Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Book Review 2, Sort Of

Originally posted at New Evangelizers on Dec. 13

I read a Whole Lotta Books, but most of them aren't germane to my blog content. And if you want a review of Neptune's Inferno or Korsun Pocket, there are plenty out there that I can't improve on.

On the other hand, the New Evangelization Thing absorbs lots of my free time via 6th-grade Catechism class; and before that, teaching RCIA and Adult Ed with an explicitly Evangelical context. Although back in the late '90s when my wife and I were doing that, we didn't speak of, and I don't think we even had heard of, the New Evangelization. We were simply about helping old and new Catholics understand their faith in a way that enabled them to explain it to their decidedly un-Catholic friends and family.

It's only been in the last 10 years or so that I became aware of the phrase "New Evangelization;" JP2 first used the term about 30 years ago. I didn't know! Regardless, the Bible-Belt Catholic world I inhabit has had an Evangelical posture at least at the margins for what, 15 years or more? So it ain't all that New around here anyway.

About 8 years ago our parish had a 'Called and Gifted' workshop put on by the Siena Institute. It's 'designed to help Christians discern the presence of charisms in their lives.' I didn't attend, already having discovered that my charism was making 6th-graders suffer in Catechism class. But I thought the whole premise was intriguing, and later bumbled into Siena's website and blog. The blog was an eye-opener for me: Siena staff held Called and Gifted events all over the Anglosphere, and the blog was full of close-up observations of worldwide Catholicism: some encouraging, some pretty bleak. Now this was amazing to me because virtually all my friends in Upstate S.C. are gung-ho Catholics; time-treasure-talent Catholics; motivated, energized Catholics. And there are dozens and dozens of them: last Christmas/ New Year's we had two drop-in parties, invited about 100 of our "closest Catholic friends" and still couldn't invite everyone we wanted to.

One day at Siena's blog, founder Sherry Weddell posted about a lonely fired-up Catholic somewhere who didn't know a single other fired-up soul in his parish; and I commented how shocking that was, since my S.C. parish has more than you can shake a stick at. She asked if I belonged to St. Mary's parish in Greenville (she had done the Called and Gifted program here). I said yes, and Sherry remarked that it was not a typical parish.Well, yeah: but that atypical? And there are parishes that apathetic? 

In the meantime I was hearing more about the New Evangelization, which was an idea that harmonized well with my observations and goals in 6th grade Catechism class. I believe the Church is caught in a generational riptide where indifferently-catechized adults are indifferently-catechizing kids; who then grew up to be indifferently-catechized adults, etc. I'm not saying that Institutional Catechism is incompetent, but I am saying it's not very compelling by the time it goes into children's ears. At least I don't find it compelling. And my class goal is explicitly that the kids not just learn their faith, but learn it in a compelling way; and prepare now to evangelize later. I tell them in the first class that they have to pay attention and learn everything they can because I expect them to grow up to be catechists and evangelizers. And they start with their parents: their homework is to tell their parents what they learn. Breaking the riptide must start here and now, and will be a big part of the New Evangelization.

But I tell you what: I've read and heard hundreds of thousands of words about the New Evangelization on video, in print, and in person. And it all strikes me as 95% recycled generic Catholic information with a new name slapped on it. Or a lot of exhortation: like a football coach motivating his team in the locker room. Which is fine, but if the coach hasn't first trained his individual players in how to execute, they'll just get their asses whupped, exhortation or not.

So this brings me to the book, Forming Intentional Disciples by Sherry Weddell.

I first heard the term 'Intentional Disciple' at the Siena blog. It's the best one I know of to describe the sort of lay Catholic without whom there will be no New Evangelization, just a lot of talk about the New Evangelization. I like to say 'fired-up Catholic' or 'motivated Catholic;' but 'Intentional Disciple' is much better. Now Sherry could have defined that term on page 1, and then exhorted us to be intentional disciples and get out there and be New Evangelizers or whatever for another 249 pages, but she doesn't. She and her staff have been training, working with, and listening to, thousands of individual Catholics for more than a decade. So her book is based on that accumulated one-on-one, boots-on-the-ground experience.

Sometimes I tell My Fabulous Wife, "Bein' married t'you ain't like being married t'other women;" which is a compliment. Likewise, reading Forming Intentional Disciples isn't like reading other books on the New Evangelization. Which is also a compliment. The first few chapters describe the indifference and lassitude of the vast majority of the Catholic laity. Some info is statistical (not too much), but Sherry also includes lots of personal testimony from Catholics she has interviewed. Stuff I never heard of and would not have guessed at; and I expect most Catholics wouldn't guess at, either.

Then she describes real people and real parishes where things were turned around by small groups of...intentional disciples. At this point she could exhort you, the reader, to make a bunch of intentional disciples, turn around your parish and get busy with the New Evangelization! But she doesn't: the bulk of the rest of the book describes a step-by-step process of, you guessed it, actually Forming Intentional Disciples. Some of it is managerial and general, but there's lots of specific, interpersonal stuff in it as well, such as:

  • Talk explicitly about Jesus. 
  • Questions to ask people to draw them out about how their faith is lived (or not).
  • How to listen.
  • The stages people go through to become intentional disciples, and how to recognize where an individual is in that process. And again, these chapters are full of examples of real people in real parishes. 

The last chapter is titled 'Expect Conversion,' which would be a vacuous exhortation except that it is preceded by 11 substantial chapters containing concrete steps, specific advice, and real-life examples of what is already being accomplished by parishes using Siena's system. Particulars aside, the main reason I like this book is that it plops the responsibility for New Evangelizing right where it belongs: in the lap of the laity. And having done so, it then shows how the laity can get the job done. Not by talking about the New Evangelization, but by generating a critical mass of intentional disciples in one's parish. Based on my experience, if a parish has that, the rest happens of its own accord.

I'm not going into more detail. I'll close by saying that any Catholic who wants to see his or her parish become salt and light to the world would find Forming Intentional Disciples both an interesting read and a useful guide.