Our Journey to Discipleship
In January of 2019, in response to the growing renewal efforts underway in the Church and in response to Bishop Emeritus R. Daniel Conlon’s pastoral letter advocating a missionary spirit in the diocese, our parish, St. Daniel the Prophet in Wheaton, undertook to discern how to proceed as a parish in discipleship formation at both the parish and individual levels.
Efforts had been made in the past with various renewal programs, small group programs, and other attempts to introduce discipleship at the parish; none seemed to catch on. Our pastor, Father James Dvorscak, and other parish leaders had attended Alpha, a series of sessions exploring the Christian faith, at a neighboring parish and found the program lacking in its Catholicity, its theology and its follow-up with participants at the conclusion of the program.
We were having problems finding a gateway to introducing our parishioners to the core beliefs of our Catholic faith as outlined in the Kerygma, which is the proclamation of the Good News.
The Kerygma can be defined this way: God made us for relationship with Him. We broke that relationship through sin. Jesus arrived to heal that relationship through His life, death and resurrection. We can respond by repenting and believing in Jesus as our Lord and Savior, becoming His disciples and going out and making other disciples.
Our hope was to activate the in-the-pew Catholic. We were looking to introduce the intimacy of the Kerygma and the lifelong formation as disciples to those cradle Catholics raised in the post-World War II period who had received their religious education in the cultural upheavals of the 60s and 70s.
We were recommended to checkout ChristLife (https://christlife.org/).
Our pastor went to work. He immediately gathered all the information he could on the apostolate. He paid his own way to a training conference in Baltimore last year and signed us up for the program. We formed a leadership team to organize and plan for the first sessions to begin in September of 2019.
The team started to meet in March of 2019, and it soon became apparent that we lacked sufficiently formed disciples to serve as table leaders and assistant table leaders to guide our parishioners through the discipleship formation process.
A cardinal rule of discipleship formation is that “only disciples can form disciples.” Our churches are filled with some very holy and pious people who are not disciples of Jesus; who participate in ministry after ministry; and who are always the first to volunteer to help out at the parish. This does not make them a disciple. A very small minority of the cultural Catholics born in the second half of the 20th century and the first decade of this century have heard the Good News of the Kerygma.
To help in our formation process, our team reached out to a group of individuals who had spent 72 hours with Deacon Keith Strohm, a well-respected evangelization/discipleship expert, being formed as disciples. They volunteered to act as our table leaders for the 21 sessions of the complete ChristLife program.
Before the fall 2019 kickoff, Father Dvorscak took to the pulpit and spoke about ChristLife in every sermon he gave; he continues to reference it every Sunday. Almost as important as “only disciples can make disciples” is the point that, without a pastor’s total commitment and without making the renewal program the number one thing that the parish does, the renewal effort will be doomed to failure.
Every week, Father Dvorscak posted full-page invitations in the bulletin and encouraged all he met to sign up and give ChristLife a listen. We are a smaller parish of about 650 families. Our leadership team’s initial goal was 30-40 participants. In the end, we registered 114 individuals.
The program’s first phase — “Discover Christ”— was held in the fall of 2019. The seven-week experience was to help people, according to ChristLife, “enter into or renew a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, experience the love of God the Father, and be empowered by the Holy Spirit to live as God’s children.”
At each session, participants shared a meal, prayed and sang together and had video instruction; there were also small group discussions where they could discuss, question and comment on what they had just been introduced to.
Starting in January of 2020 and ending in late February, approximately 75 of the participants participated in the second seven-week session, called “Following Christ,” which is designed to help people grow in friendship and union with God. By the grace of God, this is accomplished through praying together, hearing discipleship-focused teaching, and growing together in small group community through discussion and accountability. The teachings are focused on helping people develop a lifestyle of living for Jesus.
The pandemic interrupted the next session, in March 2020, which was a seven-week session entitled “Sharing Christ“ and which focused on personal or friendship evangelization. This means sharing our relationship with Jesus in our daily encounters with others at any time. We completed the sessions via Zoom.
ChristLife has given us a Catholic pathway to begin our formation as disciples of Jesus. We have found this process is not something to be completed in a 10-week video course. ChristLife is not just another program. It gives you the tools necessary to understand the true nature of your relationship with your Trinitarian God, your call to be a disciple of Jesus and to live your life with the heart of Jesus with all you encounter in this world.