Sherry Weddell was attending a national Catholic conference a number of years ago when a gentleman walked up to her and made a surprising confession. “Until I read your book last month,” he said, “I didn’t know it was possible to have a personal relationship with God.”
Weddell, a Catholic author who has written extensively about evangelization, was floored. “I just sat there with my mouth wide open, trying to figure out what I was going to say next,” she recalled.
After all, the man had grown up in a faithful, practicing family, was highly committed to the Church, and even worked in full-time ministry. Nonetheless, he told Weddell, “Nobody ever talked about relationship with God. I literally didn’t know.”
It turns out that the man was not alone, as Weddell would have many similar conversations in the years that followed. In fact, the 2007 Pew Religious Landscape Survey reported that fewer than half of American adults who identify as Catholic were certain you could have a personal relationship with God. Helping people to discover and form this personal faith, Weddell explains, is essential to evangelization, especially in a world where religious belief is increasingly countercultural.
In 1997, Weddell cofounded the Catherine of Siena Institute, which focuses on helping laypeople use their gifts to serve God and the Church; she currently serves as its executive director. She has also written several books, including Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus (Our Sunday Visitor, 2012) and Fruitful Discipleship: Living the Mission of Jesus in the Church and the World (OSV, 2017).
She recently spoke with Columbia about what Knights of Columbus can do to become faithful disciples and effectively evangelize in their families, parishes and communities.
COLUMBIA: One of the things you discuss in your books is the idea that “God has no grandchildren.” Can you explain what that means?
SHERRY WEDDELL: Basically, it means we don’t live in Christendom anymore. We used to live in a world where Christian thought, values, beliefs and practice dominated the culture, dominated most people’s hearts and minds. And so, to be a believing Christian, all you had to do was go with the tide. But that changed many decades ago, and we don’t live there anymore. Now you have to go against the cultural tide, which in most places is either indifferent or hostile.
We’re in a world where people increasingly don’t just inherit faith. They don’t inherit religious belief from their parents or from being part of a particular ethnic group. Young adults assume that when they come of age, they will piece together their identities themselves. If they were born into faith, they will either walk away or stay because they choose to. So, today we’re in the land of intentional Catholics, not cultural Catholics.
There’s no reason we cannot be a generation of saints now, in the 21st century. We have the same Jesus Christ, the same grace of the Holy Spirit, the same Gospel, the same tradition. The question is, will we respond? Will we say yes?
COLUMBIA: Can you further explain the term “intentional,” especially in relation to Christian discipleship?
SHERRY WEDDELL: Pope John Paul II said something in one of his very first apostolic exhortations that really struck me when I first read it years ago. Most Catholics, he said, do not yet have a “personal attachment to Jesus Christ” — “they have only the capacity to believe placed within them by baptism and the presence of the Holy Spirit” [Catechesi Tradendae, 1979].
He had spent most of his life at that point in Poland, which is one of the most Catholic cultures on Earth. And yet he was still aware of this tension, in reality, between being a member of the Church and having a relationship with Christ. You can be validly baptized, a member of the body of Christ, and yet not have a personal faith.
I’ve had hundreds of conversations where people say, “I grew up in the Church, I went to Mass, I was confirmed, the whole nine yards. And yet, honestly, I thought of God as this nasty, distant figure who didn’t care about me and only showed up to punish you when you broke the rules.”
So, when I talk about intentional discipleship, what I mean is somebody who has spent enough time with Jesus to consciously decide to follow him as a disciple in his Church. You can’t sleepwalk your way through this, especially in our culture, where the tide is against us. You won’t go against the tide for a lifetime unless this means something to you. That’s what I mean by intentional.
An intentional disciple is not a saint — I’m not saying that. But he or she has embarked on the larger journey that leads to sanctity. And that is to follow Jesus Christ in the midst of his Church for the rest of one’s life. It’s what the Catechism of the Catholic Church  calls the second, ongoing, lifelong conversion.
COLUMBIA: What advice would you have for Knights of Columbus who want to lead and evangelize as intentional disciples — and particularly Knights whose children or grandchildren have left the Church?
SHERRY WEDDELL: The first thing I’d do is pray: I’d say, “OK, Lord, I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t feel like I know enough. I’m not holy enough. I don’t know what to say. But I want to be used somehow to help my children and my grandchildren. Lord, I’m open to whatever it takes.
Whatever I need to repent of, whatever I need to grow in, Lord, I’m open, just show me.” I have never known God not to respond powerfully to someone who just declares themselves open and says, “Boy, do I need help.”
In Forming Intentional Disciples, I talk about the five stages of spiritual journey that 21st-century unbelievers typically make. For many of them, the first issue is trust — do I trust anything about Christianity or the Church or Jesus Christ or God? For a lot of young people, the bridge of trust has been broken, if it ever existed. For a variety of reasons — peer pressure, scandals in the news, personal experience — it’s greatly damaged.
But there has to be a bridge. Maybe that bridge of trust is a friend or a parent: They think your religious ideas are crazy, but they trust you, they like you anyway. So, you’re their bridge. And the first thing we’ve got to do is build that bridge, so eventually it can hold the weight of truth.
Learning how to listen is one of the most crucial things. Part of building trust is lowering defenses so people feel like, “I can talk to Dad, even though I know he disagrees with me. I can trust him to honor me, to not run over me.” Really listening — asking good questions that evoke issues, and then listening without judgment — that is when people’s defenses drop.
