We Don’t Know What Normal Is

The parish staff continues to plow through Sherry Weddell’s Forming Intentional Disciples. The following is my synopsis of her second chapter, entitled “We Don’t Know What Normal Is.” 


After traversing the statistical landscape in ch. 1 of Forming Intentional Disciples, Weddell opens ch. 2 with another discouraging stat: only 6% of Catholic parishes agreed that spreading the faith was a high priority compared to 57% of African American and 75% of conservative Protestant congregations. The Catholic statistic would be laughable if it were not such a brazen failure on the part of the Church to live out her identity – which Vatican II describes as “missionary by her very nature” (Ad Gentes 2).

What is the problem? Perhaps then Cardinal Ratzinger comes close to an accurate description, when, in a 2000 address to catechists, he said, “A large part of today’s humanity does not find the Gospel in the permanent evangelization of the Church: That is to say, the convincing response to the question: How to live?” Humanity does not find the Gospel in the Church’s efforts. Something is lacking, for one can give only that which he has received. Nothing to give indicates nothing received. Hence the Church finds herself in the midst of a new missionary age – the time of the New Evangelization has arrived.

But what is this New Evangelization? Pope Paul VI, in 1974, identified the need not only for the Church to engage in missionary activity ad gentes (“to the nations”), but to a rapidly growing audience in the midst of a secularized West: the baptized, but no longer practicing Catholic. Pope John Paul II carried this new missionary call forward for the Church, describing the New Evangelization not as a process of re-evangelizing (“going through the motions”), but an evangelization “new in its ardor, methods and expression.” This evangelization would engage present-day culture and transmit the authentic Gospel of Jesus Christ to the modern man. In preparation for the recent Synod of Bishops, the Lineamenta describes the New Evangelization as follows:

The expression can now be applied to the Church’s renewed efforts to meet the challenges which today’s society and cultures, in view of the significant changes taking place, are posing to the Christian faith, its proclamation and its witness. In facing these challenges, the Church does not give up or retreat into herself; instead, she undertakes a project to revitalize herself. She makes the Person of Jesus Christ and a personal encounter with him central to her thinking, knowing that he will give his Spirit and provide the force to announce and proclaim the Gospel in new ways which can speak to today’s cultures. (5)

Transmitting the faith means to create in every place and time the conditions for this personal encounter of individuals with Jesus Christ. The faith-encounter with the person of Jesus Christ is a relationship with him, “remembering him” (in the Eucharist) and, through the grace of the Spirit, having in us the mind of Jesus Christ.

This personal encounter allows individuals to share in the Son’s relationship with his Father and to experience the power of the Spirit. The aim of transmitting the faith and the goal of evangelization is to bring us “through him [Christ] in one Spirit to the Father” (Eph 2:18). (11)

From this understanding, one senses the note of truth ringing out in Weddell’s words, “transmission of the Catholic faith is not just passing on an inherited religious identity. Genuine Catholic identity flows from the experience of discipleship” (53). As noted in the Lineamenta, “What is not believed or lived cannot be transmitted….The Gospel can only be transmitted on the basis of ‘being’ with Jesus and living with Jesus the experience of the Father, in the Spirit, and, in a corresponding way, of ‘feeling’ compelled to proclaim and share what is lived” (11).

Here, the premise of the whole book is revealed: The New Evangelization is necessary for the genesis of a culture of intentional discipleship, and only from this culture of discipleship will a new springtime of evangelization blossom. The call to evangelize cannot be separated from the necessity of intentional discipleship.

Later in the chapter, Weddell defines intentional discipleship first by examining the call of Simon (Luke 5:10-11), before saying “No one voluntarily sheds his or her job, home, and whole way of life accidentally or unconsciously” (65). To do so would be an impossible contradiction. When one encounters Christ and freely chooses to follow Him as His disciple, one does so with the intention of following a path, a road, a journey – even though he/she does not know exactly what the journey will require.¹

Weddell argues that intentional discipleship must become normative within the Church. But let’s examine “normative Catholicism” more closely. Weddell describes it by identifying three “concurrent spiritual journeys”:²

  1. The personal interior journey of a lived relationship with Christ resulting in intentional discipleship.
  2. The ecclesial journey into the Church through reception of the sacraments of initiation. (We could toss catechesis or religious education into this category – i.e. “sacramental prep”).
  3. The journey of active practice (as evidenced by receiving the sacraments, attending Mass, and participating in the life and mission of the Christian community).

Ideally, every Catholic should be making all three journeys simultaneously – “a conscious disciple of Jesus Christ, a fully initiated Catholic, and an active parishioner” (54). Yet this is rarely the case. Nowadays “Catholic identity” refers simply to regarding oneself as Catholic and attending Mass with “reasonable regularity.” No further questions asked! Thus Weddell concludes, “Many Catholics think one needn’t ask about the first journey if the second and third journeys are in place” (54). Unfortunately, the common assumption is that “personal discipleship is a kind of optional spiritual enrichment for the exceptionally pious or spiritually gifted” (55).  It is a mere accessory encouraged by a culture of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” If nobody talks about a personal encounter with Christ, the life-changing decision to follow Christ intentionally, “we are no more likely to think of it spontaneously than we are to suddenly invent a new primary color” (56). As a result of what could be identified as a “spiral of silence” surrounding the interior journey of discipleship, an unintentional chasm has been created “between what the Church teaches in normal and what many Catholics in the pews have learned to regard as normal. Many lifelong Catholics have never seen personal discipleship lived overtly or talked about in an explicitly manner in their family or parish” (57).

Given the call to normative Catholicism and the unfortunate chasm created by a culture of silence, we can make at least three observations:

  1. “We can no longer presume that those coming for the sacraments still understand what it means to be a Catholic or are even committed to such. Nor can we presume that they know who Christ is and have made a commitment to him as savior and Lord” (R. Martin)
  2. A paradigm shift from “infant” to “adult” is needed. In other words, the current assumption is that the baptized infant Catholic will “pick up the Catholic faith from the family and the parish as naturally and inevitably as he or she learns language and culture” (68). The current position assumes that this Catholic identity will move seamlessly into adulthood in a process of slow and steady spiritual growth with little expectation of distinct turning points or overt “conversion” (68). Instead, Weddell proposes an “adult” paradigm that challenges teens and adults to become intentional disciples – this is a paradigm of (new) evangelization.
  3. The Church must evangelize her baptized members in order to foster a Church that desires to share the faith with non-believers. “You can’t give what you don’t have.”


¹ Weddell quotes Fr. Cantalamessa saying that “discipleship begins when ‘adult persons at last have the occasion to hear the kerygma, renew their baptism, consciously choose Christ…and commit themselves actively in the life of the Church’” (66). Kerygma is a Greek term that refers to the initial proclamation of the Gospel message – God, the loving Father created man good. Man sinned and found himself in need of redemption. In the fullness of time God sends his only begotten Son that “whoever believes in Him might not perish but have eternal life” (Jn. 3:16). The kerygma proclaimed by the Church serves to awaken faith and to move the will of the individual to accepting Christ.
² One could perhaps debate Weddell’s use of the word “journey” here, for a journey implies a distinctive end-point. Yet the disciple does not embark on three journeys, but rather one journey, which, like any journey, in comprised of various essential elements (e.g. persons, a mode of transportation, a direction, etc.). To be sure, the Christian journey is a singular journey to share in Christ’s sonship through the power of the Holy Spirit in the presence of the Father.