How do I make disciples?

A talk for Youth 2000 Ireland.

How do we make disciples?

Brothers and sisters, I have good news for you. There are people in our churches today who passionately in love with Jesus, even though a few years ago they didn’t know Him at all.

How did this happen? Was it a pure miracle? Is it an accident? Or did it come from steps that are predictable and can be reproduced?

God’s grace is always a factor, and one that cannot be predicted. Jesus himself told the parable of the sower, explaining how some seed falls on good ground and bears fruit. Other seed struggles and fails to bear fruit for numerous reasons. Our job is to sow the seed.

But it’s also been said that we should pray as if everything depends on God, and then work as if everything depends upon us. There are lessons we can learn from people who’ve gone from no faith at all, to becoming passionate followers of Jesus. You might call these people “intentional disciples” because they’ve made a personal decision not only to believe that Jesus is risen from the dead, but to truly make him the Lord of their lives. 

In the USA, evangelical Christians fund full-time evangelists to work on university campuses. These evangelists set out to build relationships with students and invite them to Christian study groups. Don Everts and Doug Schaupp are two such ministers, Everts working in Colorado and Schaupp in California. From the start of the 1990s – around the time that Youth 2000 was born, in fact – they sensed a cultural shift: postmodern young people were no longer willing to accept claims about Jesus and Christianity made by authority figures; they now required authentic witnesses. A person like themselves, testifying to how Jesus had changed their life, would have much greater influence than Bible scholars or church leaders.

After working with more than 2000 young people making the journey into Christian faith, Everts and Schaupp noticed a very predictable pattern of conversion, one that played out time and time again in different ways in different lives. They wrote up what they found in this book, entitled “I once was lost.” They found that the common factors could be summed up as five steps or “thresholds”. From time to time they would review new conversion stories to see if any of them fail to fit this pattern, but so far Everts and Schaupp have found that the thresholds continue to be a reliable description of the path of conversion.

But is this true in a Catholic context? Yes! A laywoman and convert to Catholicism, Sherry Anne Weddell, works for the Siena Institute in Colorado, alongside Dominican priests. Sherry noticed how these same steps were present in the stories of the Catholic converts she was working with, and published what she found in her book Forming Intentional Disciples. I first read this book about 8 years ago, and when I did I shouted for joy as I turned the pages! At last, I felt someone understood my experience of being a convert to the Catholic faith! I’d been on lots of Youth 2000 retreats with their clear message that we called to follow Jesus, who was present in the Blessed Sacrament – but my experience of parish life, both as a layman and a priest, was that very few Catholics understood this. Rather, most of the Catholics I met were either concerned for helping people in poverty, with the Church as a convenient agency for organising the work, or concerned for keeping their local parish going as a place to meet in a building they loved. Neither group of Catholics seemed very keen on recruiting new members of the Catholic Church. Now this book provided the answer – most of these Catholics were on the journey of conversion, but they had not yet become disciples.

In her book, Sherry Weddell draws on the work of Everts and Schaupp, and discusses the same five thresholds of discipleship in a Catholic context. In other work and conferences, she notes that the journey of conversion doesn’t end with becoming a disciple, but continues as each member finds their role within the church. Today I’d like to summarise this teaching by introducing you to seven stages of spiritual growth in the journey of making disciples.

These apply both to a church-going Catholic becoming more intentional in their commitment, and a person making the journey from another religion to Catholicism. It is useful for anyone who wishes to make disciples to have a working knowledge of the thresholds – and more importantly, what is most likely to nudge a person hovering at one threshold towards the next. Based on interviews with hundreds of priests, Weddell estimates that only around 5% of Catholics in a typical parish have become intentional disciples.

The first step requires a person to establish a relationship of trust with Christ, the Church, a Christian believer or something identifiably Christian. Without trust, there can be no conversation. In the present conditions of the pandemic, there are few opportunities to meet new people so we should be mindful of the relationships already present in our lives. If you’re a Catholic, you probably know a lot of other Catholics who have ceased attending Mass, and some who go but don’t engage more deeply. Catholics who no longer attend Mass may have lost trust in the church for some particular reason – but they may trust you as an individual person.

In order to build trust, you need to do something very simple: become a brilliant friend. That’s not something you need religious instruction for – it’s a natural human skill. I can’t teach you how to do that – it comes out of your unique gifts as a person.

The second step requires us to stir up curiosity in the mind of the person who trusts us. When I first became a Christian, I heard advice that I should simple live out my Christian values and wait for people to ask me why I lived that way. After 10 years of doing this with no-one asking, I decided this wasn’t going to work as a strategy for drawing others to Christ and the Church. No, we have to be willing to find suitable moments to speak about Jesus! But we mustn’t become a bore. We must be equally willing to take an interest in the other person’s religious viewpoint. So listen first, then speak.

Once a trusting relationship has been established, you can share the story of your own faith as a natural part of that relationship. No-one can dispute your own lived experience, because on this you are the world’s foremost expert! 

We can find natural ways to speak of how faith is part of our lives. For instance, someone at work on Monday morning says, “What did you do over the weekend?” – if you went to church, say so, as if it were the most natural thing in the world! We should expect that our conversation partner has, at best, only a polite interest in our religious faith, so we must be careful not to overstay our welcome. We can just mention one thing about Jesus or some aspect of the Christian faith. If our friends want to know more, they will ask!

We must be realistic about what we can achieve in a one-off conversation. Sometimes we will sow a seed of the Gospel, and never know it, but we will rarely reap an instant result. Most successful faith-sharing takes place in ongoing relationships. And from this point onwards I will speak of the person we are evangelising as a friend – if we have successfully built trust, we will surely treat that person as a friend regardless of the final destination of their religious journey.

Everts & Schaupp describe campus events which they run aimed at the merely curious – not overtly religious events, rather using music, drama and other art forms to communicate Christian values and with a short slot to present something about Jesus in a way which dispels stereotypes and shows something of how radical Jesus is, to casual listeners. In a typical Catholic parish, many regular attenders have yet to pass Threshold Two, perhaps even Threshold One. Therefore, we must keep re-telling the Great Story of Jesus, which can awaken the desire to be a disciple, and we must emphasise that Jesus is someone with whom we can have a relationship today. This means we need to be ready to speak openly about our inner life of prayer and sense of relationship with God.

I’ve met dozens of young parents wanting their children baptised. I always ask them to tell me the story of their relationship with God, but often the answer they give is about the church – how they got baptised and made their first communion. They often don’t think of God as a person they can relate to – only as a label for “church stuff” For many of our churchgoers, their “relationship with the church”, or even their “relationship with a deceased relative” IS what they think of as their relationship with God. They can be helped by hearing testimonies from people who do have a relationship with God, and being encouraged to pray the Prayer of Openness – “God, if you are there, show yourself to me!”

So here are three practical things you can do:

  • Share your prayer life.
  • Use stories – this is what Jesus did. Answer people’s questions with one of his stories or something from your own life.
  • If someone’s already a member of a religious group, ask how they came to be a member. Very often, when I meet a Mormon or a Jehovah’s Witness, it’s a story of meeting someone who cared for them, not a spiritual or intellectual conversion. And in fact the same is true for new Catholics – in my experience 80% of RCIA attendance is because someone met a nice Catholic.

The third step is in red for a reason. It’s the most challenging of the whole process. It’s the threshold of Openness to the Possibility of Change.

The message of Jesus is challenging. When we take it seriously, it demands change in our way of life. A person may have to withdraw from a casual sexual relationship, or dodgy business dealings, to follow Christ with integrity. Even the most upstanding convert will need to exchange weekend leisure for regular worship. Many potential Christians waver for a long time at this threshold, and may be tipped over it by a major life-event. A friend on the threshold of openness might become very argumentative at this point. They are taking the challenge of Jesus seriously, and they know something life-changing is being asked of them. Naturally, their ego will put up resistance. Our task is not to argue back but to listen and to acknowledge their pain.

We might find that our friends engage in conversations about God – often asking the big questions about why a good God can allow evil in the world, or whether science has disproved God. (Spoiler: science has NOT disproved God – and I’m telling you this as a priest with a PhD in astrophysics – but that’s a whole other talk I could give you!) Someone who actively disagrees with you is willing to engage with you, and that’s good. Even if your friend is coming from a very different point of view, it’s important to be open, listen to what they say, and then you can have your own say.

An intense spiritual engagement, such as a Youth 2000 retreat or a parish mission, can stir up a new openness to God, nudging many participants through Threshold Three. But after the event, avoid the trap of channelling the new enthusiasm into ‘filling ministries’. Yes, you want new, keen volunteers to make your parish or prayer group work! But don’t rush the process. First offer the newly enthused members an ongoing opportunity to grow and be formed as disciples, and then the volunteering will come naturally.

So how do we hold and nudge our friends through this scary threshold of openness?

  • Speak honestly about your own struggles. Don’t sugar-coat following Jesus to make it seem easier than it is.
  • Help your friend explore the question “Where is God in this?” either in their struggles, or the story you are sharing.
  • Pray. This is a season for an intense spiritual battle. Double down on your prayers for your friend. If they are open, ask “Can I pray with you?”
  • This might also be a good time to invite your friend to come and experience Eucharistic Adoration. Explain that we believe Jesus is present, and just trust that He will connect with your friend when they come.

