We’ve blogged about and referred you to the Siena Institute with some regularity, and co-director Sherry Weddell is a regular and well-informed commenter here and other blogs around the web. The Siena Institute, in case you don’t know, is an apostolate dedicated to helping the laity deepen their relationship with Christ, to grow in awareness of the call of Christ in their lives to deeper discipleship. The Institute offers workshops around the country and the world, to various groups, most parishes but also others ranging from seminarians to youth, rooted in the concept of “Called and Gifted.”
In a way, there is nothing absolutely new here. Such is the history of the Church, a history of revitalization and reform, of spiritual movements inviting the baptized to seek the same goal: a deepening relationship with Christ. The Ascetic impulse that swept through Christianity, particularly in the wake of toleration and establishment in the fourth century on, is an example. Religious orders, the multitude of various spiritual practices and lay movements – third orders, confraternities, groups like the Beguines - that make up the history of Western European Catholicism, the 20th century movements great and small, some with a more individual focus, others clearly more corporate such as the numerous “New Movements” of the present day…all were grounded in two experiential realities: first, that it is possible for the baptized to lose their focus, to be distracted and become too comfortable, inured to the presence of Christ and the power of God’s grace. Secondly, that people are fantastically different and the Spirit moves in ways that can touch all of us, in all that variety, whether we are contemplative or active, family-oriented or embracing of celibacy, tactile or cerebral, artistic or pragmatic.
To suggest that the work of the Siena Institute is some sort of Protestant-formed break with traditional Catholicism simply because of its focus on inviting Catholics to be more attentive to the presence of Christ in their lives and follow Him accordingly, doesn’t seem accurate, since the history of Catholicism is the history of reawakening, over and over and over again.
There are conversations breaking out here and there about the work of the Siena Institute. On their own blog, on Tom’s Disputations blog, and over on the Commonweal blog. The critiques are interesting and worth tending to, for they touch, not only on the work of Siena, but in a broad way, on the lives of Catholics today, and 90% of the topics we cover on this blog.
What really is raising hackles seems to be the very concept of “intentional disciple.” What Sherry and others are working from is the concern that Catholicism seems to have evolved, in many places, into more of a culture and an identity badge than a living faith with the living God. Again, not a novel concern – it is the concern that has moved every reform movement in Catholicism from the beginning.
What seems to be irking the critics is a sense that there is some implied judgmentalism in the phrase and in the practical application. It invites us, they say, to look at our neighbors in the pew and attempt to judge their spiritual growth. It also holds the potential of be exclusionary and functioning as a badge all its own.
Are you an intentional disciple? Wouldn't you like to be?
I am sympathetic to this criticism, not because I think it is particularly applicable to Siena, but because it’s just a constant risk of any sub-group or movement, whether that be Cursillo, Charismatic Renewal, Opus Dei, Franciscan tertiaries…whatever. I would hope – and think – that anyone who is involved in any kind of spiritual renewal movement would be well aware of this temptation and do all they can to resist it.
Some of the questions asked in some of the materials seem to lean in this direction, and some of the comments made about assessing how many in your parish are “intentional disciples” seem to lean pretty far. Sherry has written about the Catholic reluctance to assess the fruit of ministry efforts – she calls it “don’t ask, don’t tell” mentality, and I see her point. But I also think there is, indeed a fine line to be walked here. We are called on to be concerned about our brothers and sisters in the Lord, and there is, indeed, a desperate failure to follow up on things like RCIA…but at the same time you could argue that speaks a respect for individuals, a humility on our part.
There’s also a criticism voiced that the model of “intentional discipleship,” while it seems broad, might be narrower than it looks. Does it call for constant activity in parish groups and so on? My sense is – no. That the idea is to invite us all, no matter where we are or where we’re living out our lives, to simply be more willing to be more led by Christ wherever that may be.
And the locus of that – and this is what differentiates Siena from some other 20th and 21st century movements – is that it’s parish-based. It is dedicated to helping the parish become the locus for lay spirituality, to help the laity see that as they live out their apostolates in the world, it is through Christ in His Word, in the Sacramental Life and in the community, all right there in the parish – that they are nourished and strengthened.
