Forming intentional disciples

Filed in Catholic by on February 28, 2014 17 Comments


I’m re-reading Forming Intentional Disciples, people… Yes, in fact, I think I could read it three or four times. You might want to revisit with me some of the key points, because often we can read something, think how wonderful/true/insightful that is, and then promptly forget about it. In this instance, the concept that has struck me is the idea that discipleship involves three distinct journeys, which should happen together, but often are treated separately. Just to remind you (from p. 54):

  •  The personal interior journey of a lived relationship with Christ resulting in intentional discipleship;
  • The ecclesial journey into the Church through reception of the sacraments of initiation;
  • The journey of active practice (as evidenced by receiving the sacraments, attending Mass, and participating in the life and mission of the Christian community).

The interactions of these three journeys play out in many ways. We all know swathes of Catholics who have completed the middle (sacramental) journey without the first or the third becoming a reality. Perhaps they are even lapsed. We might even know many who are well-advanced in the second and third journeys – they bake cakes for the fundraising event, take their children to and even teach on sacramental programmes, and sit on various parish committees.

But if the evidence of the book is correct and only 5% of parishioners are “intentional disciples”, this means that a staggeringly large percentage (95%?) are ‘stuck’ in this third journey. Perhaps they enjoy the community of their church, perhaps they appreciate the liturgy, perhaps they are keen for their children to be brought up in the faith. But they have not experienced the life-giving and transformative power of a personal, intimate, daily relationship with Jesus Christ.

Which is what it’s all about!

Let’s be clear that this is the main reason of existence for our parishes. We can draw people in to sing in the choir, be on a buildings committee, help with a First Communion programme. But unless these are the first steps into a living relationship with Jesus, we seem to be missing the point.

What do you think? In your experience, how do you see the interactions of these three journeys in your own parish life? 

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About the Author ()

Hannah Vaughan-Spruce is an experienced catechist and youth worker, who now works for the Diocese of Portsmouth. Some of her Jericho Tree articles were first posted at her personal catechetical blog Transformed in Christ. They are used here with permission. See

Comments (17)

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  1. Tonia says:

    This is one of the great things about blogging, you can record your thoughts on a book and not only share them but go back yourself and remind yourself what the book is about. Forming Intentional Disciples is a fantastic book and definitely one that needs reading again and again.

  2. Dorothea Rose says:

    You’re spot on, Hannah. Unless you have a personal relationship with Jesus as your Lord, an expression which seems to embarrass many Catholics, you are really only going through the motions. The other elements are good and, of course, the sacraments are al-important, but you are missing the essence of your faith.

  3. Paul Rodden says:

    I completely agree…as long as we define – very carefully – what is meant by a ‘personal relationship with Jesus’. The majority of people I know who claim to have a ‘personal relationship with Jesus’ are, more often than not, mistaking their own interiority, or some psycho-somatic experience, for the transcendent, or at worse, it’s simply a vehicle for some neurosis.

    That is, I think you are absolutely right that a ‘personal relationship with Jesus’ colours the whole thing, but we have to be extremely cautious about what we take that to be.

    Being a Jesuit, Pope Francis gets this completely. Read him through the the lens of his formation – the Spiritual Exercises and the best of modern research in Christian Psychotherapy, Sociology, and Anthropology – and one realises he sees right through the clericalism, narcissism, and ‘Promethean Neo-Pelagianism’ all about us in the pews (and sadly often in the pulpit). His skills in discernment are razor-sharp. He can tell the genuinely mystical from the mad, the authentically Charismatic from the shamanic Charismaniac (as most of us should be able to discern if we’re well formed disciples).

    In short, it is easy to mistake this prevalent New Age/Neo-Gnosticism posing as a ‘personal relationship with Jesus’ which is rife in the Church, for something genuine, without a trained eye. After all, ‘How could something that seems so right be so wrong, especially if so many others agree with us, and our ‘gurus’ are condoning it, too?’.