The fourth threshold is marked by a more active kind of seeking. Your friend has faced the crisis of knowing that God’s message demands change in their life, and has realised that hiding is not an option. So your friend now reaches out to God and is asking: “Are you the One to whom I can entrust myself?” Everts & Schaupp note that at this stage, a seeker will be asking questions specifically about Jesus – what did he teach, what examples did he give – rather than generically about God.

Only now will your friend be ready for true catechesis, and for exposure to different forms of prayer. This is no longer the time for attention-getting parables. Now is the time to give straight answers to their questions and suggest different ways of prayer they can try – guided Bible reading, the rosary and other devotions.

Balanced catechesis will show how a personal relationship with Jesus exists as part of a wider community – we come to Jesus through membership of a parish, where we receive the sacraments, and trusting that Christian teaching is clarified through the formal structures of the Catholic Church, which we call the Magisterium. In our liberal democratic culture, seekers may find it especially difficult to understand ideas such as the Church’s claim to have access to absolute truth, Catholic teaching on personal sin, and the idea of surrendering to Jesus as Lord. Young adults may find it easier to recognise the presence of sin in systemic problems in the way the world works – such as the way we fail to respect the Earth’s ecosystem – rather than personal failings.

At the fifth threshold, your friend has received enough satisfactory answers to their questions that they are ready to become a committed member of the Church, consciously follow Jesus and accept any major life-changes that this will require. When your friend has spent some time asking questions which show they are truly engaging with the big issues around following Jesus, it may be the right time to pop the question: “What about becoming a Christian? What about joining the Catholic Church?” – or if the person is already Catholic, “What about coming to confession and reconnecting?” If the response is “No”, a natural follow up is “Why not?”, and then deal with the blockages people present. Acknowledge your friend’s fear of “what would happen if I said yes to God”?

Everts & Schaupp suggest that intensive mentoring two or three times a week are important for supporting the new disciple during the ‘honeymoon’ of the first three months of their declared commitment to Christ – during which time the mentor ensures that the new disciple finds a place in a small group attached to their chosen worshipping community. In a Catholic context, a new person baptised at the Easter vigil then enters a few weeks of what is called mystagogia – reflecting on what just happened – but of course the convert’s inner journey could be months ahead of the Church’s liturgical cycle, and the true conversion of heart, that decision to follow Jesus, might need mentoring well before the liturgically ceremony which welcomes this publicly. 

Our Christian growth doesn’t end by becoming a disciple. Rather, any member of the church should look at the gifts and talents they have been given by God and ask “How can I use these to serve God in the church and in the world?” We can call these works “ministry”. There are many useful tools to help you reflect on your gifts and how to use them in God’s service, including the Clifton Strengthsfinder and the Siena Institute’s Called & Gifted material.

If you are free to discern a long-term or permanent commitment, you may also be asking the question, what is my vocation? Should I be a priest or a member of a religious community? Should I devote a few years of my life to full-time missionary work? The answer to these questions also flows naturally from an understanding of the gifts with which God has entrusted you.

Whether or not we choose to become full-time missionaries, Pope Francis has reminded us that all of us who are baptised are by that very fact called to be missionary disciples. 

Encouraging someone to take Jesus seriously, and therefore to become a Catholic, usually requires a relationship sustained over years. Can you share a meaningful message about Jesus if you only have 2 minutes for a conversation? Can you make a concrete invitation to say a prayer, or connect with a church, at the end of what you say? Do you expect to be able to nudge someone closer to Jesus?

It’s all too easy to blunder into enter this kind of conversation with judgement and expectation. “Why don’t you go to Mass? Why aren’t you pro-life? Don’t you believe Mary is appearing at such-and-such a place?” But in fact we have something much simpler to share. “You are loved. God created you to have a relationship with you. We human beings don’t love perfectly, but Jesus came to show us perfect love and to re-connect us with God.” And it’s that deliberate, personal re-connection with God which is crucial!

In Western cultures, we might find that 15% of the baptised Catholics attend Mass on any given Sunday – but some of those are going only once a month. In Ireland, until the 1990s, there was strong peer pressure to be seen to be going to Mass, but now the Catholic Church has become a toxic brand for many people. 

And then, how do we reach people who call themselves Catholics but who don’t engage with the Church? Many young people stop attending Mass in their teens or when they leave home for university. This isn’t so much a deliberate rejection of Catholicism as a failure to be drawn by it. A 2012 Canadian study of young Christians who stay (Hemmorhaging Faith 2012) indicates that young people who remain active in church have experienced God’s presence and seen prayers answered; they live in Christian communities where they feel able to wrestle with real spiritual questions including the Gospel story; and they have personal experience of adult communities living out Christian faith in authentic ways.

We recognise there are three distinct religious journeys in Catholic lives which don’t always match up: progress through the sacraments of initiation, active involvemehttps://cco.ca/nt in the church community, and the interior journey through the thresholds of discipleship. The Catechism of the Catholic Church recognises that there is the “first conversion” (1427) by which we become disciples and then the ongoing or “second” conversion (1428) which takes place once we are disciples and find our apostolate (the “missionary discipleship” which Pope Francis speaks about). The Church recognises (Catechesi Tradendae 19) that when we set out to catechise people we have to face the reality that many have not yet been evangelised. So we need to know how to evangelise – and not make the mistake of trying to catechise people who still need to hear the basic Gospel.

As individuals, we can seek to have conversations about faith with the people who trust us. There are useful booklets and study tools which can help you from a Canadian mission group, Catholic Christian Outreach or CCO – you can find them online. And as members of parishes, we can ask how our parishes can help bring faith to people with no faith. This is why I’ve drawn the thresholds of discipleship as a circle; as individuals, we make the journey from trust the intentional discipleship and ministry – and perhaps even vocation – but a PARISH becomes a pump where those who are already intentional disciples work to build bridges of trust with new potential members and the cycle continues.

A parish can become a vibrant disciple-making institution, but it needs to be intentional. Does your parish have a plan? An effective plan is to run a regular outreach course as the engine to bring future disciples to that key decision point of choosing to follow Jesus. Suitable courses include Discovering Christ, Alpha, and Sycamore. These courses provide a safe place for people to ask questions about God and Jesus: they are a safe starting place for outsiders who aren’t familiar with church language. For those who already ‘belong’ to church they can be an opportunity to take a fresh look at what we believe. Graduates of these basic courses can then join longer lasting small ‘connect’ groups where they can grow as followers of Jesus and discern how to use their gifts in the service of the Church. A healthy parish is an invitational parish, which invites those who are not already members to come aboard!

One cycle of Alpha or Discovering Christ is probably not enough to move a participant from Trust to Intentional Discipleship. But sustained work with a person can achieve this in around two years. When people reach the stage of Openness, supporting them with prayer is crucial; and we must recognise they are vulnerable to falling back, or hiding within a community which doesn’t seem to affirm their growth. Growing as far as Openness can be scary in a community which is mostly still at Trust! Who would want to become a disciple in a parish where you can’t see many disciples among the church goers?

Now that you are aware of the thresholds of discipleship, it may make more sense that there are also many people worshipping in our churches who are committed to something other than following Jesus. Many people will belong to a parish and be passionate about their community, and keeping the church building they worship in well repaired; they will raise money to fix the roof not to spread the gospel. Why? They are stuck at the threshold of trust or curiosity, believing in the community but not believing in the Lord in a personal way.

We will meet people in church who are passionate about serving poor, not because they love the Lord but because they love the people. Of course Jesus did tell us that the second great commandment is to love our neighbour; through his saying about the sheep and the goats it is clear that the way we treat our neighbours has an impact on our salvation. Saint James says that if we don’t love the neighbour we can see that there is a big question mark about whether our faith is real at all. All of us who are called to be disciples are obliged to love the neighbours whose needs we come across in our daily living. Some of us will also choose, as voluntary projects, to go out and seek those in need of help and give further help; but not everyone has the personal calling of being a devoted charity worker.

In parishes you may even meet those who say “we must do something for the young people”. Of course everyone in the parish notices when young people aren’t coming, or when they drop out at a certain age, particularly after confirmation. Many parishioners will be concerned to increase visible numbers. Now it’s not wrong to think about numbers. I have a number in mind: 100% – That’s the number of people I would like to invite to become followers of Jesus. We know we won’t achieve a 100% success rate; Jesus said so clearly. What’s crucial is that when you find yourself in that conversation about doing something for the young people, point out that if you make young people into disciples they will become passionate followers of Jesus who will want to come to mass and get involved in other church activities. Some will become enthusiastic servants of the poor out of their relationship with Jesus, and others will become young evangelists spreading the gospel to their peers, causing the church to grow. Disciples also give of their money generously! But only disciples will do all of these things. 

We can build buildings, grow congregations and carry out works of mercy without making disciples. But if you have limited resources, and a question of where to place your energies – I’d like to tell you this in the 12 years that I was a parish priest responsible for local church communities, I never once asked anyone to organise a fundraiser. When people freely volunteered to raise funds, I never blocked that, but I never asked anyone to focus their priority there either. What I did ask people to do was to focus on making disciples using courses like Alpha and Discovering Christ team because what happens when you make disciples? Disciples give generously and volunteer, and that’s when the church grows. When I took on my most recent parish it was in £50,000 of debt. Before I left, its bank balance was in credit and we had been able to install a computer projection system in the church. How? Not because I raised money for this purpose, but because I focused on making disciples. Seek first the kingdom of God and what you need will be given to you. That was advice from the master. I’ll let you into a secret: follow his advice and it works!

