SASKATOON — Parishes are called to be places of lay formation, said Katherine Coolidge of the Catherine of Sienna Institute, at a Study Days session offering practical suggestions for how parishes can create intentional disciples.
Creating a parish culture of discipleship is not a quick fix, but a process of conversion and transformation that can eventually build a faith community where Christians are called and equipped to be intentional disciples, she said.
“We can’t rely on our maintenance mode any more,” she said. “We are now called to mission.”
Beginning in prayer with the account in Acts 9:10-19 about Saul and Ananias, Coolidge asked participants to envision a model of church in which parishioners would be formed and equipped to act like Ananias, going out to walk as companions to those who are seeking to follow Jesus.
She stressed the importance 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.
Building parishes as a place of trust, with a culture of spiritual accompaniment and evangelization, becomes the basis for calling forth a deeper, life-changing commitment to living as a disciple of Jesus Christ, she described.
Coolidge provided “a few rules of thumb,” that included keeping the end in mind: making disciples and forming apostles. “Institutions do not make disciples. People make disciples.” Parishes should begin by making disciples of adults, who will then be key to making disciples of children and youth, she added.
At times, a parish’s culture will unintentionally suppress spiritual growth and conversion, she pointed out. “We have too often come to accept religious identity without personal faith as normal,” she said. The consequence is that the graces many Catholics have received may “bear little fruit” — it is as if we have received a gift that sits unopened.
Using examples of personal conversion, of parish transformation, and historical moments of renewal, Coolidge shared stories and encouraged participants to visualize steps to be taken in their own ministry or parish.
Rather than being “seed sowers,” Christians are called to be “fruit farmers” — actively working to nurture and support the branches of the vine, she said, citing John 15 about the vine and branches. “Our relationship with Christ is supposed to bear fruit for the life of the world.”
She noted that in a vineyard, each branch affects the ability of the other branches to bear fruit. Apprenticeship into the Christian life is needed to encourage a fruitful profession of faith and an authentic discipleship focused on the person of Jesus Christ.
Steps to becoming a parish of intentional disciples were provided, and included laying a foundation of organized intercessory prayer in the parish, offering multiple opportunities to encounter Jesus in the midst of the church, and “breaking the silence” to encourage and equip Catholics to share both their personal faith story and the Jesus story with others.
Throughout the two days Coolidge challenged participants to come up with practical ideas for what they can do in terms of intercessory prayer, opportunities to encounter Jesus and ways of encouraging personal faith sharing. She encouraged participants to identify concrete actions for their own faith community that would be within reach (but still a stretch) and sustainable, which would honour the parish’s culture, gifts and traditions, and would call the community to mission.
All evangelization and discipleship is grounded in the kerygma — the great story of Jesus. As Pope Francis wrote in Evangelii Gaudium, “The first proclamation must ring out over and over: ‘Jesus Christ loves you; he gave his life to save you; and now he is living at your side every day to enlighten, strengthen and free you.’ ’’
Coolidge stressed that all Christians are called to know and share the great story of Jesus, and to know the impact it has made on their own lives. As for how to share it with others, respect is key, she said. This includes respect for a person’s situation, respect for what they need, and respect for their conscience and convictions. Every person has the right to a “real spiritual choice,” she said, which includes the right to choose to follow Christ.
Most people need to hear the kerygma multiple times before they can personally respond. It must become normal for Catholics to talk about Jesus Christ, his life, teachings, death and resurrection, she said, with personal testimony serving as a bridge to Jesus.
There is a need for multiple opportunities for evangelization, and ongoing parish-based proclamation of the kerygma that matches the unique character and culture of each parish.
Following Study Days, Coolidge offered a “Called and Gifted” workshop on Oct. 21, designed to help individuals discover God’s call and to discern their charisms and gifts.