The Turn to Discipleship
By Fr. Frank DeSiano, CSP
Parishes have to shift their focus toward a more explicit language of discipleship, and then they have to back that language up with more explicit behaviors that place discipleship at the heart of the Catholic experience.
Why do we need to do this? Because our main emphasis for so long was to rely on various cultural forms to pass faith from one generation to the next or, for that matter, to even invite people to think about becoming Catholic. What cultural forms? For one, our residual ethnicity as a way to preserve some kind of Catholic identity. Is it not true that, for many decades, German Catholics were convinced that, unless their people preserved the German language, they would then leave the Church? We see something analogous to this in terms of the Spanish language and Catholicism as well.
Another form was the parish as a social center. This worked best when Catholicism was mostly urban and neighborhoods had largely ethnic patterns, but it was bigger in scope. With this model, we could offer a cradle-to-grave Catholic social experience. Even if someone didn’t go to Mass, they could still belong to the parish in some sense, including burial by the Church. While some parishes can maintain this kind of connection in suburban environments, the truth is that no one is locked into any particular cultural experiences today. There are simply too many choices people have; as a result, parishes cannot depend on education, sports, and social activities and organizations (women’s club, men’s club, Knights of Columbus, sodality, senior’s club, etc.) to attract children, teens, and adults in the same way today
These social constructs no longer serve as a center for Catholic identity. What was implicit in our Catholic life—discipleship as living in union with Christ and serving others—needs to become explicit in such a way that Catholics (and others) see their religious life today as intimately focused on Jesus through their personal commitment and, furthermore, that this focus on Christ brings perceivable differences in their lives and the lives of others.
A more radical way of saying this: Catholic parishes need to look like the Kingdom of God—both the structures of the Kingdom as revealed in the life of Jesus (healing, forgiving, including, serving) and the vision of the Kingdom as the early followers of Jesus proclaimed and gave witness to it. Again, these dimensions are implicitly part of every parish’s agenda, but they are not always recognized as explicit dimensions of the Kingdom. Here we need to acknowledge, without too much self-congratulation, the enormous investment many Catholics have made in caring for others through parish structures, from bringing the Eucharist to the homebound to gathering volunteers for the local food bank. Catholic parishes always need to put care for others front and center.
I believe a transition to a more explicit focus of parish on discipleship and the Kingdom of God involves some time. But I do not believe this is an enormous transition because, as I always affirm, elements of discipleship flow through our Catholic life. Seeing these elements and, more importantly, helping Catholics to see these elements, can bring a new energy to parish life. It’s not the content of discipleship but rather the manner of living discipleship that will drive this necessary transition.
To read more on this topic, see our latest book, Beyond the Pews: From Parishioners to Disciples. Chapter 5, in particular, addresses current trends in American faith culture that underscore the necessity of an explicit focus on discipleship in our parishes.