‘Making disciples’ is a process which embraces many stages of growth. It begins with primary evangelisation – proclaiming Jesus to those who do not yet know that He is the Risen Lord. It continues with catechesis, which truly begins when a person is actively seeking to be a follower of the Master. It finds its perfection when the disciple is ready to ask “What are my gifts? How can I use them in God’s service? What is my life’s vocation?”

Jesus blessed children and taught adults. Unfortunately we often do things the other way round. We try to teach Catholic answers to children who aren’t ready to ask the right questions, just because they are the right age for First Communion or Confirmation. But when adults come seeking a baptism for their baby, or a wedding ceremony, parishes often offer them what they want with a simple blessing. Why? Because there aren’t individual parishioners or outreach groups with the time to engage these adults in personal conversations about faith. 

The parish priest can’t do it all on his own! In my last parish I had about 50 requests for baptism, another 70 for First Communion, and about 10 for marriage each year. There simply isn’t time or headspace for one priest to have 130 ongoing conversations with parents this year and start 130 new ones in each subsequent year. But it shouldn’t all be on the parish priest – as Pope Francis reminded us, we are ALL missionary disciples, and a healthy parish should have many adults who could encourage faith in these families – especially parishioners who are relatives or neighbours of the applicants! I mean, parishioners like you! Your parish priest might be put off by your enthusiasm, and worry that you take your faith too seriously – but I encourage you not to compromise in your zeal.

As I said earlier, About eight years ago I read Sherry Weddell‘s book Forming Intentional Disciples, and for the first time in my life, I no longer felt alone as a Catholic disciple in a parish. I want to share something that Sherry wrote, which made my heart sing for joy. 

In her youth she spent time with a group of other young enthusiastic Catholics and together they agreed on this description of what a normal parish looks like. Sherry and her group agreed on seven “norms” for a Catholic parish.  

1. It is normal for lay Catholics to have a living, growing love relationship with God.

2. It is normal for lay Catholics to be excited Christian activists.

3. It is normal for lay Catholics to be knowledgeable about their faith, the Scriptures, the doctrinal and moral teachings of the Church, and the history of the Church.

4. It is normal for lay Catholics to know what their gifts of service are, and to be using them effectively in fulfilment of their vocation or call in life.

5. It is normal for lay Catholics to know that they have a vocation/mission in life (primarily in the secular world) given to them by God. It is normal for lay Catholics to be actively engaged in discerning and living this vocation.

6. It is normal for lay Catholics to have the fellowship of other committed lay Catholics available to them, to encourage, nurture, and discern as they attempt to follow Jesus.

7. It is normal for the local parish to function consciously as a house of formation for lay Catholics, which enables and empowers lay Catholics to do all of these Normal things.

 At last, here was someone else who “got it”! I wasn’t the only person in the world who believed a parish should be like this!

Now, my dear brothers and sisters, how do you feel about a church like this? Is this a church you’d want to join? Is this a parish you’d like to be part of? I think it is… but how do we bridge the gap between the reality of the parish where you live and worship at the moment, and what church could be?

 At last, here was someone else who “got it”! I wasn’t the only person in the world who believed a parish should be like this!

Only 5% of the regular Massgoers are deeply committed missionary disciples. But… if these disciples could be formed, inspired and given the right tools, they could double their number in mere months!

Here’s the thing. Whether a person attends Mass or not, you cannot know how far that person has travelled on the journey of discipleship unless you ask. If you only take one thing away from this talk, take this question: 

  • “Tell me the story of where God is in your life!” (or, for someone who has shared a messy life situation, “Where is God in this for you?”)

Ask this question whenever you get the chance – and then shut up and listen! Remember, for many people, “God” is just a label for “church stuff”. It’s easy for someone sitting in a congregation or prayer group to ignore information which has been “broadcast” to the whole audience. A one-to-one conversation forces the listener to engage – and often that engagement is enough to get the person thinking afresh about who God really is

Never accept a “label” without enquiring what it means. Even people who initially call themselves atheist or agnostic might admit to praying or being open to the possibility of some version of God! Try answering their questions with more questions – most people are only two “whys” from being forced to think about why they stand where they stand.

If you get the chance to ask a second open question, try this:

  • “If you could ask God one question which he would answer for you right now, what would it be?”

Such “threshold conversations” can be very revealing about where a person is at, and can themselves provoke the kind of reflection that helps a person pass through towards the next threshold. The more a person experiences positive conversations about faith, the more open they will be to talking about faith. And the more conversations YOU can have with people about faith, the more effective you will be at making disciples.

We need hope. Do we expect that people will become committed disciples? Do we write off good news stories from across the pond as “American cheerfulness” or the fruit of “North American resources”? One US parish which worked hard on promoting discipleship now has 40% of its Massgoers in ministry, estimates 25% are now Intentional Disciples, and its level of financial giving has gone through the roof. There is no reason to believe this cannot happen here, too – we only need to believe and act as if this can happen!

I’ve made an assumption that because you’re in the audience for this talk, you’re probably a disciple already, and keen to make more disciples for Christ. But perhaps there are some among you who are not. Maybe today is the first time you’ve asked yourself whether you’ve made a personal commitment to be a follower of Jesus, not just a member of the Catholic Church. If so, today is a happy day, because you can make a commitment to Jesus at any time! If you are not yet baptised or confirmed, you can seal your commitment by receiving these sacraments. If you have turned away from Jesus through sin, you can come to confession. But whether or not you need any of these sacraments, you can make a commitment to Jesus right now, today. 

I am going to show some words used by Pope Benedict XVI at a World Youth Day, words we can use as a personal re-committment or to make a commitment to Jesus for the first time. I’ll give you a moment to read these words to decide if you want to declare them today. After each line I will pause so if you wish, you can repeat the line out loud, or in the silence of your heart. Let us pray.

Jesus, I know that you are the Son of God, who have given your life for me. I want to follow you faithfully and to be led by your word. You know me and you love me. I place my trust in you and I put my whole life into your hands. I want you to be the power that strengthens me and the joy which never leaves me.

Brothers and sisters, you are missionary disciples. May God bless you as you go forth to win many followers for Christ.

A Donkey for a King

Homily to Members of Sion Community and Livestream Participants for The 14th Sunday of Year A.

 

A camel, a donkey and a centaur were making their way along the road to the Holy City.

Maybe you haven’t met a centaur before – they were common in Narnia and the legends of Greece, but you don’t see so many these days. Imagine the body of a horse with the chest, arms and head of a human… that’s a centaur. They have a habit of being too clever for their own good!

I’m not sure how long these three had been on the road – neither were they, for it had been so long they’d forgotten how they had even come to take this road together. The camel carried a heavy pack upon its back, filled with food and drink and luxuries. The donkey and the centaur were yoked together to pull a cart, into which passers-by threw all kinds of trash.

Onwards they went, inspired by a voice within them which kept murmuring ‘all will be well when you reach the holy city’. Eventually they came to a long stretch of desert road, where the going was hard and the grazing was scarce. But one day the camel smelled rich pastures in the distance and turned off the narrow road. “Shall we follow?” asked the centaur – but the donkey simply brayed and continued pressing forward, following that gentle voice within.

A day came when they met some philosophers upon the road, who spoke of secret knowledge. “There are books God doesn’t want you to read!” they said. “There are cosmic energies apart from God which can bring you healing and power over nature!” The centaur was fascinated, and kept daydreaming about what they seemed to promise! This was hard for the donkey – without her companion paying attention to that voice urging ‘onwards to the holy city’, she had to work much harder keeping the centaur on track, and their pace slowerd considerably.

At length, the camel caught up with them, looking thin and worse for wear. The food in the green pastures had soon run out, and bandits had taken all the luxurious good in his pack. Alone and tired, the camel was glad to find his friends, and for some days they walked on together as companions, heeding that voice which called ‘onwards to the Holy City’. But then came a day when the faint aroma of a she-camel on heat wafted through the desert air. Our camel had already sired many calves, but this temptation was too much to resist… and the camel left his companions, never to return.

The two remaining travellers pressed on, coming ever closer to the Holy City but not yet seeing it upon the horizon. One night the centaur looked up at the night stars. Hadn’t a star once led the camel and its wise owner to meet the infant King of the Jews? There were no miracles in the sky tonight, but perhaps there was a way to discern a meaningful pattern in the stars…

“I think we should go that way!” said the centaur, as they settled down for the night.

The donkey shook her head, but the centaur, full of his own wisdom, slept restlessly and dreamed of finding a short cut.

In the morning, the donkey awoke alone. Still yoked to the cart of rubbish, but now with no companion to help her pull, the poor donkey staggered to her feet, unaided and unbalanced. Just then a healthy young man walked up, with muscles weathered by hard labour. “Let me give you a hand, O donkey,” said the man, and lifted the other side of the yoke on to his own shoulders. Strangely the yoke felt much lighter in the hands of this man than it did on the back of the centaur – and the man seemed to know exactly where he was going. Now, instead of whispering “Come”, that inner voice exulted with delight, “Yes! You are on the road to the Holy City!”

