Sunday, June 9, 2013

A Personal Relationship With Christ?

A video from my home diocese of Sioux Falls (here) drew me to Sherry Weddell's book on promoting discipleship in the Catholic Church and also gave me the American expression which would not come to me in my previous post where I resorted to the German expression "Volkskirche". The equivalent as Sherry points out is "cultural Catholicism" and she opposes it to what she terms "intentional Catholicism", which ought better to guarantee a personal relationship with God in Jesus Christ:

"If this trend does not change, in ten years it will cease to matter that we have a priest shortage. The Builders will be largely gone, the Boomers retiring, and our institutions — parishes and schools — will be emptying at an incredible rate. Sacramental practice will plummet at a rate that will make the post-Vatican II era look good, and the Church’s financial support will vanish like Bernie Madoff’s investment portfolio. So let’s be clear: In the twenty-first century, cultural Catholicism is dead as a retention strategy, because God has no grandchildren. In the twenty-first century, we have to foster intentional Catholicism rather than cultural Catholicism." [Weddell, Sherry (2012-07-05). Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus (p. 39). Our Sunday Visitor. Kindle Edition.] 

In the first chapter of her book, tagged "God has no Grandchildren", she quotes all the most reputable statistical information and seems to imply that cultural Catholicism once worked as a retention strategy... I don't know how old Sherry is, but my life experience tells me a very different story. American Catholicism has always been marked by powerful "shots-in-the-arm" through immigration and no small number of conversions from Protestantism or from the "nones" category at the time of marriage. People have always "fallen away" from the Church and in big numbers; I know how this has worked in an older generation of Catholics, all long dead, in my mother's family. American Catholicism has always been more of a "free market enterprise" than was Catholicism in the "Old Country". 

Culturally Catholic immigrants have never done well in the U.S. especially when isolated in non-Catholic areas, but even when dispersed among other good and active Catholics in parishes of different ethnic heritages. Italians, for instance, were never many in my part of the world and invariably when I was growing up an Italian family name could denote most anything but Catholic practice. The great challenge today among immigrants to the U.S. from Latin America is to offer them a cultural context within which to insert themselves. I think Sherry is sorely mistaken in contrasting cultural and intentional. There's nothing more intentional than a welcoming cultural context. Defection among Catholics stems from a sense of alienation within the community. They wander off for lack of intentional social support. My personal relationship with Christ, nourished by prayer and Divine Worship (liturgy) cannot be without an intentional/cultural context. The visible Church is the sine qua non for a relationship with Christ, the Bridegroom. My intention is not without its cultural context.

Perhaps the crisis of marriage and family today can be of help in understanding the gist of my argument. People who marry for love are no more likely to remain faithful a whole life long. Not only do the couple have to choose each other again and again, day by day, year by year, in the course of their marriage, but they really need a supportive social context to carry them through those days when personal intent or resolve seems to flag. 

Sherry wants us all to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ; she wants us, like good evangelicals or pentecostals, to be able to mark that conversion experience. I think she may be seeking a greater heroism than the one of the martyrs, even greater than that of a true giant of the early Church, St. Ignatius of Antioch, would have claimed for himself in seeking the support of the Christian community of Rome on his path to martyrdom:

“I have prayed to the Lord to see your godly faces and I have persevered in prayer until I have been granted this — for I hope to greet you, as a prisoner in Christ Jesus, if only I am found worthy to reach the end of my journey. Things have begun well and all now depends on my receiving the grace to reach my goal and receive my inheritance unhindered. But I fear your love for me and I fear the harm it can do me: it is so easy for you to do what you want and so hard for me to reach God if you do not spare me your help.
  You habitually do what pleases God: do what pleases him now and not what pleases men. I shall never have a better opportunity of reaching God, and you will never have the opportunity of performing a better act than now, by keeping silence. If you remain silent, I shall become the word of God; but if your love of my physical life makes you speak, I shall be nothing but a meaningless cry.
  Grant me nothing more than this: that I should be poured out to God, while an altar is still ready for me. Form yourselves into a chorus of love and sing praise to the Father in Christ Jesus for permitting this bishop of Syria to be summoned from the place of the sun’s rising to the sunset lands. Just as the sun sets only to rise again, how good it is to set to this world, to set and then to rise in God.”

I want to read the rest of Sherry's book, but chapter one seems lacking in balance. Our cultural context is ineluctable; it is the fertile soil needed for yielding thirty, sixty or a hundred fold.


  1. Archbishop, I didn't read chapter one as contrasting culture (in its deep sense) with the need for a personal relationship... I certainly agree with you that a thriving cultural context is necessary in order for one's personal/intentional discipleship to thrive.

