Theology and Methodology
Before discussing how the Following Christ course makes a unique contribution to Catholic discipleship, it is important to situate Following Christ within the broader ChristLife evangelization process. Discovering Christ, Following Christ, and Sharing Christ are three courses that represent three major steps in the Church’s essential mission of evangelizing and making missionary disciples.
Personal Conversion as the Beginning Point for Discipleship
Before discipleship or catechesis can be effective the Church teaches that people must hear the Gospel and make a personal response to it. St. John Paul II, speaking on the role of catechesis writes:
“Within the whole process of evangelization, the aim of catechesis is to be the teaching and maturation stage, that is to say, the period in which the Christian, having accepted by faith the person of Jesus Christ as the one Lord and having given Him complete adherence by sincere conversion of heart, endeavors to know better this Jesus to whom he has entrusted himself.”
On Catechesis in our Time, 20
It is important to note that catechesis presumes a “sincere conversion of heart.” How many of our catechetical programs and pews are filled with adults and children who have yet to experience this type of conversion? The Discovering Christ course was created so that both the unbaptized and the “baptized who live on the margins of the Christian life” (National Directory of Catechesis, 17) could hear the basic Gospel message and accept “by personal decision the saving sovereignty of Christ” (St. John Paul II, Mission of the Redeemer, 46).
In the Discovering Christ course many adults experience a personal conversion by asking Jesus to be their Lord and Savior and inviting the Holy Spirit to fill them. As a fruit of this encounter with Christ we often hear participants enthusiastically ask, “what’s next?” At this stage what people need is a catechesis in living as a disciple. The General Directory for Catechesis explains the goal of catechesis:
“‘The definitive aim of catechesis is to put people not only in touch, but also in communion and intimacy, with Jesus Christ.’ All evangelizing activity is understood as promoting communion with Jesus Christ. Starting with the ‘initial’ conversion of a person to the Lord, moved by the Holy Spirit through the primary proclamation of the Gospel, catechesis seeks to solidify and mature this first adherence. It proposes to help those who have just converted ‘to know better this Jesus to whom he has entrusted himself: to know his mystery, the kingdom of God proclaimed by him, the requirements and comments contained in his Gospel message, and the paths that he has laid down for anyone who wishes to follow him.’”
General Directory for Catechesis, 80
Building upon the initial conversion experienced by many in Discovering Christ, Following Christ seeks to “solidify and mature this first adherence.”
God’s Grace and Our Effort
The invitation to follow Christ is based on God’s initiative—His love for us, the forgiveness of sins, and the gift of the Holy Spirit. The Christian life is based on the grace of God that empowers us and our response and effort to mature in doing his will.
As an example, a child is born without having anything to do with it. A child is conceived by their parent’s love. A child begins life in the nurture of their mother’s womb, but when the child is born they have to breathe and draw milk from their mother in order to grow. Similarly, God initiates our calling out of His love. He gives us the grace we need to continue being transformed. However, we must make efforts in concert with His grace to mature in our life in Christ or that life will be stunted, immature, or even die.
If you choose to excel in a sport, playing a musical instrument, or in a profession, you have to find a competent coach/teacher who can train you in the proper techniques. You must then establish the discipline of regular practice to become proficient in the area you want to excel in.
Now think about this: You and I have the chance to learn from the most intelligent, wise, loving, perfect Teacher who ever lived. And we have the chance to become His student, His disciple! We can be conformed to Jesus in every way: how we relate to God the Father, how we view the world, how we think, how we conduct ourselves, how we relate to others, and how we use our time, gifting, and resources. By His grace and our effort, we can learn to live a joyful life surrendering more and more over the years to the Lordship of Jesus.
A disciple of Jesus is an ardent follower who not only professes certain truths, attends Mass, and serves at certain functions, but who also genuinely applies the teaching of Jesus to every aspect of life. He is confidently aware God’s grace is transforming him. Disciples make Jesus and His Church their primary teacher. We learn from Him how to love God above all things and how to love others as Jesus loves them. Essentially we learn to live in harmony with the Father’s will, just like our elder brother, Jesus (Matthew 7:21,24; John 5:19-20). That is what holiness is all about!
Formative Dynamics in Following Christ
The focus in this second part of the ChristLife process of evangelization, that began in Discovering Christ, is continuing conversion of life through a seven-week journey of prayer, teaching and relationships that support the participants’ decision to become a disciple of Christ and to begin to apply the Lord’s teaching to every area of life. Its purpose is practical, not academic, teaching on growing in relationship with Jesus Christ. In this stage of discipleship some of the most formative means of helping a person grow in union with God are the experiences of personal and group prayer, practical teaching with opportunity for small group discussion and relationships that support the development of a Catholic lifestyle, world view and mission. All of these formative dynamics are lived within the context of the Church, which includes regular reception of the sacraments and participation in the liturgy.
Each session includes a weekly practical application that will help participants establish spiritual disciplines and apply foundational truths for growing in Christ. If the participants commit time each week to put into practice the teaching from the previous session, and actively participate in the small group discussions, real growth in Christ will occur. Being faithful to prayer and Scripture, even 5-15 minutes each day, is a key to living in Christ.
An often overlooked, but essential formative dimension of the Following Christ course are spiritual friendships among ChristLife course participants. Relationships started in Discovering Christ often provide support for living out our commitment to make Jesus the center of our lives. It is essential in Following Christ to build on these relationships to help us live in and for Christ. While the teachings tell us “what” to do, the friendships built in the small groups provide the relational support to genuinely incarnate these teachings in our lives.
End Goal: Making Missionary Disciples
The ultimate goal of the ChristLife evangelization process is to make missionary disciples. Thus, Following Christ ends with an invitation to continue to growing as disciples by attending the Sharing Christ course. Being a disciple is inseparable from the call to evangelize as Pope Francis teaches:
“Every Christian is a missionary to the extent that he or she has encountered the love of God in Christ Jesus: we no longer say that we are ‘disciples’ and ‘missionaries,’ but rather that we are always ‘missionary disciples.’”
The Joy of the Gospel, 120
As course participants move into Sharing Christ it is critical that the disciplines and truths learned during the Following Christ course are encouraged and reinforced. Without the nourishment of prayer, scripture, the sacraments, and spiritual friendships; evangelical fervor will soon dry up and become a burdensome “add on” responsibility, rather than a joyful outflow of one’s walk with the Lord.