Each time they stopped for a break, the man would gently release the donkey from her yoke and rub down her aching muscles. He would also remove some of the trash which people had piled in her cart, disposing of it safely – though the donkey could not see quite how the man got rid of it. Each time they were ready to go again, the man would tenderly strap the donkey back into the yoke and then lift his own side of the beam. “My yoke is light” he whispered to her, “but you cannot be rid of your burden until we reach the Holy City”.

Some days later, a shining city on a hill appeared in the distance, and as they drew close, the man guided the donkey aside to a yard, the trading place of another carpenter. The man greeted his colleague, and a conversation followed. The man then whispered to the donkey: “I must leave you here for a while. You will find food and water while you wait; have patience, and you will see me again.”

The donkey was puzzled. Until now, the man had seemed so sure of the way to the Holy City. Now, at its very threshold, he was saying that it was not time to enter. The centaur would have had an argument and stormed off. The camel would have been so pleased with the food and drink on offer that he probably wouldn’t have minded staying outside the city forever. The donkey hesitated, but decided to trust the man. She didn’t need to understand the reasons; he had proved that he was kind and gentle and she was willing to trust him like a child.

A few days later, some Roman soldiers came and seized the cart she had been pulling, breaking it up to make timber for the crosses at the place of execution.

Not long after that, a stranger appeared and spoke to the owner. She could hear nothing except the words “the master needs it”, as the stranger came close and led her out of the yard. Somehow the stranger carried a trace of a familiar scent which soon became stronger, as a smiling face appeared at the city gates. “May I ride on you, my friend?” asked the kind man – and together, they entered the Holy City.

The rest, as they say, is history. For the donkey, it’s her story. The question is, will it be your story? When God asks you to turn aside from the luxuries of this world, will you get the hump? Will you be the self-taught centaur of your own attention? Or are you willing to be a donkey for the King of Kings? The path is yours to choose.

Imagine That!

Homily to Members of Sion Community and D-Weekend and Livestream Participants for The 12th Sunday of Year A.

Today, I’ve got good news, and better news.

The good news is that today’s message comes with pictures.

The even better news is that, to avoid any technical failure, the images aren’t going to use technology. Instead, they’re going to be in your head.

Did you know your mind has a special part for generating images? That’s why it’s called your imagination!

So I’d like to invite you to use your imagination today to picture a sad story and a happy story – and I’m going to start with this one. So see what image comes into your head as you hear this story.

Very sadly this week, a 14-year-old died. He’d achieved a great deal during his short life. He was quite famous. He was ginger, and usually wore a colourful scarf – in fact he was quite good looking. He’d helped a homeless man find the confidence to put his life back together, and he’d become a media star.

I’m going to come back to this story later – just to help you remember, I’ll tell you know that the 14-year-old’s name was Bob. The second story is from my own life, and it’s something that happened when I was 22. Back then, I was a full-time research scientist working on my doctorate. Because the Government wanted scientists to be good at marketing their discoveries, I was sent on a two-week long business school. So there I was, with around fifty other science students who I’d never met before, and we were put into small groups.

So now, in your imagination, picture me with a tutor and four or five other students, people I didn’t know at all. The tutor has just asked each of us to share something unexpected about ourselves. I’ve come up with an idea, but I’m not sure whether I should share it or not. I mean, what would these other science students think of me if I said something like this? Would they tease me? Would they think I’m not a proper scientist at all?

Oh, you want to know what I was thinking of? OK. It’s this. About three years earlier, I’d won a college prize for an essay I wrote. It wasn’t about science – it was about religion. My essay was about places where people claimed the Virgin Mary had appeared with messages for people. But could I, should I, dare I, share with these other students my belief that Mary the Mother of Jesus was alive in heaven and could appear to people on earth? Imagine yourself in my position. Would you do it? Or would you try to think of something safer?

I did it!

And you know what? It was OK! The other students, and the tutor, were fascinated and they asked me lots of questions. I don’t think any of them were religious believers, but they were really open minded. In fact, some of them said they thought what I had done was really cool!

Sometimes we find support in unexpected places. There again, sometimes the people we think would support us, don’t. Maybe we’re at a Catholic school but if we put our hand up to answer a question in Religious Education, we get mocked by our friends. If we make a comment on social media that backs up our Catholic faith, we might get flamed for it – and not only by unbelievers but by other Christians who think we’re being too hard or too soft! Jeremiah hoped the Jewish community would support him, but they threw him into a pit!

Now, back to Bob, with his colourful scarf. Do you have a picture in your head of this likeable, ginger, 14-year-old? How many legs has he got? You’re probably thinking “two”. But hang on, I asked the question, and Bob has died at 14 so maybe he had an accident? One leg? None? Wrong again. The famous Bob who died this week had four legs! He was a ginger cat, the inspiration behind the film A Street Cat Named Bob.

How did a cat become famous? It was through James Bowen, a recovering drug addict, who had been sleeping rough on the streets of London. He met Bob, a homeless cat, just after being given a flat to live in. But Bob wouldn’t stay close to the flat – he kept following James everywhere, and that’s what made the difference.

Imagine what it’s like, trying to earn a living on the streets of London. Maybe you’re busking with a guitar. Maybe you’re trying to sell the Big Issue magazine. How many people are going to ignore you? How many will stop to talk to you? How many will actually treat you like a human being?

Now imagine doing these same things with a ginger cat – plus his bright striped scarf – perched on your neck or next to your loudspeaker. Suddenly the passers-by who aren’t interested in you are very interested in your cat! This attracted the attention of a local newspaper, and then a literary agent who said “You should write a book about Bob!” which led to a film and Bob’s worldwide fame.

James Bowen was blessed to meet Bob when he did – it gave him the focus he needed to turn his life around. Our job is to look out for people who aren’t so lucky. Jesus saw something in people who might have been ignored. If we’re disciples, if we learn from Jesus, we have to do the same. Is there someone in our school class or workplace that nobody wanted to talk to? What are the chances that no-one’s bothered ringing this person to see how lockdown is going for them? You could be the person who rings!

This is where our imagination gets in the way. We might imagine if we reach out to the least popular person we know – or if we’re seen to take church too seriously – we might lose some friends. But we’re using our imagination the wrong way. Imagine the last day of your life, when you get to meet Jesus face to face. What’s going to happen? Is Jesus going to shake his head sadly and say “You didn’t stand up for me – and you didn’t help the person you know gets left out?” Or is Jesus going to smile and say “Well done! Come in and receive your reward!”

So now imagine what you could do today or tomorrow to make the world a better place. And don’t just imagine! Dare to make your dreams come true!

Call Me

Homily for Come All Who Thirst, for Members of Sion Community and Livestream Participants for the Saturday before Pentecost, 2020.

St John’s Gospel was written in Greek, a language which has several different words for ‘love’ – and two different words were used in this passage. We can miss what’s going on when we rely on our English translation, so let’s hear that again, with a possible interpretation. 

Jesus said to Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me enough to die for me?”

Peter replied: “Yes, Lord; You know that I’m your friend.”

Jesus said to him, “Feed My lambs;” and then Jesus asked him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me enough to die for me?”

Peter replied: “Yes, Lord; You know that I’m your friend.”

Jesus said to him, “Look after My sheep.” Then Jesus said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, are you truly my friend?”

Peter was grieved that Jesus asked him this third time, “Are you truly my friend?” and replied, “Lord, You know everything; You know that I’m your friend.” Jesus said to him, “Feed My sheep.”

Jesus then said to him, in his most serious tone:

‘When you were young you put on your own belt and walked where you liked; but when you grow old you will stretch out your hands, and somebody else will put a belt round you and take you where you would rather not go.’

In these words he indicated the kind of death by which Peter would give glory to God. After this he said, ‘Follow me.’

They say that if an offer seems too good to be true, it probably is. If someone is offering you a free gift, you might instinctively ask, “What’s the catch?”

This weekend is all about a free gift. The title, “Come All Who Thirst” is taken from the prophet Isaiah, who called upon people with no money to come and buy wine and milk – but to buy them for what he called “not-money”.

The story of Jesus is the story of a man who said “Follow me, and you will enjoy eternal life!” He preached the forgiveness of sins – whatever you have done wrong in your life, say sorry and you can start again! He didn’t want anything in return – except our loyalty. In other words, our entire life!

St Paul didn’t believe Jesus was a messenger from God until he had a dramatic, powerful encounter with the risen Jesus on the Road to Damascus. That was enough to cause him to reverse the entire course of his life and become a preacher for Jesus. Friends and prophets warned him not to visit Jerusalem, but he went anyway, and to no-one’s surprise, was arrested by the skeptical Jewish leaders and handed over to the Roman Governor. Paul chose to gain attention for his message by making a dramatic appeal to Caesar, the Roman Emperor. If he hadn’t, he might have been released quietly – but to find out what actually happened, tune in to tomorrow’s Mass!

St Peter, by contrast, had failed to stand up for Jesus in public once, and faced the embarrassing but tender moment we’ve just seen when Jesus restored his dignity. There’s a legend that when Peter was later living in Rome, he tried to escape from the city but met Jesus walking the other way. “Where are you going, Lord?” – “Into the city to be crucified again.” According to the legend, St Peter turned round and the Lord disappeared. Or maybe the real Peter had already learned his lesson, and didn’t run away that time.