    In my experience, what most people mean by ‘a personal relationship with Jesus Christ’, is actually the first step on the slippery slope into the Sea of Relativism (subjectivism) as, before long, ‘Jesus’ ends up trumping the Church. Oh, it’s only a tiny little thing at first, where the voice of the ‘Holy Spirit’ has told them something. But, at that point, the authority of the Church has been compromised in their consciousness. It is the beginning of Self-Deception.

    I’ve seen it happen too many times in the lives of those with a ‘personal’ relationship with Christ, where the ‘personal’ ends up as the criterion for discernment. For these individuals, if their parish is ‘dead’, they end up hopping off to the local Evangelical Church, or Father X’s Church, twenty miles away where there are ‘orthodox’ like minds. Some move on completely if they don’t see eye-to-eye with a new priest, as if the priest should be what I want him to be.

    I would say Laura McAlister, writing below, ‘gets it’, and is an example of what it means to have a real personal relationship with Christ:

    And also the latest post on Two Catholic Men and a Blog – ‘The Outside System’ – is very important in this context:

    It’s why I’m Catholic and not Evangelical or ‘Charismatic’, why I’m totally committed to my parish, whatever betide, and really don’t wish to have ‘a personal relationship with Christ’. It’s presumptuous for starters.

    As our wonderful new priest said in his homily yesterday, ‘the joy of being a Catholic priest [as opposed to an Anglican which he was before] is that, “None of it’s mine”‘ ‘. He pointed out it’s not his faith, it’s not his Mass, not his congregation… He is called to serve.

    This is what a Catholic ‘personal relationship with Jesus’ has to look like to me if I am part of an organic unity called the Church rather than merely a coterie of individuals like a Protestant congregation:

    • mags says:

      Mass completely is All about the Trinity regardless of whether there is a congregation or not ~ we realise this most of all when we turn up to Mass on the priests ‘day off’ (because we forget the day) and stay to experience the Mass being offered up by him regardless of our presence ~ ad orientem. Its a powerful witness.

      However ~ The Eucharist fills me with a depth, a warmth, and a charge that deeply and intimately nourishes and stills me, and re-charges all parts of me at once. To be ‘inseminated’ by His spirit is such an intimate, physical and spiritual nourishment and encounter, that one cannot resist but allow oneself to be ‘impregnated’ by it. ‘Pregnant’ with His Love which then compels us to reach out to others in Gods Love.

      And because of this I have come to understand that although transubstantiation is a transformation of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, on a very deep level I believe that transubstantiation simultaneously transforms us (who are made in the image and likeness of God) when we are deeply committed and present at Mass and when we allow it to do so. The liturgy therefore must of course assist us in reaching this highest possible encounter.
      Mass is the greatest prayer. Once you have truly experienced it nothing else will equal it. Problem that.

    • Well said.
      In terms of personal relationship with Christ, I think of an analogy that revolves around sports. Let’s take basketball for instance; it has rules and officials. There are boundaries on the court as well. Does all this take away the personal experience out of playing basketball? No, the rules, officials and boundaries make the game of basketball possible. Without them, no basketball player could ever fulfill his or her destiny as a basketball player. It’s the same with God’s rules, God’s boundaries, and God’s officials (The Church). They make us free to enter into a personal relationship.

  4. mags says:

    In terms of personal relationship with Christ ~ Gods rules are ~ You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength & You must love your neighbour as yourself. His command is that you walk in love. The commandment which you have heard since the beginning, to live a life of love. Jesus,~ the apostles ~ Mary Magdalene ~ Joanna the wife of Chuza Herod’s steward ~ Susanna, and many others appeared to all work together in harmony as the Original Church ~ to fulfil not their own ~ but Gods Destiny.

  5. Paul Rodden says:

    Hi Mags.
    Thank you for replying.
    You write beautifully in your first reply, and truthfully in your second, and I wouldn’t want to ‘problem’ either.

    My issue is one of the criteria of judgement, not genuine personal experience or objective truth.

