On Tuesday October 28, my friend, Fr Anthony Co, and I had the honor of addressing the priests of the Peoria diocese for an annual clergy assembly. Here is what I said
(more or less).
We are no experts, that's for sure. I’m not sure there are any experts. The world is changing so fast, maybe it’s better to be a continual learner than an expert these days. The word “disciple” means learner, after all.
In the farewell discourse, Jesus says: “By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove yourselves to be my disciples.” (John 15:8) What we are trying to do is bear fruit. We want results. Like you, we have a burning heart for the lost. If we read that Scripture carefully, it appears to be saying: no fruit = no glory to the Father, no proof of discipleship.
With Pope Francis, we want to see the church transition more from a maintenance model to a mission model.
Jesus said “Go and make disciples of all nations.” Of all the things he could have said before leaving this earth! He could have said to hunker down, stay pure, avoid the infidels, build a bunker, keep the faith. Defense. But no. He said: SPREAD the faith. Go out and make disciples. Offense. Advance this movement!
“Make disciples.” Can we really make disciples? I have actually heard people say no. They say, making disciples is God’s work. Our job is to offer the sacraments and leave the rest to God.
But this is not faithful to the Scriptures. Jesus gave disciple-making as a commandment, an imperative. It was his last, and seemingly most urgent commandment. For Jesus, there IS a significant part we play in this great mission.
I would like to offer a challenging question. How is your disciple making? What percentage of your very busy ministry is dedicated to making disciples? What does this look like for you?
In our Catholic theology of priesthood, we talk about serving “in persona Christi.” The great beauty and mystery of these lives we live, as men set apart as a living sacrifice to share in the ministry of Jesus to help souls - we do it in the name of Jesus, and in the person of Jesus.
This is beautiful and humbling. After fifteen years of ministry, it still boggles my mind to think that God turns bread and wine into his body and blood through words and gestures I perform in the person of Christ. It still blows me away that he forgives sins, wipe them out, uses me as his “delete” button to completely erase sins in confession.
But as I reflect on the great commission, on our Lord’s last words before his ascension, on his command to “go and make disciples,” I can’t help but feel an added challenge.
Because if we are meant to live and move and minister in the person of Jesus, the great commission and really, the entire witness of the gospels compels us to consider disciple making as a major component.
the Disciple Maker
For some reason, probably having to do with centuries of battling Protestantism, we seem to have collapsed the idea of “in persona Christi” into the sacramental ministry.
While this is important, and beautiful, we sometimes can forget the great commission and the fact that Jesus spent the vast majority of the gospels investing in, training, teaching, coaching, instructing a small group of people, equipping them for mission.
Jesus chose twelve men and invested in them for three years. He made them, not just disciples, but disciple forming disciples.
He did not occupy seats of power, either within the religions or political establishments of the day. He resisted all attempts to make him an earthly, political king. Instead, he focused on a small set of disciple-forming relationships.
Now, along the way, he certainly did not forsake everyone else. He preached, he taught, he healed the masses. He dined with tax collectors and sinners. He never refused a request for a merciful extension of his power to make life better and manifest the Kingdom to someone in need.
But as I read the gospels again and again, what I keep seeing is Jesus returning to his twelve. God always seems to choose a few and, through that few, reach the many. He chooses Abraham, Moses, David, Israel itself - he raises up leaders, equips them, and bids them share freely with the rest what they have received.
What I am proposing today is a simple question: What does it look like for us priests to minister “in the person of Christ the disciple-maker?"
I am becoming more and more convinced that for the New Evangelization to happen, it will require priests becoming more effective as disciple makers.
Are we leaving room in our ministry for disciple making? Do we have a small core group that we are investing in, mentoring, coaching, training, equipping? Or are we exhausted doing triage, so consumed with the urgent that we neglect the important?
Three Models of Pastor
In the book “The Trellis and the Vine,” the authors discuss three models of pastor: service-provider, CEO, and trainer/coach.
The service provider is valiant and noble, but worn out, always caring for the most needy people. He has little time or energy to invest in anyone else.
The CEO is the honcho, the administrator, the boss who calls the shots. He steers the ship and keeps things running. But he often appears aloof and inaccessible to the people.
The trainer is the most like Jesus. He multiplies his presence and influence by deeply investing in a relatively small group of disciple-forming relationships. In this way he equips leaders who help him do his work.
The trainer model honors subsidiarity, a key principle of Catholic social teaching favoring decentralization of authority by honoring the freedom, intelligence and initiative at the individual and local levels. It also matches the vision of Vatican II and recent popes, who insist that the chief role in the New Evangelization belongs to the a mature laity advancing the Kingdom in temporal affairs.
FOCUS missionaries employ this model in their discipling methods of small groups and one-on-ones. They invest in a small group of leaders and equip them to become disciple-forming disciples. They call it “spiritual multiplication.”
Evangelical Catholic, a group out of Madison, Wisconsin, is doing something similar. They offer training workshops for campus ministers and parish leaders. They are forming disciple-making disciples and bearing much fruit. Tony and I owe much to their valuable influence.
The unfortunate fact is that most of us priests were not trained in the seminary to be missionaries, or even disciple-forming disciples. We were trained to man the store, not go out and get customers.
But today, fewer and fewer people are coming to the store. Fewer and fewer are drinking from the streams of life, sharing the banquet of love Christ has prepared for them, enjoying the communion and friendship of believers that is the church. We now are in a season of history where we need to go out and get them. Or, train others to do so!
I am still learning how to be a disciple-making disciple. I am trying to get used to the idea of serving in the person of Christ the disciple maker, and learn how to add that piece to my ministry. But I am working hard at it, because it may be the most important piece if this church of ours is to advance the Kingdom in the coming generation. Since we were not really trained for this, it's up to us to train ourselves, and thankfully the resources are out there and readily available.
With so few of us priests around, we need a mature, equipped, well-formed laity to go and be salt and light for the earth. This is clearly the vision of Vatican II and the recent popes, where we read over and over about how the New Evangelization primarily falls to the laity. Have we equipped and prepared them?
This may mean cutting some things out, in order to make time to invest in leaders who are equipped to be missionary disciples.
We need to continue this discussion. Perhaps at a future event like this, we can share our best practices and offer each other encouragement and support?
Disciple-making is happening. It has been more prominent in Protestant circles, but now increasingly is seen in Catholic circles, led mostly by the laity (FOCUS, EC, lay movements, etc). We can do it. We need to do it, if we are to bear fruit.
Many thanks for your beautiful ministry and all the sacrifices you make. I pray for all of you and consider it an honor to serve this diocese with you as brother priests. May Christ the disciple maker teach us to follow his example as we minister in his name and serve in his person.