Both Peter and Paul ultimately found the strength to stand up for Jesus. Both of them accepted the deal Jesus offered: Give me your life on earth, and I will give you heaven. Both of them tasted the living water that Jesus promised, the power of the Holy Spirit – both of them were able to let God’s power flow through them to heal the sick and raise the dead.

Giving our life to Jesus doesn’t mean we have to abandon our families or join an order of monks, nuns or missionaries. It does mean we look again at our values, we place God at the centre of our life, and put the needs of our neighbours before our own. We don’t have to wait for someone to put a belt around us – we can surrender our hands into the service of others by our own free will.

This weekend is an invitation to take a risk. Come close to Jesus. Believe that he really offers a free gift worth having. We do need help and support on our journey, but Jesus offers us his Holy Spirit who comes to bring us gifts, and courage.  I’ll be saying more about what it means to do this at this evening’s mission event. Jesus asks: Do you thirst for me? Do you thirst for a life with God which will never end? Come, All Who Thirst, and follow me!

The Challenge to Change

Homily at the Sion Community Family Day for the Second Sunday of Advent, 2019.

Today, I want to talk about someone whose lifestyle seems a bit extreme, and whose message makes us feel uncomfortable. Someone we might admire from a distance but might not want to get too close to. Someone people in authority either criticise, or want to be seen alongside.

I’m talking, of course, about Greta Thunberg.

In case you need a reminder, she’s a 16-year-old Swedish climate activist who’s become the figurehead of the climate strike movement – older school pupils protesting that politicians and responsible adults need to act quickly for the good of our planet. Because of her deeply-held principles she is a vegan and refuses to travel by highly-polluting vehicles like aeroplanes or ocean-going ferries. This became a problem when she was invited to address the United Nations in New York, until the crew of a yacht volunteered to sail her across the Atlantic. She’s just arrived in Spain, after another yacht trip – a climate conference which was supposed to be in Chile was moved to Europe at short notice!

Someone like Greta Thunberg provokes strong reactions, but different people react in different ways.

“You’re just wrong.” Does Greta really understand what’s going on with our planet? Some say there’s simply not enough evidence for climate change driven by human use of coal, oil and gas. As a scientist, I know that with something as complex as the climate, we might never be able to prove that our actions are responsible beyond reasonable doubt – but I think we can say that on the balance of probabilities, if we go on as we are, our only planet will be in big trouble during my lifetime. 

“I don’t want to admit you’re right.” That’s called denial. If Greta is right, we all need to make significant lifestyle changes, eating less meat, consuming less energy, living a more simple life. These things aren’t easy. And when someone’s asking you to do something difficult, it’s a natural reaction to attack the messenger. For instance, although Greta has crossed the Atlantic twice now by wind-power alone, some of the crew members of her yachts, there and back, had to fly into position to make it possible. Is that ideal? No, but there isn’t a scheduled yacht service offering regular carbon-free ocean crossings. It’s easy to criticise – but if that’s just a way of avoiding the real issue, don’t!

“I admire you.” It’s easy – indeed, many people would say it’s fashionable – to jump on Greta’s bandwagon. It’s easy to re-tweet her messages and even turn out on a climate protest waving placards. But we can fall into the trap of saying it’s somebody else’s problem. Yes, we’d like our politicians to ‘do something about it’. And there are some things they can do. They can spend our tax money on research into green energy and building more wind turbines, tidal lagoons and solar farms. They can regulate waste so that we recycle more and buy fewer carrier bags or disposable cups. These things will help in the long term. But beyond that, what do we expect our politicians to do? They could pass laws rationing our meat supply, and cutting off our electricity for 8 hours a day. Would we vote for that?

“I’m with you.” Ultimately, Greta will only be successful if she persuades us to make big changes in our lifestyle. Greta’s own mother, an international opera singer, sacrificed her lifestyle – no more flying – when her daughter asked, “Why are you stealing my future?” The Bishop of Salford, John Arnold, has just made a video where he talks about his own lifestyle changes: Don’t fly unless it’s unavoidable. Share lifts and use public transport when possible. Turn off electrical items which are on standby. Turn the temperature down and wear an extra layer! CAFOD (and Pope Francis) would add that we should shop for food grown locally; reduce – reuse – recycle; and simply avoid buying things we don’t need!

Greta Thunberg isn’t the only possible answer to my question. St John the Baptist fits the bill as well. Greta’s message is “Change your behaviour! The climate catastrophe is close at hand!” – and John the Baptist came declaring “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is close at hand!” Both of them are iconic campaigners for change – and both are wonderfully vague about what kind of change they actually want to see in our lives.

We can react to John the Baptist – and to the message of Jesus, which is what he’s all about – in exactly the same way people react to Greta. Some refuse to accept that Christian moral values have any relevance except for Christians who want to live by them. Others might point to the failings of the Church as an institution, or of individual Christians, to say that they’re off the hook. We might renew our Baptismal Promises and say we’re going to live like Christians, but then not think about what that means in practice. Or we could surrender and simply say to God: “Here I am! What change do you want in my life today?”

Advent isn’t Lent. Lent is all about identifying sin in our lives, as a preparation for the wonderful Easter gift of forgiveness. Advent’s something else. Perhaps Advent is the season which challenges us to ask not “What am I doing wrong?” but “What could I do better?” – after all, its climax is Christmas, the season of gift-giving and goodwill to all people. “Repent” doesn’t just mean “Stop sinning.” It also means “Turn your life around. Total change!” Isaiah presents us with images of the perfect Servant of God and of harmony in creation. St Paul’s letter to the Romans asks us to “think with one mind”. And since we’ve come together for a Family Day, let’s do just that.

Greta’s family decided together to make certain lifestyle changes. Jesus called a band of disciples together to learn to be his followers. In our families, and in our Sion Community houses, we can help each other, and hold each other accountable to the standards we know we ought to keep. So right now I’m going to pass everyone a slip of paper to write down at least one thing you could do. It doesn’t have to be about the environment – Jesus calls us to other good works, too! I’m going to give you some headings on the screen to help you think:

  • How could you pray together as a family?
  • What could you do to show appreciation for one another within your household?
  • How could you read the Bible together or study something about our Faith?
  • What could you do to bless your neighbour – and by that I mean someone you naturally come into contact with regularly, it doesn’t have to be the family next door.
  • What could you do to live a greener lifestyle?
  • Which good causes might you support financially next year?

I’m going to give you a few minutes now to think and pray about one thing you could start doing, either tomorrow or after Christmas. When you’ve written something on your sheet, I want you to give it to another member of your family or Sion Community household. Later today, or when you get home, compare your notes. Is there something positive we can help each other to do? As the saying goes: “We must all hang together, or we will all hang separately!” St John the Baptist warned us that we must change our behaviour because God’s Kingdom is close – a promise that we can make earth a little more like heaven, and a warning that God will be checking up on us soon!

The Things We Haven’t Done

Homily at 3 Churches, for the 19th Sunday of Ordinary Time.

One morning, at the start of class, a schoolgirl spoke to her teacher.

Please Sir, can I ask you something? Should a person be punished for something they haven’t done?

“Of course not,” replied the teacher, “No-one should be punished for something they haven’t done.”

“That’s good!” said the girl. “Please Sir, I haven’t done my homework!”

Today’s Gospel starts with a lovely picture of Jesus serving his friends. But then St Peter asks “is this for us or for everyone?” He’s probably not expecting what happens next – Jesus paints a surprising picture of how God treats his “servants”. For those who claim to be disciples, a higher standard is expected. The wicked servant who abuses his master’s trust is dismissed – that’s an image of Hell. The lazy servant who did know what the master expected receives many strokes of the lash – that’s an image of Purgatory. More surprisingly, the one who didn’t know what the master expected, but failed to deliver, is punished. Only lightly, but still punished – by the master who represents God!

Does this mean we’re dealing with an unreasonable God who expects results and deals with us unjustly? No. But there are two things we must remember to avoid reading this parable the wrong way.

The first thing is that the servants were servants. They knew they had a Master. So they knew that something was going be expected of them. The fault of the third servant is that he didn’t try to find out what he should have been doing. This is not a parable for people who’ve never heard of Jesus. This is a parable for disciples – members of the Church who claim they want to follow Jesus and serve God Our Father!

The second important thing is that while human beings judge the outward appearance, God judges the heart. We are judged not on our results but on our choices. Let me offer an example: we know that one of the Ten Commandments requires us to keep the Lord’s Day holy. Mother Church takes that and makes an Obligation, saying we must attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days, on pain of serious sin. Now, suppose you wake up on Sunday morning and have flu – or find yourself in sole care of a child who is ill in bed. You want to go to Mass. You feel bad about not being able to go to Mass. In these circumstances, is it possible for you to choose to come to Mass? No. So if that happens, please don’t come to confession because you feel bad about not coming to Mass. Confession is about saying “I made a bad choice and next time that happens I’ll make a better choice” – we call that ‘a firm purpose of amendment’. The sign you need to come to confession is that you can put into words what that better choice would have been. If your body has flu, you have no choice. If you have to care for a sick child at home, you have no choice. When you have no choice, what you have are regrets, not sins. So take your sins to confession but take your regrets straight to God in prayer.

