At the very core of the “search for the sacred” is the relationship that each of us has or might have with Jesus. To the extent that we develop this relationship we move forward in our quest for the sacred. We find ourselves asking: “What does this mean in practical terms as we respond to the stirrings within coming from the Holy Spirit.?”
At the heart of these questions is the spectre of evangelization. Have we allowed the love of Jesus to permeate our very being in order to transform us? Personal spiritual transformation is a life long struggle, discipleship is the evidence of our on-going transformation and holiness is the product of that transformation. When we realize that we are chosen by God [for he chooses us] and that we are unable to achieve any degree of holiness without his grace, then we allow God to lift us up through his grace as we pursue discipleship.
In Edward Sri’s book “Into His Likeness”, the author reminds us that “Being a disciple of Jesus in not about merely going through the motions with our faith—attending Mass, saying some prayers, and avoiding bad things. Following Jesus as a disciple is a whole way of life—his way of life transforming us, his agape love radiating through our lesser philia love”. Agape love is a sacrificial love and Jesus calls Peter after the Resurrection to enlarge his heart to allow Peter’s philia love to expand. Peter knows at this point that he can only respond to Jesus out of his lesser human or philia love and Jesus asks Peter 3 times whether Peter loves him knowing at that time that Peter is not capable yet of the higher agape love. Peter’s acknowledgment of his own poverty and fragility is the step that Jesus needs to begin to lift him up that his heart might be transformed. Sri goes on to say, “being a Catholic is not a stagnant reality [enabling us to answer a question as to our faith preference in a survey] but rather a dynamic process that involves spiritual movement and transformation”. He points to Acts 2: 42 and the 4 key habits of a disciple:
- The teaching of the apostles [summarized in the Creeds] out of which Church teaching emerges.
- The breaking of the bread: devotion to the sacraments.
- Fellowship [Community]: relationship building with members of our community which strengthens community spirit and enables us and equips us to share the Gospel.
- Devotion toPrayer- Particularly the Eucharist and meditative prayer that exposes us to growing intimacy with Jesus.
These 4 habits can be summarized as the “A, B, C, D’s” of discipleship. “A” is for the teaching of the Apostles, “B” for the Breaking of the Bread, “C” for the fellowship of Community and “D” for the Devotion characterized by Prayer. This dynamic process requires us to engage in a cultural shift that moves us gradually away from our pre-occupation with self and to a focus on the person of Jesus who we are being called to emulate in our day to day life—not an easy process but one possible with the grace afforded by the Holy Spirit.
At the very heart of our parish’s move to “mission” is the call to each of us to become “missionary disciples”. In a very real way this is a call to “arms”. We have been called to join Jesus in the struggle against the prevailing attitudes of modern secular life, in a post Christian world. Part of the battle plan for each of us is to adopt the cultural imperatives of authentic Christian life by cultivating the A, B, C, D’s of discipleship. This enables us gradually to become the hands, feet, voice and heart of Jesus to those around us. It also enables us to stand firm in our commitment to love as Jesus does and that means a level of agape love which is sacrificial.
With the A, B, C, D’s in mind, what are we doing in terms of formation here at St Joseph’s to assist this process? What are we doing to help form missionary disciples in our midst?
In the Fall of 2016 and Spring of 2017, 11 of us engaged in a Diocesan program called “Heart Transformed”. This remarkable process, which is geared for those who have already heard and responded at least minimally to the Gospel, touched all of us in varied and in significant ways. Our resolution in the Fall of 2017 to move to mission was influenced by Hearts Transformed and we have the video components of the program available to us and intend to make it available to members of our community as we move forward. This exercise in formation addresses all 4 of the habits and I would say is an excellent way to nourish a person’s move into discipleship.
