This Book is Rocking the Catholic World

My friends know that I appreciate candor, and that I can be frank to a fault. I don’t tolerate it well when everyone in the room is desperately trying to ignore the proverbial eight-hundred pound gorilla sitting in the corner.

Author Sherry Weddell does not tolerate this well either.

And she would like us—“active” and presumably committed Catholics, lay, religious, consecrated and clergy—to focus on one rather large gorilla sitting in the corner of our contemporary Church: the reality that a disturbingly large proportion of Church-going Catholics fail to live as disciples of Jesus—as intentional disciples.

That message is at the heart of a sorely needed reality check she provides in her new book, Forming Intentional Disciples: the Path to Knowing and Following Jesus.

download She begins by sharing some disturbing statistics she has extrapolated from her own analysis of a 2008 study by the Pew Research Center. Among them:

*Only 30 % of Americans raised Catholic are still “practicing” (which in the survey meant “attending mass at least once a month”).

*Another 38% hang on to the Catholic label—cultural Catholics—but seldom or never attend mass.

*The other 32% no longer consider themselves Catholic. Of these, 3% follow a non-Christian religion, 14% consider themselves “unaffiliated,” and 15% have joined a Protestant faith community.


Weddell observes:

[W]e have asked hundreds of diocesan and parish leaders from sixty dioceses throughout the English-speaking world this question: What percentage of your parishioners, would you estimate, are intentional disciples? To our astonishment, we have received the same answer over and over: “Five percent.”

More troubling still is her discovery—after working with hundreds of parishes, and personally interviewing a couple thousand practicing Catholics, most of whom described themselves as “active” and “heavily involved” in their parishes—that many of them have tremendous gaps in their understanding of the faith.  They might be in Church every Sunday: ushers, lectors, parish secretaries, religious Ed teachers and so on. Yet Weddell not infrequently discovered many who—upon sharing with her their own experience of the faith—did not believe in the divinity of Jesus, or who intimated that that they don’t even believe in a personal God at all! Her personal experience in these one-on-one encounters seems to confirm one of the most disturbing implications of the Pew study. Weddell explains:

 It is especially sobering to learn that when Pew surveyors asked the question, “Which comes closest to your view of God: God is a person with whom people can have a relationship, or God is an impersonal force?” only 48% of Catholics were absolutely certain that the God they believed in was a God with whom they could have a personal relationship.

This is tragic. But this is the reality on the ground in today’s Catholic Church. And we should be thankful to Sherry Weddell for forcing the issue, and presenting a clear strategy to bring these brothers and sisters of ours to a personal relationship with Jesus, to a state of being intentional disciples.

One of the most important contributions of Forming Intentional Disciples is Weddell’s articulation of what she calls the “thresholds of conversion.”

The idea is simple. “Catechesis” in the Church is meant for those who are already deeply committed to Christ as disciples; catechesis is meant to build on a foundation that already exists. But non-believers, or those who have become estranged from the faith, or those who only understand Jesus notionally (but not personally) are almost certainly not ready to be “catechized.” That’s why, as Weddell points out, the problem we are facing in the Church today—though often chalked up to “poor catechesis” or “poor adult faith formation”—is way beyond resolution through “better” catechesis.

When Pew surveyors asked the question, “Which comes closest to your view of God: God is a person with whom people can have a relationship, or God is an impersonal force?” only 48% of Catholics were absolutely certain that the God they believed in was a God with whom they could have a personal relationship.

To be genuinely catechized (nourished in an ever deeper understanding of the faith) presupposes that one is already a disciple of Jesus in mind and heart. What Weddell and her collaborators have discovered and demonstrated over the past decade is that many of our baptized Catholics never made it to that threshold; in fact they are quite a few thresholds away from getting there. Consequently, attempts to “catechize” them are often futile. They must be met where they are and gently coaxed and accompanied to discipleship.

To get there, most people need to cross at least four other thresholds: first they need to trust—to trust those in whom they see modeled something which they themselves lack:  a robust and joyful living of a personal relationship with Jesus.  Having crossed this threshold, they would then ideally become imbibed with curiosity about Jesus. That curiosity would then be nourished and grow to genuine openness to learning more about Jesus, which would then move them to seek Jesus actively; then—and only then—they would be in a position to take the final step to following Jesus as an “intentional disciple” in the midst of his Church.

