Author Sherry Weddell addresses parish leaders from throughout the diocese at the Parish Leadership Conference held at St. Paul Parish Oct. 14-16. (Joyce Coronel/CATHOLIC SUN)
Author Sherry Weddell addresses parish leaders from throughout the diocese at the Parish Leadership Conference held at St. Paul Parish Oct. 14-16. (Joyce Coronel/CATHOLIC SUN)

Sherry Weddell stood before a hall packed with 500 local Catholic leaders and issued a challenge.

“What if you set out to double the number of intentional disciples in five years? What if you set out to make your parish a center of evangelization and discipleship?” Weddell queried the group.

Author of “Forming Intentional Disciples,” Weddell travels the country with a message that begins with a jolt of stark reality: only 30 percent of Americans who were raised Catholic still practice the faith.

Furthermore, 10 percent of Americans are former Catholics and only 60 percent of Catholics believe in a personal God. Weddell, a convert to Catholicism, has set out to help the Church make a sizeable dent in those numbers. Her two-day conference, sponsored by the Office of Stewardship and held at St. Paul Parish, drew participants from throughout the diocese.

Transforming a parish into a center of evangelization, she said, begins with leaders breaking a code of silence. Catholics are reluctant to speak about a having a personal relationship with their savior, Jesus Christ, she noted. Many of those who leave the Church and become Evangelicals say they never encountered Christ in their former Church. Although that’s a frustrating message for Catholic leaders to hear, it’s crucial to understand.

“No one should ever again come up to me at one of these events and say, ‘I’m not sure what you mean about a relationship with God.’ That should be impossible in a Catholic community,” Weddell s.

Huge numbers of Catholics who are active in their communities don’t even know a personal relationship with God is possible, Weddell said. Even though Catholic theology, liturgy, spirituality and practice assumes Christ is at the center, she said, “It’s not visible and compelling for the ordinary person. They don’t know it.”

To the extent that Catholics speak about the Church — and not Christ — they are communicating an institutional message and not a personal faith, Weddell said. The current pope, however, has communicated a different message.

“I think one of the things that’s so compelling about Pope Francis is he does not radiate institution. He radiates a living relationship and that’s incredibly compelling to 21st-century people,” she said.

Catholic leaders who want to revitalize their communities need to ask people about their lived relationship with God and then listen carefully. Rather than accepting mere labels such as “Catholic” or “atheist,” it’s important to ask the person to elaborate and find out what they really mean. People may move closer to a relationship with God just by opening up and telling their story — after trust has been established.

The next step Weddell advises is that leaders have to be able to tell their own story of a personal relationship with God. It doesn’t have to include Bible quotes or high drama, “just tell it very simply in your own words. ‘This is what God did for me.’ And it’s stunning the number of people who are dying to know that it’s possible that there’s a loving God who can intervene in my life. All you’re saying is. ‘I know it’s true because I’ve lived it.’ That’s witness,” Weddell said.

Throughout the two-day conference that attracted catechists, parish council members and adult faith formation coordinators and other leaders, Weddell encouraged participants to reenergize their communities through calling people to become what she calls “intentional disciples.” What’s happening in parishes — RCIA, Eucharistic Adoration, the training of lectors and altar servers — needs to be seen as part of the mission of evangelization, and all of the efforts need to be girded with intercessory prayer. The work of the parish needs to be seen not just as maintenance, but as a dynamic mission of evangelization.

Donna Macia, who trains catechists at Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in Queen Creek, said Weddell’s message was powerful.

“I think it’s amazing that all the parish leaders get to hear that the most important thing is evangelism, Macia said. “Now we can go home on fire to remember to speak to those people who can be evangelized. I think I’m going to remember that in every training session.”

Araceli Duarte of St. Louis the King Parish in Glendale was excited about the future. “We are taking back the plan how we’re going to do this over there,” Duarte said. “We’re thinking of starting with retreats where we can have opportunities for people to become disciples.” The parish is already doing so with the Hispanic community, she said. Now the challenge is to reach out to the growing non-Hispanic members of the parish.