At the end of our lives, we will meet Jesus as our judge. We will see clearly what was expected of us. I suspect that what the Bible calls the “punishment” for the servant who didn’t know what was expected will be the firey embarrassment we experience at realising we have let down our beloved Lord in the task he has chosen specially for each one of us. It’s because of this that we have the practice in the church called an “examination of conscience”. This is when we look at ourselves and ask whether we’ve been doing what our master expects. Now it’s easy to make a list of bad behaviour we should avoid – we can tick off a list of “Thou Shalt Nots” to help with that. Today’s Gospel, however, requires something more challenging: an examination of the good deeds which our Master does expect.

Now, none of us can do everything. We can’t all run a Foodbank, visit 50 housebound parishioners every week, take charge of a pack of Scouts, work overtime so a colleague can get home to the kids and spend 8 nights a week at home with our beloved husband or wife. So it’s important to spend time praying about what good deeds God expects each one of us to do. The key is in the gifts and talents God has already entrusted to us – they are given to us to make the world a better place. We will be most effective when we do those things we are called and gifted to do. This is why, following our big diocesan conference in June, our priests and lay leaders in the diocese are examining a process named “Called and Gifted” which could help us do just this. But it would be premature of me to say more before final plans are made.

At this time of year, as we look forward to the “back to school” season, those of us who are parents or grandparents might face a change in mix of caring duties and gaps in our schedule in a typical week. It’s a good time to ask where we can use of our gifts and talents in the year to come.

There is one thing that only we can do – we who worship in the Catholic Church in this place. We are ambassadors for Christ. We can’t expect anyone else promote this parish. It is our calling to invite the people we meet to ask whether they believe Jesus rose from the dead, and whether it’s possible to meet Jesus through Holy Mass. Today’s Second Reading reminds us that Abraham set out to follow God’s call. The First Reading recalls the first Passover, when the faithful Jews were saved from the angel of death. God protects his faithful people, but expects much from his servants – and it’s our business to find out what God wants us to do.

None of us can do everything, but all of us are expected to use the gifts we’ve been given to do something. The Master is calling us. If we want our entry into heaven to be pure joy and free from punishment, the first step is to pray this Dangerous Prayer – “Here I am Lord, use me as you will!” Remember, he doesn’t want to punish you – but you do have to do your homework!

Missiondom Tour 2019

Sherry Weddell made a speaking tour of England & Wales 10-20 June 2019. This is a brief digest of the teaching, which presupposes you are familiar with Sherry Weddell’s book Forming Intentional Disciples. The book sets out a framework for understanding how believers pass through the thresholds of (1) Trust, (2) passive Curiosity, (3) Openness to change, (4) active Seeking and (5) Intentional Discipleship.

The State of the Church Today

We no longer live in a culture of “Christendom”. Even the young people born in “Catholic” families are mostly growing up with such a weak exposure to Catholicism they are effectively unchurched rather than lapsed. And in fact it’s historically rare for Catholics to have been formed by the culture (“Christendom”) rather than to have to be evangelised anew. “Generation Z” – the young people born between 1998 and 2016 – typically don’t believe in God, never pray, and don’t attend any kind of worship service. The 2015 “Talking Jesus” survey in England showed that 53% of adults don’t believe in the Resurrection of Jesus and only 21% do believe he was God in human form. On the other hand, the number of adults who call themselves atheists have dropped from 38% in 2016 to 33% in 2018 (Yougov survey 2018).

In a typical parish, we can expect 90-95% of the worshipping parishioners have not moved beyond Trust or passive Curiosity. Even highly engaged (“core”) parishioners who get involved with parish projects are often engaging out of a sense of commitment to the local community or the church institution rather than commitment to Christ. All disciples are highly engaged, but engagement does not prove discipleship. Worse, it’s very likely that someone who has been engaged for a long time but never moved beyond curiosity has become ‘stuck’ in their spiritual journey; and those who are still at early thresholds may become annoyed and vocal when their parish is challenged to grow deeper. What’s the typical mentality of a Massgoer? “We’re all going to heaven because we’re good people, but none of us are going to be ‘saints’ because it would be far too proud to aspire to that.” This shows a total misunderstanding of salvation!

So we recognise there are three distinct journeys which people can make which don’t synchronise with each other automatically: progress through the sacraments of initiation, active involvement in the church community, and the interior journey through the thresholds of discipleship. The Catechism of the Catholic Church recognises that there is the “first conversion” (1427) by which we become disciples and then the ongoing or “second” conversion (1428) which takes place once we are disciples and find our apostolate (the “missionary discipleship” which Pope Francis speaks of). The Church recognises (Catechesi Tradendae 19) that when we set out to catechise people we have to face the reality that many have not yet been evangelised.

We have a retention problem. We know that we haemorrhage young people after baptism and first communion. Even many of those who join the church through RCIA cease practicing in the year following their baptism or reception. Why do the sacraments not bear fruit? Catechism 1131 reminds us that the sacraments bear fruit in those who receive them with the required dispositions. This teaching is expanded in Chapter 6 of Trent’s Decree on Justification and reinforced by St Thomas Aquinas (Commentary on John 6:976 & Summa Theologica III q69 a8).

A Canadian study of young Christians who stay (Hemmorhaging Faith 2012) indicates that young people who remain active in church have experienced God’s presence and seen prayers answered; live in Christian communities where they feel able to wrestle with real spiritual questions including the Gospel story; and have lived experience of adult communities living out Christian faith in authentic ways.

The Work of Proclamation

We pour great efforts into catechising children and adults. But before we can do that fruitfully, we have to foster openness and then proclaim the Gospel.

A key task of clergy (an aspect of the ministry of ‘governance’ alongside the Word and the Sacraments), is to raise up “intentional disciples” in our parishes – souls who are confident in their identity as followers of Jesus Christ. Most of the clerical work will be engaging with the “near field” of churchgoers, while giving the laity the tools they need to engage with the “far field” of those who have left church or never engaged with church in the first place.

For many of our churchgoers, their “relationship with the church”, or even their “relationship with a deceased relative” IS their relationship with God. They can be helped by hearing testimonies from people who do have a relationship with God, and being encouraged to pray the Prayer of Openness – “God, if you are there, show yourself to me!”

How do we share the basic Gospel message? Gen Z young adults are so disconnected from our Christian heritage that even Alpha may make too many assumptions about their cultural background! But they do believe they are in charge of their own lives, at least until they meet with some disaster! (In the light of Sherry’s teaching and suggested resources, I have updated my Guide for Evangelisers.)

One cycle of Alpha or Discovering Christ is probably not enough to move a participant from Trust to Intentional Discipleship. But sustained work with a person can achieve this in around two years. When people reach the stage of Openness, supporting them with prayer is crucial; and we must recognise they are vulnerable to falling back, or hiding within a community which doesn’t seem to affirm their growth. Growing as far as Openness can be scary in a community which is mostly still at Trust!

When someone is ready, an exercise like one-on-one renewal of baptismal promises or the physical symbolic action of dropping a net can be helpful.

Disciples bear fruit – and this grows out of a living relationship with God. When members of the church become intentional disciples, they become active as worshippers and volunteers, and generous givers. Some will become lay leaders pioneering new ministries. Programmes such as the Siena Institute’s Called & Gifted allow the gifts (charisms) of disciples to be discerned and affirmed. From July 2019, the teaching element of this programme will be accessible via online videos.

You can only guide others to grow as far as the threshold you have reached yourself. People who are still at Trust do have a role in evangelisation teams – they might be the most sensitive to hospitality issues, for instance, and have a role in the welcoming team. But they are not disciplers.

“Charismatic Renewal” fits within the wider picture of what Sherry teaches about. She speaks of how to encourage people to develop a conscious relationship with God. For some souls, this may crystallise in a “baptism in the Spirit” experience but others who have clearly moved into relationship with God would not choose to use that language or identify a particular experience. Similarly, the charisms identified though Called & Gifted do include extraordinary gifts such as healing or praying in tongues, but also include lifestyle charisms (e.g. celibacy, voluntary poverty) and charisms where God has simply perfected natural gifts (e.g. music, writing, administration).

There are five specific practical steps we can take to become more effective at making disciples.

  1. In pastoral conversations, be attentive to the person’s relationship with God.

Whenever you engage in an appropriate conversation, try to tease out what the person’s understanding is of “God” – even if they’ve been to a Catholic school, that’s no guarantee. For many, “God” is just a label for “church stuff”. It’s easy for a member of a group to ignore information which has been “broadcast” to the whole audience. A one-to-one conversation forces the listener to engage – and often that engagement is enough to get the person thinking afresh about who God really is. Two key questions to ask are:

  • “Tell me the story of where God is in your life!” (or, for someone who has shared a messy life situation, “Where is God in this for you?”)
  • “If you could ask God one question which he would answer for you right now, what would it be?”

Such “threshold conversations” can be very revealing about where a person is at, and can themselves provoke the kind of reflection that helps a person pass through towards the next threshold. Parishioners who wish to learn how to have these kinds of conversations can benefit from Ananias Training. Good listening does not seek to force the speaker into a conclusion but listens without judgment. Recent research from Barna (Reviving Evangelism, 2019) shows that the more a person experiences positive conversations about faith, the more open they will be to talking about faith.