    I think part of the issue is that language like "personal relationship with Jesus Christ" typically carries an evangelical ecclesiology & spirituality, but it needn't be so... Ratzinger/Benedict (like his predecessor and successor) repeatedly used the phrase (before and as pope) and stressed its importance, e.g. “Christian faith is not only a matter of believing that certain things are true, but above all a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.”


    1. Chris, you're good. The issue indeed, as you say, is not one of contrasting or setting a personal relationship in opposition to, let's say, personal conviction, but rather of seeing how the culture, "Catholic culture", carries both. My biggest difficulty with chapter one is the way of interpreting the data. I doubt if there is really more "wastage" in contemporary Catholicism than there was 50 or 100 years ago. Back then people were ashamed to call themselves "former" anything and often unchurched children didn't have any idea of the faith background of their parents or grandparents.

      I'd love to see many more lay Catholics with a vibrant personal relationship with Christ, but for the general populace I think we need to privilege building the culture by getting across the message about the sanctity of human life, about the centrality of marriage and family to the life of the Church and about how indispensable the classic pillars of faith practice are, viz. the precepts of the Church and basic catechism.

      Keep up the good work!

  2. Your Excellency, I think often times especially when the protestants say that we Catholics don't know Jesus personally, it's an attack on the whole of Catholicism, in the fact that being Catholic undertakes everything, and every part of our being, and somethings do go to the sub conscious level....but things being on the sub conscious doesn't mean that it is not in the conscious level as well.

    Without a Catholic culture, it is hard for the Faith really to take root, which is one advantage that other countries have over America which has never really had a Catholic culture as a collective whole.

  3. Having just left Ireland after a seven year visit there, I am dubious about the ability of a "culturally Catholic context" to deliver the goods in these days. The Irish are on the verge of introducing both abortion and gay marriage there, and they are 87% baptized Catholics. The place is full of machinery for delivering the faith (Catholic Schools, hospitals, parishes, religious orders, universities) but the faith is not being transmitted. The idea of a personal relationship with the Lord, or genuine discipleship, is just plain missing.

    When I read John Paul II, I see personal conversion, personal relationship with Jesus everywhere, and intended for each. " his Incarnation, he, the son of God, in a certain way united himself with each man.The Church therefore sees its fundamental task in enabling that union to be brought about and renewed continually. The Church wishes to serve this single end: that each person may be able to find Christ, in order that Christ may walk with each person the path of life, with the power of the truth about man and the world that is contained in the mystery of the Incarnation and the Redemption and with the power of the love that is radiated by that truth." (Redemptor Hominis 13). He emphasises the 'eachness" of it 17 times in that section. This is how the fabric of a Christian culture can be woven back's a painfully personal process...

  4. Your Excellency:

    Thank you for raising this important issue. I must admit that I never expected to have the honor of discussing the issue with an apostolic nuncio.

    As you noted, you have only read the first of twelve chapters. In chapter 1, I didn’t assert that old style “cultural Catholicism” actually worked as a retention strategy in the past. I personally don’t know if it ever did work as a retention strategy and, although I am interested in the topic, I have never been able to find really solid data on that point.

    My concern is that actual pastoral practice in ordinary diocesan parishes in the US still usually begins with the premise that cultural Catholicism as experienced in the early 20th century is working as a retention strategy in the 21st century although that is obviously no longer the case. I wrote the book and chapter 1 in particular for the three million hardest-of-the-hard-core American Catholic leaders who shape pastoral practice at the parish level and still operate on that presumption.

    In chapters 6 and 12, I write at considerable length on the tremendous need for what you describe “a supportive social context to carry them through those days when personal intent or resolve seems to flag.” As anyone who has read our blog or knows our work well, I talk incessantly about the need for robust Christian community. I also made it clear that I was not talking about an isolated, individual relationship with Christ – sometimes called “me and Jesus” Christianity in the US. In fact, when I read your words “Defection among Catholics stems from a sense of alienation within the community. They wander off for lack of intentional social support.”, I thought for a moment you were quoting my own words.

    Unfortunately, there is an issue that must be addressed first. We must grasp that huge numbers of Catholics – even active ones - don’t believe in the God at the heart of the Catholic faith and that has enormous implications for the culture that currently fills our parishes in the early 21st century.

    We have learned in 20 years of listening to tens of thousands of lay, religious, and ordained Catholics in hundreds of parishes tell us their stories of their relationship with God that the Pew Forum was right when it found that only 60% of American Catholics believe in a personal God and less that half (48%) are certain that they can have a personal relationship with God.

