Defining Catholic Discipleship (Part One of Many)

I wish I could say this will be my only post on this topic. Over and done with – next topic, please.

I wish. I really wish . . .

As I look back over what I learned (and failed to learn) over the last 40 years about being and making disciples, I realize just how un-clinical it all is.

Instead of defining Catholic Discipleship as a never-ending list of should-dos and must-dos, I’ll aggressively prune out a few misconceptions. By avoiding these three errors we will all save ourselves both years and tears on our fulfillment of the great commission.

1. Discipleship is not about the method

. . . unlike planting vegetables, where I overplant a whole crop and then thin out the weak ones. Would that work with people?

And he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Lo, these three years I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down; why should it use up the ground?’ And he answered him, ‘Let it alone, sir, this year also, till I dig about it and put on manure. And if it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’ ” -Luke 13:6-9, RSV-CE

First, this parable on it’s most basic level referenced the Jewish nation (the fig tree) and the coming judgment. So don’t go threatening spiritually young Christians. It may be applicable to someone who has been warming a pew for sixty years. Maybe. But take a closer look. The gardener (vinedresser) is Christ. He holds off judgment until he has had a chance to address the sickness of the fig tree. He pleads for a little more time to work with us.

Second, this parable illustrates one of the most important themes stretches from Genesis to Revelation. Our heavenly Father, on the basis of Who Christ is and what He has done on the cross, is willing to hold off judgment for a time in order that we may repent and become fruitful. Which He does in using the available means of grace. (see II Peter 3:7-10)

Which leads me to the point. We grow by “means of grace”. Which “means of grace” we choose may not be critical as long as we don’t neglect the sacraments and it is not condemned by the Church. Access these “means”, these pathways of the flow of God’s grace, in multiple ways on a daily basis.

Discipleship is not an occasional sort of process (I will talk about John 15:1-11 in another post.)

Being a disciple is about being in a relationship.

2. Discipleship is not measured in numbers alone

How many rosaries did I say this week? How much over 10% did I give this year? Can I count the number of phone calls made to the ones I’m watching over? Did I read the whole Bible every year for the past ten years? How many times did I feed the poor. Is it enough? Does God love me now? Maybe if I add two extra sweaters to the donation pile?

We feel safe when we can quantify our life. We count calories, repetitions on the weight machine at the gym,  rosary beads. trips to visit Aunt Beth at the nursing home. Is it ever enough? At what point can you say I have truly loved God with my whole heart?

Discipleship is not judged by any fixed measure known to man. A Catholic disciple lives among many intangibles. Some of us want those firm rules. OK, we feel we need firm rules. Again, it allows us to safely quantify our progress.

The best comparison I can see is the concept of health. At what point are you healthy? If the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare says that at 175 cm of height (5′ 9″) you should weigh 160 lbs (72.5 kilos), are you “unhealthy” if you only weigh 150 lbs.? Are you unhealthy if you never go to the gym? Or you refuse to eat carrots? If you smoke a pipe once per month?

3. Discipleship is not a clean surgical procedure

All this leads us to the fourth point. If discipleship is not cut and dried and packaged with minute instructions, what chance do I as a more mature believer have in making disciples?

Over the last 40 years I have never found the making of disciples to be a clean, neat, and comfortable calling. I must leave my calculator and lab coat behind, set out into the deep (thank you John Paul!), and get my hands dirty in the messy lives each of us are living.

Where there are no oxen, the crib is clean;
but abundant crops come through the strength of the bull.
– Proverbs 14:4 New American Bible

We all want our lives to mean something, to be productive. We also want our lives to be spotless, the barn to be clean, and everything easy to maintain. If we eliminate the means of production (the oxen), the barn can stay clean. But we who are His disciples are called to be in this world and to Christ in others. For it is in this process that Christ has promised to be with us (Immanu-el, remember?).

Are you ready for the journey?