The process of individual formation leading to transformation and discipleship however is lineal. We start with those who are “seekers” who are curious and who are exploring the claims of Christianity and with “inactive Catholics” who have been initiated but have never or who no longer practice. For these people we offer the Kerygma or the Gospel and we have chosen to do that through the Alpha process because ALPHA not only presents the basics of Christianity in an extremely compelling way but it also evangelizes at the heart level. ALPHA therefore is the primary pipeline through which we introduce or re-introduce people to our faith community. ALPHA however, as a piece of the evangelization puzzle, is the first step. On the heels of a completed ALPHA course we intend to move Alpha Alumni into a “Connect Group” which would meet every 3 weeks or so to share a meal, engage in testimonies, prayer, music and prayer ministry. As you can see, this process introduces our seekers and those who accompany them to Community and Devotion to Prayer, two of the habits to be cultivated by disciples. This will give our Alpha Alumni and others who have experienced ALPHA an opportunity to continue to grow in their relationships with one another [thus building Community] and with Devotion to Prayer [thus building intimacy with Jesus]. We will also encourage ALPHA alumni to be involved as hosts or helpers in subsequent Alpha courses so that they can begin to experience ministry. In that way we raise up leaders for Christian community. Those who express an interest in our community will be invited to engage in further formation directed towards the other two habits of a disciple [the A and the B] which are the teaching of the Apostles [Church Teaching] and the Sacraments represented by B which is the Breaking of the Bread if and when they are ready for it and eventually into the Catechumenate of RCIA if they wish to be initiated. The path for initiated but inactive Catholics, who have come through ALPHA will be different. They will be invited to participate in other formation programs [such as scripture study groups] that we will develop to help them to build on the evangelization that has taken place in ALPHA and through the “Connect Group[s]”so that they begin to develop the A and B habits of discipleship.
We are mindful also of the need to develop appropriate formation programs for members of our own community who attend Mass, more or less regularly, but may not as yet been able to catch the “fire” of discipleship. We think that the C and D parts of discipleship building can be accomplished by engaging in ALPHA and the subsequent “Connect Group” for 2 reasons. The first reason is that ALPHA, done well, has a remarkable ability to stimulate evangelization at the heart level and to develop the C and D habits of discipleship. The second reason is that for ALPHA to be a successful evangelization tool in a community it must be “invitational”. Members of the community need to feel motivated to sell ALPHA to their friends, families, workmates and acquaintances. Statistic reveal that 86% of those attending an ALPHA course do so in response to a personal invitation. To do that effectively they should have personally experienced it. As the culture of our community changes to embrace mission, many church-goers will experience a desire to engage in formation programs that will help them to form as disciples. Most of us are at different places on our pilgrimage of faith so encouraging participation and selecting the right material for the right time will be challenging. We will have somewhat limited resources and since we are using ALPHA and the Connect Groups anyways, we might as well us them as the primary [but not excusive] tool to develop the C and D habits of discipleship. What is so exciting about our ALPHA pipeline is that seekers and returning inactive Catholics and regular members of our community who have taken the course will have experienced the culture of ALPHA and the evangelization of the heart that takes place through it. These people will lead the move to cultural change which hopefully will eventually infect everyone and help create the impetus for transformation leading to the development of missionary disciples in our community.
Sometime this year, the parish will subscribe to “FORMED”, an online resource that will make available to members of the parish community books, videos and other resources directed to on-going formation. The distribution by way of gift of the two books over Christmas to parish members is an incentive to formation as will be the availability to our members of the scripture aid, “The Word Among Us”.
We are slowly moving into mission mode. That we are called to evangelization is beyond dispute. The words of scripture ring out as an imperative “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations; baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit and teach them to observe all the commands I gave you”. The last 3 Popes have encouraged us to a “new evangelization”. We are invited to an evangelization that is new in ardour, new in method and new in expression. What is not new is the call to discipleship for that call comes from the lips of Jesus himself and scripture in Acts 2:42, describing the activities of the early Christian Community, records those who were disciples for “these remained faithful to the teachings of the Apostles, to the brotherhood, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers”. Discipleship and evangelization are so closely connected that the one depends on the other. Our emerging mission culture with its elements of outreach help us to answer the Gospel imperative to form disciples and further to bring others to Jesus.