Catechists, and evangelizers, and many a committed Catholic are often frustrated in their attempts to draw others back to Church for the very simple reason that we have failed to understand the psychology of this fundamental process of going from non-practicing (or non-believing) to committed discipleship. Weddell’s paramount contribution—and what makes Forming Intentional Disciples one of the most important books written in the past decade on the topic of evangelization—is precisely to focus our attention on this process, to explore it, and help us to understand it so we can become much more effective in our evangelizing efforts.

In an online interview with her Bishop Michael Sheridan of the diocese of Colorado Springs, she notes that when she and collaborators at the Catherine of Siena Institute began using the term ‘intentional disciple’, they drew fire from many different groups.  Were they being elitist? Judgmental?  But here again, if Weddell has touched a nerve, that may well indicate that she is exactly right in her assertion that a vast majority of Catholics lack in their self-understanding the very category of committed, active “discipleship” that should be in the very DNA of baptized Christians.

So what does she mean by the term?

 “All we meant,” she explains to Bishop Sheridan, “was ‘intentional’ as in Peter and his brother, on the sea of Galilee… They dropped their nets, and they followed him.”   You don’t do that accidentally… you don’t do it in your sleep… And neither can any of us be disciples in our sleep!”

Sherry2Deliberate, conscious discipleship.

           On one occasion when I was speaking recently to Weddell—who is herself a convert to Catholicism from Evangelical Protestantism—I asked her if she is optimistic about the prospects of the New Evangelization. “Of course I’m optimistic,” she responded without missing a beat, “because I am watching people do it.” In further explaining her optimism, she added: “I come from a world [evangelical Protestantism] where this is normal—making disciples. The question is not whether this is possible, but what are the resources at our disposal. The Church has already supplied us with everything we need.”

To be sure, Sherry Weddell has supplied us with one amazing resource—Forming Intentional Disciples—which is must-reading for any Catholic who wants to be realistically, honestly and effectively engaged in the drama of making disciples.

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10 comments on “This Book is Rocking the Catholic World
  1. As an evangelical convert with a bachelor’ sdegree in biblical studies and a master’s degree in Protestant theology,I am amazed (on the one hand)at how jam packed, precise and helpful Catholic doctrinal and spiritual materials are and (on the other hand) the ignorance of the average Catholic Church attender regarding theological, doctrinal and biblical issues. This author is on to something very big. I wish I could stop there but the same could be said of some clergy. I have subtly and sometimes not so subtly encouraged my priest to me more clear in his teaching and to avoid unhelpful comments that could mislead the average believer. Praying for him every day may be the reason for his changes, but after four years and introduction to materials by Scott Hahn, Steven Ray and other evangelical converts, his homilies have become very evangelical and more organized and focused on moral and doctrinal issues.

  2. Rick says:

    Imagine if no public or private schools in the US had any educational standards or required testing programs in the three Rs. We all know that knowledge of these basic skills (as poor as they are today) would collapse completely. We should not be surprised, therefore, that Catholics are so ignorant. There is what has happened in Catechetical training. There is virtually no testing program to assess the knowledge of teachers or catechists. Students aren’t tested, so they and their teachers are not held accountable for the transmission of knowledge. Ignorance about the truths of the Faith, the Catechism, is traceable to the collapse of accountability in parish CCD teaching, and classroom instruction in the Catholic elementary schools, high schools, and colleges.

  3. Doug says:

    I largely agree with the findings of the book. In fact, I was surprised to find the “practicers” less numerous than I had thought.
    As one of Jehovah’s Witnesses living in the largely Catholic state of New Mexico, I can also attest to the truth of, “many of them have tremendous gaps in their understanding of the faith.” My first wife, of many decades ago, was Catholic. To marry her I agreed to visit with a priest at the local Newman Center, which process I enjoyed. Because of this and because we Witnesses are encouraged to investigate other faith systems, I find that I know more of Catholic dogma and practice than most of my householders.
    We handle the ‘non-intentional Witness’ problem by not counting inactive ones as members. Moreover, we follow the steps outlined by Jesus at Mt 18:15-17. If a Witness goes against Christian [Biblical] practice and commits a serious sin and is unrepentant he is excommunicated. (We call it disfellowshipping; same literal meaning.) You Catholics would very much simplify your own problem, making it easier to address, if you adopted these steps, available in your own Bibles.
    For those interested, more and better information is available at

  4. Julila says:

    What is “intentional”? I don’t get it. Is it the opposite of “passive”? Who are you to determine that about people you don’t know?

  5. TomD says:

    Post-Vatican II religious education in most parishes and dioceses, focusing on personal feelings and subjectivity and away from content and objectivity, has been a disaster for the Church and the people of God. We are reaping this today.