    Newman talked about the illative sense, and Lonergan, a ‘heuristic structure’. The gist of these ideas is that, when we come to a judgement, there’s a whole raft of interrelated and overlapping elements within consciousness which lead to the insight/understanding (based on that ‘hunch’). That is, the data which becomes important is far wider than that of the immediate concern. Imagine a trampoline with hundreds of marbles even spread out on it, and then depress the trampoline at one point with a finger and watch what happens to the marbles…
    But, in short, the illative sense is what leads to the bedrock conviction of Real Assent.

    I’m not wanting to ‘dis’ any of the excellent books that are coming out. I had ‘Forming Intentional Disciples’ and ‘Evangelical Catholics’ by Weigel pre-ordered before they were published because I was so excited, and had them both read almost the day they arrived. They are great books, and full of brilliant insights. I loved them, and still dip into them.

    My concern, however, is if they are used as the ‘lens’ through which to start viewing reality and so become a ‘straight-jacket’ or ‘microfilter’ through which to measure the spiritual life in too-fine a level of detail. Or, to put it another way, where the insights restrict, or lead to a reductionism in the whole gamut of possibilities in, the spiritual life.

    One tacit assumption might be, for example, that if you do A, B, and C, e.g., go through the three ‘stages’ Weddell outlines (concurrently or linearly doesn’t matter), then a healthy spiritual life will somehow ‘drop out’ the bottom, when it’s actually a non-sequitur. There are no necessary correlations in the spiritual life.

    An example of this for me is when people suggest restricting Confirmation, for example, when the validity of a sacrament has little relation to ‘input’.

    Should people be catechised? Absolutely. But force them to do a year? Is there a correlation between length of catechesis and conversion rate? If there is, aren’t we saying it’s about human factors? Then we might also start judging conversion being correlated to the quality of catechesis, or how emotionally appealing or funny the catechist makes it which ‘converts’ the kids.

    If so, how did the Early Church ‘spin it’ when a catechumen was signing their own death warrant through conversion?

    I know too many good and faithful Catholics who feel very inadequate in the face of a lot of this new, hard-sell, doctrinally heavy, idealistic (if not ideological) stuff that’s going round the blogsphere (and seeping into parishes). I believe it is creating a sort of elitism, them and us, even if it’s not ‘intentional’ (sorry for the pun!).

    Let’s consider criteria:

    So, 2% or 5% are ‘intentional Disciples’ (%age doesn’t matter). But that’s just Weddell’s criterion for judging who’s ‘in’ and who’s ‘out’. If I use her criteria, then it’s way less than that in my parish.

    But what if we assume Weddell has no ‘magisterial’ authority’ or right to set the criterion?
    What if we include those who – even though they’d not even know what a personal relationship with Jesus Christ is – go to Mass every day, but if you asked them why, can’t tell you? Are they defective Catholics?

    If we include them (which I want to), then, my parish has probably 15% faithful Catholics, but who aren’t ‘intentional disciples’. But so what? Do I need to make them fit the ‘Weddell formula’? No.

    In other words, all percentages tell us is who fit Weddell’s own criteria of who or what she thinks a disciple should be. It’s a completely false measure, unless we want to be ‘Weddellians’.

    It is easy to conflate the good in the book with a bolierplate for judgement or as a definitive or normative definition of a disciple.

    I think there is a danger in allowing pet theories or latest gurus create criteria of judgement, and we have to question the wisdom of this. There’s a risk of faddism, and also a sort of ‘catechetical pelagianism’: that catechesis can save people. All they need to do is understand correctly, and then they’ll do the right thing: that’s Socrates, not Christianity.

    So, I think Weddell makes really brilliant points. My copy is scribbled all over and underlined. BUT, however useful, it’s just something else to ponder and ‘add to the pot’ of useful insights and ideas.

    I’d consider myself an Evangelical Catholic. I’d consider myself an Intentional Disciple. But I’m a whole lot more – but so is every precious soul in our parish. So, I don’t use tools to separate ‘sheep and goats’. There is no 5% or 10% club in Catholicism.

    We have to be far more wary of discerning the difference between Evangelisation and Proselytism, Discipleship and Fanaticism, Cranks and Catholics, I believe. There are too many people who want a Church in their own image.

