SASKATOON — Forming Intentional Disciples was the theme of diocesan Study Days held Oct. 21 - 22 for parish and ministry leaders in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Saskatoon.
Katherine Coolidge of the Catherine of Siena Institute was the facilitator, presenting a vision for evangelization and faith outreach grounded in an encounter with Jesus Christ and nurtured in community.
Beginning with the account in Acts. 9:10-19 about Saul and Ananias, presented in the lectio divina style of Scripture reflection, Coolidge asked participants to envision a model of church in which parishioners would act like Ananias, going out to walk as companions to those who are seeking to follow Jesus.
“What would happen if parishes became places where people could encounter Jesus and become intentional disciples?” she challenged. “What would happen if parishes became places where maturing disciples could discern their gifts and their call from God to participate in the mission of the church?”
Coolidge presented an analysis of today's spiritual climate before engaging participants in understanding and entering into “the journey to intentional discipleship.” She encouraged her listeners to think concretely about how they can help others become disciples, and consider how parishes could foster such a vision.
Surveys and analyses show that a majority of Catholics are still living without an explicit personal attachment to Jesus Christ, she said.
“Many Catholics don't know it is possible to have a personal relationship with God,” she said, describing the stages of adult Christian development, and what is needed to help parishioners deepen their faith and move from being seekers to disciples, who are intentional followers of Jesus Christ, and eventually to being apostles, who take personal responsibility for the mission of the church.
Coolidge admitted she had no easy formula, but said the transformation required in parish culture takes time and effort.
She introduced the idea of “thresholds of conversion” along an individual's faith journey - a movement from initial trust to spiritual curiosity, that continues through spiritual openness, spiritual seeking and finally intentional discipleship.
“The majority of Catholics, practising or non-practising, are in one of the earlier, essentially passive, stages of spiritual development.”
Coolidge described initiating conversations that will assist others to “cross the threshold” to a deeper faith and a deeper commitment. It is necessary to learn to ask questions, to actively listen, and then to discern what stage an individual is at and respond accordingly, she said.
“Can you describe your relationship with God to this point in your life?” is a question that can start a threshold conversation, she suggested, stressing that this is not the time for catechesis or spiritual direction, interrogation or judgment.
Such “threshold conversations” require trust, and are supportive, inviting, respectful and open-ended, she stressed. “And it's a great way to change the culture” of a parish, she added, suggesting these conversations can take place wherever trust has been established.
Coolidge observed that curiosity is not the same as seeking, and stressed that seeking is active. “We may need to challenge a person to become a seeker,” she said. Encouraging seekers to try to follow Jesus by “doing” — serving others and praying - can help people move forward, she said. It is also helpful to let them hear about the journeys of other new disciples, while modeling and sharing the search for Christ in your own life.
Adding that people can't seek forever, she described the importance of a decision to “drop the net” and follow Jesus as a disciple. This takes a “different set of muscles” than seeking does. Accompanying someone spiritually at this point might include actually asking them to make a choice to turn their life over to God, or finding a setting or space, such as a retreat or time of eucharistic adoration, to experience a deeper conversion.
Using examples of personal conversion, of parish transformation, and historical moments of renewal, Coolidge shared stories and encouraged discussion to help participants visualize steps to be taken in their own particular ministry or parish.