone enter into any of the great discussions happening on there. If I get sick for a week or so, that’s where I’d be spending my time 😉

~3~

In Portsmouth we’re excited that Sherry Weddell will actually be visiting us next June (cannot contain my excitement in fact). Even sooner than that, though, we have Jeff Cavins, creator of the Great Adventure Bible Timeline, gracing our cathedral on 14th November – more details here.

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Just published by CTS is Fr Stephen Wang’s, The New Evangelisation: What it is and how to do it. I’ve started reading it and it’s excellent. There are also very practical examples of new evangelisation initiatives in the UK. A must read!

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Finally, still on the topic of the new evangelisation, I leave you with this wonderful short clip of Nightfever. I cannot believe I have not even been to Nightfever yet, since so many of my friends in London coordinate it, and it takes place every six weeks in St Patrick’s, Soho – a church close to my heart. I am praying that one day we will be ready to host Nightfever in Portsmouth Cathedral – it is such a simple yet brilliant tool for the new evangelisation – inviting people off the streets to come into church, light a candle, come before Jesus. It is EXACTLY what Pope Francis is calling us to do.


The Enquiry Phase

Photo courtesy of Jeremy Keith

Photo courtesy of Jeremy Keith

We had an interesting exchange here about the point of the enquiry period of the RCIA. I know of few parishes who even do this, and I feel it is one of the most important parts to get right in RCIA.

I’ve been at RCIA sessions before that are sound and rich in doctrine, and yet because of a lack of affective, spiritual conversion within the participants, little impact is made. It’s like a puddle of water sitting on the surface of the earth without sinking in.

So, I thought it would be good to revisit the principles of this phase – which I believe should be part of a good Confirmation programme, too.

The RCIA tells us that, before they are ready to celebrate the Rite of Acceptance, “the beginnings of the spiritual life and the fundamentals of Christian teaching have taken root in the candidates” (RCIA, 42). What is meant by “beginnings of the spiritual life”? The rest of the paragraph gives more information: there “must be evidence of the first faith” and there “must also be evidence of the first stirrings of repentance”.

In other words, there must be an initial adherence to Jesus Christ, the beginnings of a relationship with Him, the initial desire to give our life over to Him.

“First faith” is someone’s spiritual awakening, the realisation that “Jesus is Lord.” This simultaneously causes the “first stirrings of repentance”. Part of the process of adhering to Jesus, is seeing our life in His light, and repenting of our sin.

In my understanding, I think this corresponds somewhere between the third threshold (openness) and fourth threshold (seeking) in Sherry Weddell’s Forming Intentional Disciples (see one of my posts on this great book here). It is the bridge between passive curiosity and active seeking. We encounter Christ, begin to ‘fall for Him’, and want to take things further. As one RCIA leader put it, the enquiry phase is the “dating” phase.

Everything in the enquiry phase, therefore, is introducing someone to Jesus, inviting them to “taste and see” his goodness, to lead them to an encounter with him. And to remove any obstacles that may be in the way of this encounter.

As RCIA 37 puts it –

“From evangelisation, completed with the help of God, come the faith and initial conversion that cause a person to feel called away from sin and drawn into the mystery of God’s love. The whole period of the precatechumenate is set aside for this evangelisation, so that the genuine will to follow Christ and seek Baptism may mature”

My experience in the parish was that, once we established an enquiry phase and gave people time for this to happen, the fruits of the Catechumenate were far, far greater. It was like the earth was turned over and the water could sink in.

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In contrast, what do we typically see in parishes? (Here I’m thinking of parishes with a doctrinally solid RCIA.) I think sometimes we see adults receiving catechesis that is too advanced, too soon. They listen to a wonderfully rich exposition of the “four marks of the Church”. But, without a growing relationship with Christ, do they know what this means for their life? Or is it like water sitting on hard earth which will soon float away? All doctrine needs to nourish spiritual life. If the interior life is not yet there, teaching doctrine (unless in a deeply evangelistic way) will have little effect.

So, what do we need to do in the enquiry phase? In our precatechumenate, we started with some simple sessions: ‘What is faith? Why do we need it?’; ‘What is the purpose of my life?’; ‘How can we know God?’; ‘Why did God create?’ We focussed on getting to know people, building community (the first threshold is establishing trust), answering apologetics issues that arose (the child abuse scandal; the problem of evil), helping people to establish a prayer life (bringing them every week – even the first week – for a short time of prayer in front of the Blessed Sacrament). We can ask catechists or guest parishioners to share their testimony. We can read through one of the Gospels together. We need to try and stay utterly focussed on Christ.

Once again, I think Pope Francis’s words in Brazil speak powerfully to this phase of the RCIA:

We are impatient, anxious to see the whole picture, but God lets us see things slowly, quietly. The Church also has to learn how to wait.

Only the beauty of God can attract. God’s way is through enticement, allure. God lets himself be brought home. He awakens in us a desire to keep him and his life in our homes, in our hearts. He reawakens in us a desire to call our neighbours in order to make known his beauty.