    So often, I have Catholics shove leaflets in my hand about their hobby-horse: however worthy or not. They want me to join their 10% club. They want to convert me. But, do they actually care about me, apart from as a vehicle for, or validation of, their interests? Hmmm.

    Based on this, my fear in the orthodox sphere, is what I’d call a sort of ‘Creeping Donatism’.

    • Paul Rodden says:

      Hey! But wait! Haven’t you just contradicted yourself? Don’t YOU just want people to belong to your Anti-Charismatic ‘10% club’?

      No. Because I’m not anti-Charismatic at all. My issue is with the criteria and conditionals used by Charismatics on me which, to me, seem to run contrary to providence.
      What do I mean?

      I’m hoping that one day the sort of comments, below, will no longer be heard, and people won’t be trying to ‘sell’ their ‘brand’ of Catholicism (or shove a leaflet about it in my hand, with a, ‘You really should read this!’):

      “BUT IF only you would only give your life to Jesus, THEN…”
      “BUT IF only you would open yourself to the Spirit, THEN…”
      “BUT IF only you would allow the sheer beauty of the Extra-Ordinary Form of the Mass touch you, THEN…”
      – you get the gist. It’s normally couched in terms of how it will benefit me. It may be true, of course, but there’s simply no correlation between the if..then. Yet, it’s often implied, because it’s describing part of the speaker’s (current) experience, or at worst, simply their feelings. The big risk is the desolation the listener will feel if the ‘then’ doesn’t materialise, ‘if’…. (I have often had to pick up the pieces, when I was a pastoral assistant, or see ecstatic, smiling charismatics on Sunday, crying into their Kleenex when they come to talk to me about how depressed they are on Wednesday.)

      I find this little different from people who, after not receiving an answer to prayer, turn to ideas such as whether they prayed the right prayer, prayed enough, or had enough people interceding, as if one more prayer, person, or word, would have made the outcome any different.

      As far as I’m concerned, only the Church has the authority given to it to communicate authentic conditionals, “BUT IF you receive the Eucharist worthily and with the correct disposition, THEN…”

      My rule is to never tell people what will benefit them if it’s not something they have the capacity to influence or change, or be certain about (but offer help too, if appropriate), otherwise they could be left completely disheartened or alienated.

      To realise how damaging this can be, just note how much the smell of ‘Jansenism’ (‘Catholic Guilt’) is still part of the air many Catholics breathe and how, if there’s the slightest chance something’s likely to be taken negatively and reinforce the sense they have of how inadequate they are as a Catholic already, it will be.

  6. mags says:

    Paul, thank you.

    The spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius paragraphs 351 concerning scruples touches upon your final paragraph.

    I read all your words and I wanted to shout ~ Its about people being inspired to fall in Love with God. Its about inspiration.

    We are all children of God ~ All of us ~ At every age and stage in and out of time. He works by inspiring ~ by breathing Life into us.

    We are made with an intuition and an inherent knowledge of Original Love ~ God who is Love ~ so deep and so real, and in all the theorising we can lose it, we can become numb to it. We have to allow that inherent intuition to lead us, we have to trust that God is doing His work, at the right pace for each person (which will be different in each person). With all our Faith we should see and know that its Gods call, not Wedells, not Newman’s, not yours and not mine. But what we mustn’t do is stop the inspiration being passed on from human to human ~ because God uses people to inspire others ~ thats the way the Spirit blows ~ And That Gods Call. Thats God calling us to Him.

    • Paul Rodden says:

      Hi Mags.

      I agree completely with you, but again you seem to be assuming I’m attacking something I’m not, or that I’m trying to be some sort of killjoy. :)

      I’m all for inspiration, and God clearly uses disciples to inspire others. The Lives of the Saints I find the most inspirational, for starters, yet they’re dead!

      At this point I would say we now need to define – very carefully – what we mean by ‘inspiration’, and we’re back where we started at the issue of ‘Discernment of Spirits’.

      My issue is simply with people getting the wrong end of the stick, mistaking something for something else, because it looks the same.