Never accept a “label” without enquiring what it means. Even people who initially call themselves atheist or agnostic might admit to praying or being open to the possibility of some version of God! Try answering questions with questions – most people are only two “whys” from being forced to think about why they stand where they stand.

  1. Encourage people to foster their relationship with God.

Ultimately, by talking about the possibility of a relationship with God, you are fostering the understanding that God is a loving person and it is possible to have a relationship with God.

You can also encourage people to be open to a relationship with God by:

  • Praying the Prayer of Openness – “God, if you are there, show yourself to me!”
  • Trying lectio divina.
  • Trying Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament (but offer a simple orientation to someone who isn’t familiar with it).
  • Seeking the presence of God in serving those in need.
  • Practicing the “Presence of God” (Brother Lawrence)
  • Talking to God in your own words.

The Siena Institute has a lectio resource for Advent 2019 available.

  1. Create a culture in your parish where it is normal to talk about Jesus.

Research shows that most people have to hear the story of who Jesus is and what He did for us many times before they realise how important this is. This can be communicated through preaching, through personal testimonies shared at the end of Mass, and through testimonies and lectio divina (with participants sharing their reflections with each other) becoming a normal part of all group activities (committees, catechetical groups, etc.) in your parish. The purpose is not only to receive the reflections shared during lectio but to embed the culture of it being normal to speak about prayer, faith and Jesus Christ.

Keep telling the story of the saving death of Jesus, alongside personal testimony of how Jesus touches lives today and draws people into relationship with himself. These don’t have to be extraordinary “Damascus Road” testimonies – rather, they should illustrate what it’s like to have an ordinary prayer life. Also remind people that He lives in the Tabernacle of every Catholic Church! And keep sharing the Great Story and personal testimonies wherever there’s an opportunity – videos on the parish website, in one-to-one conversations, at children’s and adult groups – in short, at every possible opportunity.

You can also consider running one of several courses in your parish which provide a basic introduction to the person of Jesus. In the light of Sherry’s teaching and suggested resources, I have updated my Guide for Evangelisers. Remember that one size will not fit all parishioners, and a diverse range of methods of presenting the Gospel will be best.

  1. Ensure there is intercessory prayer for the flourishing of your parish.

Intercession is not the same thing as adoration – although it can be done in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament exposed. You will probably have a handful of parishioners who have a particular gift for intercession – when they start to pray, a topic will come clearly to mind, or they will have a clear idea on how to pray at length about a topic you propose. How will you identify these people? If you schedule a special time of prayer to pray for the needs of the parish, they will be the main people who turn up. Develop them as a group of intercessors – and importantly, when you see answers to their prayers, feed this back to encourage them. You can also use those whose life-circumstances mean that prayer is their only way to contribute (your sick and housebound) – but don’t neglect the healthy parishioners who have a special gift for praying in this way!

  1. Identify and use the charisms of every member of your parish.

Parishioners will be happy and fulfilled when they are using the gifts God has given them to further the work of the Church – though they may need reassurance that Christian humility doesn’t require us to shun tasks we get praised for! Sherry’s organisation offers a Called & Gifted programme which helps people to identify their God-given gifts (charisms), and this can be accessed in three ways:

  • An individual goes through the process on-line;
  • A parish streams the teaching videos;
  • A parish runs live talks.

When the programme is to be run at parish level, the parish will first need to train some suitable people who will conduct the one-to-one interviews with participants. These interviews include threshold conversations which help identify how far parishioners have grown along the path to discipleship.

Final Thoughts

We need hope. Do we expect that people will become committed disciples? Do we write off good news stories as “American cheerfulness” or the fruit of “North American resources”? One US parish which worked hard on promoting discipleship now has 40% of its Massgoers in ministry, estimates 25% are now Intentional Disciples, and its level of financial giving has gone through the roof. There is no reason to believe this cannot happen in the UK!

You can join the international Forming Intentional Disciples Forum on Facebook which can be searched for all sorts of useful conversation threads on evangelising in different circumstances.

There is also a UK Forum, but this is much less active.

For the avoidance of doubt, the article above is not Sherry’s words but my digest of them. Fr Gareth Leyshon (CatholicPreacher)

D Day

Homily at the Sion Community D-Weekend for Pentecost Sunday, 2019.

The young people had been waiting. They couldn’t go until they got the signal. While they waited, it was easy to talk about what they were going to do. But when the time came to go out and change the world for the better, would they be up for the challenge? They would need to be brave and courageous…

This week, many nations have been remembering the 75th Anniversary of D-Day. “D” stood for Decision – the Decision to send a mighty army through the beaches of France to overthrow the Nazi evil which had overtaken the heart of Europe. Most of the warriors who took part were young people – some hiding their true age so they could fight, though not yet deemed ‘adults’. Not only men died that day – women among the nursing corps also lost their lives. Three things stand out for me about what happened that day:

  1. The young people knew they HAD to do it – the moral case to oppose the Nazis was overwhelming.
  2. They had the numbers to support each other – within a month, a million allied warriors had landed in Normandy.
  3. They received signs of encouragement, from the words of Winston Churchill to the outrageous leadership of a bagpiper!

The young people had been waiting. They couldn’t go until they got the signal…

On the Day of Pentecost around AD 33, a group of young people were waiting in an Upper Room, the same room where Jesus had celebrated the Last Supper. It’s probable that the fishermen called by Jesus – Peter, Andrew, James and John – were in their twenties or possibly even teenagers. In today’s Gospel, we heard how Jesus appeared to them on Easter Sunday, wished them peace, and commanded them to receive the Holy Spirit. St Luke tells us how, 40 days after Easter, Jesus said goodbye – he would no longer be appearing regularly to his chosen followers – but told them to wait in Jersualem until they received power from God. In our first reading, from Acts, we learn that after 9 days of continuous prayer, the promised power came in the form of a mighty wind and tongues of fire. Three things stand out for me about what happened that day:

  1. The young disciples knew they HAD to do it – Jesus their master had given them a command.
  2. They had the numbers to support each other – not only the eleven apostles chosen by Jesus, but Mary and the other women who supported them, and very soon, the hundreds who responded and became baptised.
  3. They received signs of encouragement, because God’s power brought healings and words which touched lives.

The young people had been waiting. They couldn’t go until they got the signal. While they waited, it was easy to talk about what they were going to do. But when the time came to go out and change the world for the better, would they be up for the challenge? They would need to be brave and courageous…

Joshua’s army had been given its instructions. For seven days they were to march around Jericho; on the seventh day they should march seven times with the Ark of God’s Presence and then have their priests blow trumpets. No doubt the warriors and bearers of the Ark would have been young people. Joshua wasn’t so young any more, but God had chosen him because when he was a young man, sent to spy in the Promised Land, he had told Moses that although the land was full of formidable enemies, it would be easy to conquer with God’s help. Where most of the spies saw human problems, Joshua saw God’s solutions. Since then, he’d had to wait 40 years to see the children of Israel enter the Promised Land. But now it was time. Three things stand out for me about what happened that day:

  1. The young people knew they HAD to do it – God’s power had led them to this moment.
  2. They had the numbers to support each other – they were twelve tribes.
  3. They received signs of encouragement: Joshua had seen God’s power part the Egyptian Sea and the Jordan River, provide manna from heaven, and speak to Moses face-to-face.

The young people had been waiting. They couldn’t go until they got the signal…

On the Day of Pentecost in 2019, a group of young people were gathered in Brentwood. They had heard a message that “life with God is life in colour”. Some of them had personally experienced God touch their lives, with a deep peace that no human being can give. A few of them had even experienced what the Apostles had also known following the first Pentecost – they had prayed in tongues, received words of prophecy from God. But others among them doubted. And many wondered what their mission was to be.

For Joshua and for the D-Day troops, they had clear missions ahead of them. Joshua was to capture the city of Jericho and secure the Promised Land. The warriors of D-Day were to repel the Nazi troops and restore freedom to the nations of Europe. For the young people at the first Pentecost, their mission briefing was more general – they were to invite everyone in the world to become a follower of Jesus Christ – to become a Disciple.

Now what must you do to be a Disciple? We read in the same chapter of Acts that those who said “Yes” on the Day of Pentecost did four things. They were faithful to the teaching of the Apostles, to meeting together to support one another, to Holy Communion and to prayer.

If you want to know the Teaching of the Apostles, you will need to read the whole New Testament of the Bible. But I can sum it up for you briefly. Deal with your anger and live in peace with one another. Protect and cherish human life from conception to natural death. Forgive everyone, even before they ask. Never sleep with another person until you are part of a marriage blessed by God. And never, ever, say something is a rule while doing the opposite.

This teaching will stir up questions in your hearts. Part of what Jesus taught is quite acceptable to the world around us. Who can argue with helping people in need and keeping our promises? But other things will be out of step with today’s world. Some of you will be thinking “Yes! It feels right to go to Mass on Sunday, protect human life in the womb, and wait until marriage, but I don’t quite understand why.” Ask the questions! It’s OK to want to know more, and a good place to start is a book called YouCat.