I used to think that if I let people talk error, and I didn’t correct them right away, I was hardening them in their error. And, boy, was I wrong. Because what enables them to open the door to new input is you listening, asking the questions that probably no one has ever asked them before. Maybe they’ve never tried to put their ideas into words; they themselves don’t know what they actually think.
By listening, you’re opening the door not just to conversations with you, but to conversations with a lot of people. Studies indicate that nonbelievers and nonpracticing Christians are much more likely to talk about faith with someone if they’ve had a positive faith conversation in the last year.
Just one positive faith conversation in a whole year can double their openness.
These are the very early stages, but they’re crucial before we get to things like apologetics and catechesis.
COLUMBIA: In your writing, you talk about “powerful evangelizing tools” that already exist in parishes. What are some practical things that Knights of Columbus councils can do to fulfill that potential in their parish and in their community?
SHERRY WEDDELL: I think Knights of Columbus could be hugely important. The evangelizing potential of the Knights is staggering.
There are two basic first steps. The first is intercessory prayer. We believe that Jesus Christ is our high priest and intercessor, praying with us and in us, pouring out graces on the world. It is this same glorified, ascended Lord, at the right hand of the Father in heaven, whom we encounter in the Eucharist.
And we have seen that in parishes where people participate in this intercessory prayer, engaging in organized, sustained prayer for the spiritual renewal of the community, the atmosphere changes. Distrust and conflict go way down; spiritual openness goes way up. People are much more responsive to anything that the church does: preaching, evangelization, care for the poor. People are much more likely to actually step inside your building and have a direct experience of the presence of God. We’ve heard a number of stories like this. Total strangers, with no clue in the world, just walk in and it changes their lives.
I happen to be one of them. As a fundamentalist undergrad in Seattle, I walked across the threshold of a Catholic church and felt the Real Presence. And that’s why I am talking to you today. If you had tried to explain the Real Presence to me, I wouldn’t have believed it, because it was against every category I had in my head. But I had a direct mystical experience. And there are many other people who’ve had similar experiences.
Intercessory prayer basically frees people up to say yes. We never control people through prayer, that’s really important to understand. We can’t make somebody come back to church by praying for them. But what you can do is remove impediments, misunderstandings, lies they’ve believed, fears, that sort of thing. We restore their freedom to see the good and respond. That’s what we’re doing when we join Christ in his intercessory prayer.
The second step is breaking the silence about the possibility of a relationship with God. Even though that has been our doctrine for 2,000 years, we don’t talk about it much at the local parish level. When we don’t talk about Jesus, when we don’t tell his story, when we don’t talk about our own experiences of encountering him, when we don’t talk about his saving presence in the Eucharist, we are undermining and suppressing conversion in our parishes.
In one parish that we’ve worked with, they had a policy that every single meeting would start with somebody giving a testimony of their encounter with God and how it changed their lives. This was at every level — all formation classes, business meetings, pastoral council, even social events — the first minutes were spent doing that. It became so normal. And when people see that it is normal for ordinary Catholics to have those experiences, they start to say, “Maybe I could have something like that. It’s not just for Mother Teresa or some very special saints.” I could see the Knights making something like that part of their council meetings, for example.
Breaking the silence about relationship with God and telling Jesus’ story are really important. There are lots of different ways that can happen — evangelizing retreats, conferences, courses — and all these things take leadership, time, energy, creativity, resources. And I think it’d be right up the Knights’ alley.
COLUMBIA: You spend a lot of time studying and thinking about very sobering facts about the state of the Church. What gives you hope?
SHERRY WEDDELL: The first is the fact that the living Lord is with us. The one to whom all power and authority has been given, this Lord of history, dwells in our midst and is pouring out his graces on us. He is interceding so that God’s kingdom will be built on earth as it is in heaven. We’re joining him in that, and he has the power to make that happen.
The second is the fact that we have been here before, more than once. Frankly, the Church has been in much worse places than this. For example, in early 17th-century France, a generation of disciples arose out of a disaster a thousand times worse than anything you and I have experienced. They had lived through 32 years of religious civil wars in which millions of French people had died.
And out of that conflict arose what historians call the generation of saints. It started with Francis de Sales. In 1594, as a newly ordained priest, he set out on foot in his area of the French Alps, where every Catholic church had been padlocked for 60 years, where there were 40,000 ex-Catholics and 100 practicing Catholics. And in four years, he re-evangelized the whole area.
That was the opening salvo of this enormous revival that involved tens of thousands of people — laypeople, married, single, rich, poor. God raised up an extraordinary network. And they not only re-evangelized the Church, they had an impact on it for 150 years afterward. Out of that, a missionary movement brought the faith to North America, to Southeast Asia and elsewhere. The revival that came out of that country basically changed the entire Catholic Church.
And there’s no reason we cannot be a generation of saints now, in the 21st century. We have the same Jesus Christ, the same grace of the Holy Spirit, the same Gospel, the same tradition. The question is, will we respond like they did? Will we say yes? And we have to do this together. No individual is big enough for this. We need to say yes together to be a generation of saints for the 21st century. And there’s no reason that God could not use us to start another revival, just like theirs. That’s my hope.
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