Organic Catechesis

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Well, I’m back again at the seminary doing my annual “catechetics-in-three-days” with seminarians who are doing an extended placement next year.

Much of what I am teaching is guided by the understanding in Weigel’s recent book that we are – and need to promote – moving into a model of ‘evangelical Catholicism’. The key points of Sherry Weddell’s book also fit very well into theme, especially what she writes about moving from an infant paradigm of catechesis into an adult paradigm. This leads to an interesting question – To what extent is moving to an adult paradigm for catechesis essential for ‘evangelical Catholicism’? DISCUSS! (Thank the Lord I am not a full-time teacher – I would be a nightmare!)

It is amazing what we have covered in a short space of time. We began with the Pedagogy of God in Part 3 Chapter 1 of the General Directory, which then became the overarching theme of everything else. The pedagogy of God really blows your mind when you think deeply about it, and transforms your understanding of catechesis. (Why is it that so few practitioners speak/write about it?!) We have used Mgr Francis Kelly a lot – examining his five goals of catechesis, and the ecclesial method.

Yes – I know – writers I’ve mentioned on here gazillions of times…

One of the exercises we did concerned ‘organic catechesis’. (This is part of ‘Catechesis 101’ if this is all Greek to you!) By organic catechesis, I don’t mean rustic focal pieces draped with greenery. Because in catechesis we hand on the Person of Christ, not just a stack of facts about the faith, it is important that we show the interconnections between the doctrines of the Faith. They are all connected in the Person of Christ. If we are teaching someone about a person, everything about their personality, characteristics, are connected. A list of unconnected bullet points will not reveal much about them. But telling the whole story behind them will. So, any doctrine needs to be linked into the ‘big picture’.

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A big old tree is a helpful image to have. The healthiness of its leaves depends on the firmness of its trunk. The ‘trunk’ is those truths of our faith which are ‘foundational’ – without these foundational truths we would not have the rest of the Faith. These are also sometimes called the ‘golden threads’ which run through the Catechism – on every single page you will find these foundational truths. What are these foundational truths? (Can you work this out?!)

In case it’s too late in the day to do much theological pondering, here they are…

  1. The Blessed Trinity
  2. The dignity of the human person
  3. The Incarnation – the Person of Christ
  4. The Paschal Mystery
  5. The Church

Whatever we teach – whether it’s doctrine on Purgatory, or the communion of saints, or openness to life within marriage – it is good to connect this doctrine to each of these foundational truths. It guarantees that we are teaching this doctrine within the whole picture of the Faith, and especially, teaching the whole Person of Christ. This ensures a rich, organic transmission of the faith. Read more in The Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Craft of Catechesis.


Catechesis and Sacramental Grace

Amid the boxes and moving arrangements this week and last, I have led a couple of sessions at the seminary on catechetics. Do you know what? This is one of my favourite things to do in my work. It is such a privilege to talk with seminarians about catechesis because we all know it is one of the Church’s greatest tasks in the coming decades, and it is great to impassion each other in this task.

Everything I’ve presented in these first two sessions has been rooted in the universal Church’s vision for the New Evangelisation – especially this year, the Year of Faith, with the establishment of the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelisation, the Synod, and everything that the Holy Father has encouraged us in. We have been exploring the catechetical documents’ guidance, but also looking especially at this fabulous new book you are going to get bored at me raving about: Sherry Weddell’s Forming Intentional Disciples. A reader of this blog told me I would absolutely LOVE it and he is absolutely RIGHT. I love it. I’ve been quoting it all over the place. I would love to stick a copy in the post to all my priest and seminarian friends. Maybe that’s exactly what I’ll do once all this Move Stuff is out of the way…

So, last week, we looked at the reality of the new situation which calls for a new evangelisation, in its ardour, methods and expression. We faced up to the fact that the vast majority of Catholics in our parishes are sacramentalised but not evangelised. And we looked at the role of catechesis in this new situation. This week, we talked about moving from an “infant paradigm” to an “adult paradigm” of catechesis in our parishes.

One thing I talk about a lot to our catechists, and have even spoken about at a parents’ meeting, is the levels of a sacrament. The outward sign of the sacrament effects the character of the sacrament, but the grace of that character only flourishes if there is a heart disposed to receive it. (If you want the “theology bit”, the three levels are: the sacramentum tantum, the res et sacramentum, and the res tantum.) This is the point of evangelisation and catechesis – without personal conversion, people are receiving buckets of sacramental grace without it having much effect in their lives. Anyway, I spoke about this – the connection between catechesis and the sacraments – with the seminarians, then, lo and behold, on the train journey home, there it was in chapter 4 of Sherry Weddell’s book. Much more articulately than I have explained here. She even says: “Whenever I have spoken of this possibility [of receiving the character of the sacrament without the grace] in public, any clergy present – even those passionate about evangelisation – seem stunned and bewildered. I have yet to meet a priest or deacon who has told me that this possibility was made explicit during his formation. No wonder we so seldom discuss the possibility that the graces objectively received may not manifest in the lives of individuals and in the midst of our communities.” There you have it. I think I may have found my soul sister.