      As an analogy, if I bought a fake Rolex in good faith from someone who believed it was genuine too, it doesn’t stop it being a fake, does it? It’s just that the seller and I have both been duped. Neither of us would know any better until an expert sees it. But, until that time, we both believe something to be completely genuine, when it is fake.

      Now, I’m no fan of Michael Voris – and yet he inspires many with his acerbic manner, but his ‘Vortex’ on a ‘Personal Relationship with Jesus’, last October, hits the nail on the head.

      There are just too many charlatans and snake-oil salesmen out there apart from those whom I believe to be sincerely misguided (people like Patricia De Menezes and ‘Our Lady of Surbiton’). We have to make sure we don’t let our wishful thinking block hearing what we don’t want to hear for the sake of comfort or consolation, that’s all. Many of the women ‘under the spell’ of the Rev Chris Brain of the ‘Nine O’Clock Service’, claimed he was inspirational (as do most (esp. women) who fall into the grip of cults) , for example.'Clock_Service

      The ‘Cult of Personality’ of leaders, and their subsequent ‘Apotheosis’ by those ‘inspired’, are well documented.

      That’s why I await the ruling of the Church on Medjugorje with indifference, whilst ‘the Charismatics’ are judging it genuine, and ‘the Traditionalists’, false.

      One of those groups will be disappointed, the other, filled with schadenfreude, because both have so much riding on it for any findings to be seen as truly joyful rather than simply a vindication of a viewpoint now…

      For me, like with antiques (and a Rolex), I think ‘provenance’, discernment, and detachment, are all required in the formation and discernment of a healthy spiritual life.

      We have to be able to judge whether what’s being passed on is the Faith – or a virus.

      • mags says:

        ‘When Jesus speaks of his death and resurrection, of the path of God which does not correspond to the human path of power, flesh and blood re-emerge in Peter: “He took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him … This must never happen to you” (16:22). Jesus’ response is harsh: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me” (v. 23). Whenever we let our thoughts, our feelings or the logic of human power prevail, and we do not let ourselves be taught and guided by faith, by God, we become stumbling blocks. Faith in Christ is the light of our life as Christians and as ministers in the Church!’

        ~ Papa Francis

  7. mags says:

    The spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius paragraphs 351 concerning scruples touches upon your final paragraph.

    (your final paragraph to your first response)

  8. mags says:

    Thats why faith and reason should both be inhabited at All times.

    I presumed nothing about you – attacking or otherwise – about your posts. They are your words. I read your posts with an open mind, in kindness, looking to learn, to be inspired. That was only your perception, from your perspective outlook.

    I am inspired by listening ~ by hearing, reading, seeing in the same way as we practice Lectio Devina, where things reach out to me, speak to me, surprise or startle me, and bring me to a higher attention ~ as when listening to His Word.

    I come back to these posts many many times and read, and read, and read over and over, and go away, and come back again and again to things that are sitting uneasy or inspiring me.

    I feel, and I hear, and I see, and I read, as if I were the recipient, and then as if I were the writer, and then as if I were the reader, then the casual observer, and I question, and I have an initial intuitive response that should be trusted for my initial reaction, and then I have a deeper response that discerns both my initial response and the peeled away layers of having looked again and again and again from differing perspectives ~ knowing that my own perspective is both flawed and perfectly prescribed by God.

    I said in a previous post on response to a different blog ‘its not about personality, it’s about something far higher . God. God who is Love and Spirit. Who inspires us. And His Inspiration reaches us not only through creation but through others who have been inspired by Him, this reaches us through art, beauty, architecture, quality of liturgy, presentations, lectures, His Word made real, authenticity, humility and holiness.

    I am however not easily bought by other peoples ‘here say’ ~ which is why I consider my own absolute experience, in the light of others so say experience, and I question them all. ~ And sometimes I feel things absolutely to be true which I have yet to be heard addressed. And I look to Jesus and the lessons and models He gave us. He be my teacher, or in your words my ‘guru’.

  9. mags says:

    The viruses are just that ~ spread by people that are trying to topple any discernment process.

    Gods teachings are absolute. When He bestows the Truth upon us, no amount of toppeling will suffice.

    Amen x

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