    The religious education establishment will vigorously fight any reform. And I am afraid, in the end, as they are strongly positioned within the Church, they will win.

  6. Richard Mayers says:

    Dear Father,
    Thanks for the great synopsis of Ms Weddell’s book. I do not doubt the statistics quoted in your article regarding the range in commitment to the true teachings of the Church (my take on what the statistics really mean). This is one reason that I am disappointed in Pope Francis’ pastoral approach- I feel like I am one of the only people I know who really feel a little lost or uncomfortable with his focus. Pope Benedict, as I understand it, felt that it was much more important to have a CORE of really committed Catholics, even if it meant a loss of most of the fringe or minimally interested parishioners that call themselves Catholic. The Church was heading back to timeless beliefs, and as more of an anchor, THEN would draw people back. Now the Church seems to be drifting back to the ‘hip’, wishy-washy image that we saw in the 70’s- this to attract people back to the ‘tent’. They won’t stay. I am seriously thinking of joining a Byzantine Catholic Church- they still stand for something.
    Richard Mayers MD

  7. jrp says:

    Sorry for the drive-by, Father, I was just pointed to this website.

    It shouldn’t be surprising an ex-protestant thinks this. I know this seems intuitively like it should be correct, but it is wrong. Dangerously wrong.

    And, I would suggest, it’s a 700 years old error that – among others – lead precisely to protestantism. The difference is that for the last 60 years, the majority of Catholics being bathed in modernism, have forgotten what Aquinas knew 700 years ago, and Aristotle knew 2000 years before that.

    Specifically, that Aristotle was right when he said (and Bl. John Duns Scotus was wrong when he contradicted) that the intellect precedes the will, and formation of the intellect must precede formation of the will. The ‘content of the faith’ has absolutely higher priority in all ways.

    Peter and the Disciples were really ‘catechized’ when they were Jews.

    Properly, catechism happens before baptism and confirmation in the RCIA. It happens to happen out-of-order for those baptized as children, but Catechism ought be complete before confirmation.

    The notion that doesn’t exist – which should – that Ms. Weddell is missing and wants – is ‘mystagogy’. Life with Jesus was mystagogy, it happened after the moment of (voluntary) conversion, and well after ‘catechism’. The Church’s error is in the lack of focus on deepening of the spiritual life.

  8. Jim says:

    The book rocking my world is…

    ‘The Practice of Perfection and Christian Virtues’ by Fr. Alphonsus Rodriguez

  9. Coco says:

    I’ve read the book, but find it to be rather disappointing. All of the statistics speak for themselves, but why is the Church in America in such a terrible state? Perhaps it is because of the deplorable catechesis we’ve had for 40 years. Most Catholics in the pews have no idea that a miracle is actually happening before them at Mass. And so, Mass has become little more than a human event from the perspective of most of the people in the pews on Sunday.

    Without discounting the transforming power of the love of Jesus, at no point does Weddell suggest that, perhaps, we ought to turn to the Bark of St. Peter as our help. Where do I see thriving parishes today? Where the highest form of worship, the source and summit of our faith, is celebrated with the mind of the Church, where the priest is not afraid to teach from the ambo that homosexuality and abortion will hurt you, where the pastor and the people ask, “What does the Church expect of us?” when addressing how to improve the Holy Mass or decide how to spend money. When a parish seeks the mind of the Church, its life is all about God, and not-so-much about us. Then you see an authentic evangelical spirit.

    I sit with my 85-year-old neighbor, a Jehovah’s Witness, every Friday for an couple of hours. He had never met a Catholic who could explain her Catholic faith to him. Oh, and we drive past about 4 parishes to go to Mass because we believe that a Holy Mass is the absolutely best way for children of all ages to learn about God, that is, a Mass that is all about Him, and much less about us!

  10. Ikilope says:

    Interesting, but the lack of scientific research as such does undercut the reliability of her statistics, yet her experience remains sobering enough. Nonetheless the lack of any baseline statistics — what did Catholics actually believe or know in 1950, 1850 or 1350 — leaves any overarching conclusions anecdotal and, though troubling, without any methodological means of interpretation.

Fr. Thomas Berg

Professor of Moral Theology
Saint Joseph's Seminary
Archdiocese of New York

"The courage to engage the whole breadth of reason, and not the denial of its grandeur - this is the programme with which a theology grounded in Biblical faith enters into the debates of our time."

- Benedict XVI, University of Regensburg, Sept. 12, 2006