What does it mean to be a disciple today, and how do we become one ourselves? In the same vein, and perhaps just as importantly, how do we make disciples of Christ?
John the Baptist started in the desert. From there he “went throughout [the] whole region of the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 3:3). People listened. Even Jesus, the mighty Messiah whom John announced, presented himself to be baptized.
So began Jesus’ public ministry. Recounting that event, we began the “ordinary” time of the liturgical year, in which we once again hear the call to discipleship.
If only the process were as simple at it was in the desert region!
Being a “Disciple”
The term is an unusual one. Being a “disciple” calls to mind the earliest associates of Jesus, who literally followed him around as he spoke marvels and performed miracles. Subsequently, the disciple learned from the Master by remaining in his presence and taking it all in.
Being a disciple today could be akin to being an apprentice to an expert mentor. However, this mentor is the Messiah, whom no one had ever experienced. Furthermore, the “job” to be taught and learned has little to do with skill sets and everything to do with a way of life.
Discipleship conjures the image of an adventure, a novel kind of journey in which to explore a way of life. The act of following necessarily entails movement and change, and often involves learning new things. It takes courage simply to get up and go with the one who says, “Come, follow me.”
But that’s what Jesus says, and it seems he does so incessantly! Therefore, to be a disciple is an open-ended message, a constant invitation, a commanding exhortation.
Becoming a Missionary Disciple
Pope Francis has untiringly championed the notion of discipleship. He links it to a practical sense of holiness and urges it for everyone as the “missionary” task of the Church.
“We are frequently tempted to think that holiness is only for those who can withdraw from ordinary affairs to spend much time in prayer. That is not the case. We are all called to be holy by living our lives with love and by bearing witness in everything we do, wherever we find ourselves.”(GE 14)
Learning how to do that—how to become a “missionary disciple”—we face a significant challenge. The first disciples learned at the feet of the Master. Consequently, his words and deeds immediately impacted them, and the disciples understood them more fully through the gift of the Holy Spirit that came upon them.
Disciples today do not have such direct access to Jesus. Instead, the same Holy Spirit inspires growth in the faith through the mediation of the Church. What began in the Judean desert now needs to happen in parishes everywhere.
Given the downward slide of Church attendance among U.S. Catholics, reported to be thirty-nine percent on average, sounding and hearing that call appears ever more imperative. We urgently need to make disciples, but how do we do so in parishes today?
The Disciple-Maker Index (DMI)
One answer to that question is available through the Disciple-Maker Index. This resource is a vast inventory of parish practices surveyed on a continuing basis by the Catholic Leadership Institute. The DMI enables pastors and parishioners to reflect upon what is happening at the Church’s local level, where the vast majority of people encounter Jesus today.
The DMI collects responses to seventy-five questions about spiritual growth, personal beliefs, communal relationships, and active engagement in the life of the parish. To date, more than 111,000 people from twenty-four dioceses across North America have contributed to this snapshot of contemporary discipleship.
The contours of that picture take shape in a wide range of characteristics. Notions of “encountering” Jesus or being “formed” in the Faith are foundational to discipleship. Current practices, such as the vibrancy of Mass and the quality of preaching, are critical to the experience of discipleship. Accepted understandings of Church teaching—about Sacred Scripture or salvation or sacraments—are necessary for disciples to be a missionary “witness.”
In future posts, we will delineate the findings and explore the implications of this study of parish life today, and hopefully identify effective ways to support spiritual growth among believers.
In conclusion, disciple-making remains a challenge, as it was when the Master called his first followers. But the benefits are eternal! As Pope Francis reminds us in his exhortation:
“The Lord asks everything of us, and in return he offers us true life, the happiness for which we were created.”(GE 1)
The Ascension Blog thanks the Catholic Leadership Institute for contributing this article.
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About Fr. Tom Dailey, OSFS
Fr. Tom Dailey, a priest in the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales (OSFS), serves as a research fellow and spiritual advisor at the Catholic Leadership Institute in Wayne, Pennsylvania. He holds the John Cardinal Foley Chair of Homiletics and Social Communications at Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. He writes a monthly column and does occasional podcasts for CatholicPhilly.com. Check out his feature on CatholicSpeakers.com