Others among you will feel angry at some of these ideas. Can’t the old-fashioned Catholic Church get with the times? Well, no, we can’t. Our job is to do what we’ve done for 2000 years, to pass on the teaching of Jesus – and Jesus doesn’t change his mind. But if you’re angry, good! Talk about it with someone. Maybe it’s because following Jesus means you’ll have to disagree with some members of your family or close friends. That’s why Jesus wants to fill us with His Holy Spirit, to be brave and courageous. But if you’re like the milkshake with the film on top*, you’re not going to be an awesome milkshake…

Maybe all of this feels too much for you. You can see that other people on the D-Weekend have had a good time or enjoy the singing and praying. So I say to you: don’t feel pressured into doing anything you don’t want to do. But do ask some basic questions. Do you believe that something dramatic happened on that first Day of Pentecost? That people who knew Jesus received power to heal people and change lives for the better? That Jesus, uniquely among religious leaders, rose from the dead? And do these questions matter?

On the Day of Pentecost in 2019, a group of young people were gathered in Brentwood. They had heard a message that “life with God is life in colour”. Some of them had personally experienced God touch their lives, with a deep peace that no human being can give. Three things stand out for me about what happened that day:

  1. The young people knew they HAD to take the next step – God was real, and was inviting them.
  2. They had the numbers to support each other – they were four tribes, able to keep in touch through Sion Community and through social media.
  3. They received signs of encouragement: some of the young people had spoken publicly about how God had touched their lives.

God had a purpose for each of these young people. They couldn’t go until they got the signal – and God will give that in different ways, to do different tasks, when each young person is ready. While they waited, it was easy to talk about what they were going to do. But when the time came to go out and change the world for the better, would they be up for the challenge? It was D-Day. Decision Day. Disciple Day. They would need to be brave and courageous… but like Joshua, like the Apostles, if they made the right decision, God’s Holy Spirit would be with them. I wonder what decision they are going to make?


*During the weekend, an illustration was used with three glasses of milk. Film on top (no baptism – no openness to the Holy Spirit) – no milkshake. Powder in but not stirred? (Just baptised and confirmed, not interested.) Lumpy milkshake. Powder in and stirred (stir up the gifts of the Spirit given to you) – awesome milkshake.

Photo credits: D-DayPentecostJoshua.

Fruitful Missionary Discipleship

Teaching given at the Sion Community, 26 & 27 May 2018

Parish Structures

To inspire a priest or member of a parish leadership team who is open to Alpha and the gifts of the Holy Spirit, offer a Summary of Divine Renovation.

To inspire a priest or member of a parish leadership team who is skeptical about Alpha or the gifts of the Holy Spirit, offer a Summary of Rebuilt.

Read more relevant links about parishes at The Five Pillars of Thriving Parishes and Building Missionary Parishes.

Evangelising Individuals

To inspire a layperson who’s not on a parish leadership team, or a priest who is particularly concerned with their one-to-one work evangelising parishioners, offer a Summary of Forming Intentional Disciples.

Read more, with useful links, at Help! I’m a Catholic who wants to evangelise! and Making Disciples.

Other Resources

The slides used at Sion are available as the original PowerPoint and as a PDF.

Some additional books you might read!

Video clips used are embedded below, apart from the “Blessed” First Communion resource. The “Evidence” clip is one of many brilliant films from Outside da Box; I also strongly recommend “Initiation“.

Building Missionary Parishes

The path of discipleship is one which individuals must walk from the first stirrings of curiosity about Jesus and his message, through to wholehearted committment. A parish neccessarily contains people at all stages of the journey. Indeed, a core function of a parish is to enable its members to make that journey, and to be equipped to invite other people to do so, too.

Some of the work which helps people make that journey is necessarily one-to-one work in the context of a relationship of trust. A parish needs to plan and provide for that to happen – but also needs a broader strategy about its corporate life. Elsewhere, I offer a resource page with useful links for materials which can help individuals and small groups grow through the different thresholds of discipleship. This web-page suggests what this might mean for the strategy of a parish as a whole.

PRE-DISCIPLESHIP

Not all church-goers are disciples. Indeed, based on Weddell and Kelly, a typical parish priest might safely assume that 90%-95% of his parishioners have not yet become disciples!

Those who passed through sacramental preparation as children may not yet have accepted the challenge to change; they may not be actively interested in finding out what Christ or the Church teaches.

If most parishes currently have 95% of their attendees in pre-discipleship, how should this shape the preaching and pastoral activity?

Most of the preaching should aim to do one or more of the following things:

  • Foster trust in Christ or His Church;
  • Tell the Great Story of Jesus in a way that arouses curiosity;
  • Speak openly about what the inner life of prayer is really like.

After some years of this it may be the right time to run a parish mission or similar programme which allows people to accept the Challenge to Change… but what should be done with those who accept the challenge? Weddell notes that the temptation is to train them for ministries, but in fact they will be hungry for catechesis, to understand their newly-awakened faith better.

When working with individuals, it is inadvisible to tackle moral issues which affect lifestyle until the person has accepted the challenge to be open to Christ and His message. But if the vast majority of Sunday churchgoers have not yet reached this threshold, what does this mean for preaching when moral topics arise naturally in the Lectionary? The preacher might choose to emphasise that following the Lord’s high standards is a natural thing to do for anyone who has already chosen to accept Jesus’ teaching, and remind the congregation that the Lord is always willing to forgive those who fall short and to offer grace, including through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, to those who wish to set their sights higher.

Any courses or study groups put on should be grounded in relationship with Christ. Many existing catechetical resoruces focus on content rather than relationship; and it is all too easy to deliver the content as a “lesson” rather than make it a true apprenticeship in which participants are actively reflecting on the implications for their lives.

A parish serious about being open to those on the threshold of exploring the Catholic faith will create an easy and welcoming atmosphere for those who drop in to test the water. They may offer a “seeker” experience – one successful model in cities is Nightfever. The Proclaim15 Resource Index is useful to help parishes develop a vision and strategy for evangelisation, or to focus on particular sectors such as youth, families, those with no church connection, or non-churchgoing Catholics (some of the original resources are now archived but the videos are still available on Vimeo). Southwark Archdiocese has produced an excellent Handbook to help parishes review parish provision and set up a parish team.

What about the 5%-10% who are already disciples? In a typical British parish that means there will be a core of 10-50 worshippers who will benefit from catechesis and discipling. If Sunday preaching is oriented to the 90+%, there will need to be another forum for the deepening work. This could be in the form of cell groups following the Guildford modelOrpington (Milan) model or Wimbledon (Florida) modelDivine Renovation tells of how a Canadian parish priest used the Alpha Course as a starting point to challenge his parishioners to become “engaged” in the mission of the Church.

Finally, remember the importance of intercession. Who in the parish is praying – and especially for those on the thresholds of openness or of discipleship, where much spiritual warfare takes place?

REACHING THE LAPSED

Rebuilt tells the story of a parish which made its primary strategy one of being intentionally welcoming to lapsed Catholics. Programmes to reach out to non-practising Catholics are of limited value unless the host church has made some adjustments in this way. If the church hasn’t changed, what is going to dissuade the returner from lapsing again?

A “threshold conversation” of the kind outlined in Forming Intentional Disciples can help highlight people’s disappointments and misunderstandings about God.

FORMING DISCIPLES AT THE CORPORATE LEVEL

Rebuilt explains how an American parish adopted a twofold mission: reaching the lost and growing disciples. Starting with 1500 worshippers, they grew to 4000 by gearing the welcome, music and preaching to their target audience – a 40something lapsed Catholic middle-class male. (Each parish will need to identify their own target based on local demographics, though husbands are more likely to bring their wives than vice versa.) By exhorting and enabling people to “get involved” they developed a culture where parishioners naturally gave of their time, talents and treasure; so resources do not need to be directed into running fundraisers or seeking reluctant volunteers to fill gaps.

Rick Warren’s book Purpose Driven Church observed that there were five distinct tasks every church community needs to undertake in order to be the full expression of Christ’s church on earth: Worship, Ministry (by which he meant social outreach, charitable work in the local community), Mission (his term for explicitly inviting others to become followers of Jesus), Fellowship (becoming part of the community of worshippers) and a fifth purpose of consciously seeking to grow as a follower of Jesus – Warren labelled this one “Discipleship” but since living out the other four purposes are also aspects of discipleship, a better Catholic label might be “Ongoing Formation”.

In a Catholic context, Divine Renovation tells how a Canadian parish priest, appointed pastor of a newly-merged parish of 1800 worshippers, applied the ideas from Rick Warren and set out a specific expectation that members of his parish would commit to five priorities: attending Sunday worship; volunteering for at least one parish project or ministry; networking with other Catholics; developing their prayer life and/or understanding of the Catholic faith; and giving financially to the parish. As a result, volunteering and financial giving has doubled, participation in courses has tripled, and more than 40% of parishioners are actively engaged with the life of the parish. The parish priest is now developing the best ways to draw in those who approach the Church seeking sacraments – ways which deeply challenge our current culture of applying the sacrament and waiting with forlorn hope for the grace to manifest!

There are many tools available to help members of a parish discern their gifts and strengths. Andy Raine’s Motivational Gifts helps Christians understand their motivation in terms of 7 Biblical headings. A more secular approach is found in Gallup’s engagement tools, including 34 Signature Themes from the Clifton Strengths approach, where you can buy access to an online assessment (top 5 or all 34). Sherry Weddell has long been associated with the Catherine of Siena Institute’s Called and Gifted programme, which does however need a trained facilitator. Wisdom on managing volunteers in parishes is also available.