    There certainly is a wide-spread culture in American parishes but it is most often a culture shaped by a communal spiritual experience of ordinary lay Catholics which does not include conscious discipleship. This living culture of American Catholics and the culture of silence that it engenders often makes it difficult for Catholics to realize that a personal relationship with Jesus Christ is even possible, must less normative. As one diocesan leader told me a few months ago after I spoke to his bishop and an invitation-only group of leaders, “I didn’t know until today that I could have a personal relationship with Jesus.”

    The power of culture cuts both ways. The power of this living culture can and often does suppress the expression of discipleship in many American parishes and drives many of our most spiritually hungry members to other Christian groups where discipleship is freely talked about. This is what I refer to as the “hidden hemorrhage” in chapter 6.

    I absolutely agree that we desperately need Catholic culture as a “welcoming cultural context” but it must be a truly Catholic culture in which following Jesus Christ as Lord in the midst of his Church for the sake of the world is both the center and the norm. And that is going to require some deliberate reforming of parish culture by intentional disciples at all levels.

    In Christ,

    Sherry Weddell

    1. Dear Sherry,

      So good of you to write. In between other things, I am continuing to read and promise you a positive review here in my little blog once I have finished. Coming from a Catholic family where the presence of Christ as communicated by our parents was understood and embraced, with reinforcement from Church and School,so-called "retention strategies" were always an enormity, damnable really. Even St. Jean Marie Vianney couldn't hear everyone's confession or give direction to every soul: preaching and example, and yes the culture carried him too.

      You have given yourself to the new evangelization and most certainly would never withhold your support from less verbal witnesses. I remember my mom's dread that any of us children as adults might not make the effort to get to Sunday Mass that one time a year we might be off on vacation. She had never read the witness of St. Justin Martyr before his judges, but she knew it and believed it as well as he: We Christians cannot live without Sunday Eucharist. Catholic culture forms intentional discipleship.

  5. Your Excellency:

    I work in campus ministry (at Texas A&M). I think you are both correct. There can be ways in which Catholic culture forms intentional disciples, but there is also a time when this culture falls apart and doesn't allow for this anymore. From my perspective, experience, and intuition (based on numbers) This is what has happened in the majority of the USA's Catholic Church - we are losing the sheep who haven't ever responded to the Christ's good news, because the Catholic culture fell apart and there isn't anybody preaching it anymore.

    The average self-identified Catholic home of today doesn't look like it did when you or I were growing up. It now looks no different from the home of anybody else.

    This alone tells me our Catholic culture is gone and to resurrect it we must start with Sherry's idea of intentional discipleship. This is done through friendship, community, and intentionally seeking out those that are Catholic in name only or non-Catholics. Sherry's understanding of evangelization is holistic and includes reviving a vibrant Catholic culture.

    From what I have gotten from her thesis, we have to reinvigorate the Church with a hunger for Christ by the initial proclamation of the Gospel. Then we need to form intentional disciples. Then we send them out to the world and repeat this cycle. The multiplication of disciples can and will change our culture and individual lives.

    Thank you for the dialogue and God Bless.
    -Marcel LeJeune

  6. After re-reading my comment, this was a bit overstated "we are losing the sheep who haven't ever responded to the Christ's good news, because the Catholic culture fell apart and there isn't anybody preaching it anymore."

    Of course there are some preaching it still, but many have tuned it out, stopped being engaged, or drifted apart. So, the "reaching out to the lost sheep" hasn't happened on a wide scale. Preaching the Gospel to those in the pews is necessary, but so is getting those who never darken the door of a church.

    1. Thank you, Marcel,
      Don't forget that spiritual combat, the lifelong struggle to choose Christ again and again is central. We don't ever "arrive" until both feet are firmly planted in the grave. Peter and Judas cannot simply be distinguished on the intentionality of their discipleship.

  7. I grew up Catholic, went to Catholic schools and was active in parish life. I was a "believer in Jesus Christ" and could state the creed with absolute belief and faith that what I was saying was true. When I turned 40, life handed me an "unsolvable problem" and I began praying, attending daily Mass, reading Holy Scripture and studying God's Word in an effort to draw close to God, to cry out to Him and to seek after His mercy and grace. I encountered Jesus in a powerful way and this personal encounter with the Living God has changed me and my life here on everyway! I went from being a believer of Jesus to a disciple of the Lord. Being a disciple has changed everything. As a believer, I followed doctrines...but as a disciple, I have fallen in love with a person and I will spend the rest of my life serving Him out of gratitude for His amazing love! Jesus forms the disciple and disciples form the culture.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.