Although, I have to say that perhaps it is not so unique. The liturgical movement of the 20th century – not the European-intellectual-liturgical movement – but the more practical liturgical movement (about which I am reading a book and will blog in the next couple of days) as it was lived out in 20th century American Catholicism before the Council was intent on this very goal and almost completely parish-oriented, but with the explicit emphasis on the Mass (and other devotions, but primarily the Mass) as the locus of lay spirituality in an informed, participatory way. Interesting. I'll think more about that.
One more critique is that the Siena goal is essentially more evangelical and Protestant than traditionally Catholic. Others wonder about the connection between the Called and Gifted model and the sacramental life of the Church. Perhaps you can hash that out below.
I’ve never been to a Called and Gifted Workshop. All I know about Siena is what I read in the papers. Like many of you, I am wary of programs, but my sense is that Siena is intent on not being a “program”, but more planting seeds for revisioning what it means to be a Catholic. Revisioning back to the beginning, we might say.
Part of what I see echoed in the Siena materials is what we see emphasized so strongly in evangelical megachurches (and not so mega-churches, too) – being a place where Christians are equipped to be disciples in the world. The "motto" of Siena is "Equipping parishes to form lay apostles." Where they are formed, where they are taught, where they are strengthened – in the evangelical context that would primarily be through the presence of the Spirit found in fellowship. Many evangelical churches may indeed have a ghetto mentality, as they construct total subcultures where you can do everything from do aerobics to learn how to knit to grab a Big Mac or latte – all in the Christian way. But they are also strongly about being in the world, about their members knowing their Bibles (or at least select portions of it) so that when they’re out there facing dilemmas, they have it in their hearts, echoing, guiding their decisions, and so on.
I have massive problems with much of American evangelicalism, especially in its pop manifestations. Massive. If you’ve read me for any length of time, you know that I am not at all of the “let’s be more like them” camp in terms of worship, youth ministry, or anything else.
But what is there, and what is missing in so much of American Catholicism, is, well…intentionality. There, I said it! It’s almost like some of it want it both ways. We gripe about American - and European - Catholics having sold out to the culture (including ourselves - the gripers - in our griping, I trust...), of the great harm assimiliation has done, but then when we’re invited to open up that box just a little, we squirm. That’s not the Catholic way, we say.
Well, it is.
Perhaps the Siena model isn’t perfect. Of course it isn’t. Perhaps the folks there are listening to these questions and welcoming them as food for thought. But the challenge they're tackling is real, and won’t go away. The challenge is not, however, to create anything new, from scratch. It is to joyfully and vigorously point folks to the reality that is the Catholic Church, Christ’s Church. That here, there is no either/or, as in – we’ll talk about Church less so you’ll get to know Jesus. NO. That's not it.
It is about connecting dots.
Here is the place where Christ is – in the Word, in the Sacramental Life, in the Works of Mercy, in the community. Do you want to hear the voice of Jesus in your life more clearly, answering your questions, guiding you? Get to know him through the Scriptures, the Scriptures given to us through the Church, the Scriptures that we understand through 2000 years of wisdom, mediated through the richness of this Church, for, as the Ethiopian said, how can we understand unless someone teaches us? Meet the Christ for whom you yearn, again and again, through Eucharist and Reconciliation. Pray and attend, be strengthened, live the way Christ taught us to live, view others with through the eyes of faith, the eyes of Christ.
Different people are finding this kind of re-invigoration through various means in the Church today. It’s happening. The Siena Institute is one way, perhaps not for everyone, but the questions being asked and answered there, are, I think, the right ones.
Finally, there’s someone else asking similar questions, and someone else who seems to think that the primary crisis afflicting modern people, unbaptized and baptized alike, is a certain disengagement from the living Christ, a disengagement that may be caused by disbelief, willful deafness, over-intellectualization, dependence on other things for happiness, or even a dullness of spirit brought on by habit.
Yeah. That guy.
Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.