Helping Form `Unapologetic Apostles'

She serves as co-director of the aptly named Catherine of Siena Institute. Using teaching teams, Weddell works with Catholics to form lay apostles at the parish level.

She recently spoke with Register staff writer Tim Drake from Colorado Springs, Colo.

Where are you from originally?

I was raised as a fundamentalist in southern Mississippi. My father was involved in the space program as an engineer. My mother was a homemaker. I have a twin brother and two younger sisters.

What was your faith background?

I was baptized a Southern Baptist. My father went though a conversion when I was 10, so we joined an independent Bible church in Biloxi, Miss. We were very, very conservative. Eventually we got so conservative that no church was good enough.

What led you to become Catholic?

During my teens and my first year of college I went through my “village atheist” period. I didn't feel there was a place for me in Christianity and consciously left.

In college I had a conversion experience and came back to a broader evangelical Protestantism.

A couple of experiences opened the door for me. I had the intense desire to intercede for people in prayer. Catholic churches were the only ones that were open during the day, so I found myself walking into my first Catholic church — Blessed Sacrament in Seattle. I sensed there was a presence of God in that place. Protestant churches, by contrast, felt empty. After that I was hooked. For the next seven years I prayed in Catholic churches wherever I went. My friends would tell me if I didn't stop praying in Catholic churches I was going to become Catholic. I thought that was one of the most stupid things I had ever heard.

But my exposure to Catholic churches slowly melted my anti-Catholic prejudices.

A couple of years later I attended the Easter Vigil and was captivated by all of the Scripture. For the next few years I dragged my protesting Protestant friends to Easter Vigils.

The final thing that happened was an intense three-week psychological retreat. During that retreat I experienced God's goodness passing into the world through my created being and suddenly the idea that grace could enter the world through matter made sense. That opened the sacramental realm for me. Within two weeks I had signed up for RCIA. It took me another two years, but I was received into the Church just before Christmas in 1987.

How did you come to be at the Catherine of Siena Institute?

One day at Mass I had a very strong sense that my call was to call forth the vocations of other Christians. In response I entered a master's program for adult education while working on a Catholic understanding of work and vocation.

As a volunteer I created a gifts-discernment program for leaders of the Catholic charismatic renewal and began offering that program around the Seattle area. Dominican Father Michael Sweeney invited me to offer the program at Blessed Sacrament, and in 1997 the Western Dominican Province gave Father Michael and me a start-up grant to begin the institute.

Tell me about your work.

Our mission is to equip parishes to form lay apostles. That means making local parishes places where every baptized person, especially adults, are challenged to be disciples, are given formation and are empowered to discern God's call and answer it.

So far we've worked in 56 dioceses around the world. More than 20,000 people have gone through our programs. We're best known for the Called and Gifted process, which helps lay people identify their charisms and empowers them to exercise those gifts on behalf of the world. This is not self-help or pop psychology but a discernment process deeply rooted in the Church's tradition.

Why has formation for adults been such a weakness in the Church historically?

Traditionally Catholics have put all of their catechesis eggs into the children's basket. We thought putting kids through a Catholic education would solve everything.

What this has meant is that there has been very little tradition of adult formation for the laity. The U.S. bishops, in their document “Our Hearts Were Burning Within Us,” have stated that adults must be at the center of catechesis. But we don't have the mechanisms, leadership and structures in place yet to offer an apostolic formation to all the baptized.

That is what the institute is trying to address?

Yes. Vocation comes with baptism. When we were baptized, we were also anointed for a mission by Christ directly. Part of Christian adulthood is preparing for your mission. We're not giving the vast majority of lay Catholics the help they need to answer God's call. We are failing to support the process of subjective redemption — that process by which the grace that Christ has won for us enters the world through the assent and cooperation of human beings.

We have to start with what Pope Paul VI called “first proclamation.” The second-largest denomination in the United States is non-practicing Catholics! We must proclaim Christ in a way that challenges people who have not already done so to become intentional disciples. We cannot assume people are disciples even if they come to church every Sunday. The statistics are impressive. Disciples are more likely to show up for Mass. They fill every class in town. Disciples pray and read Scripture. They are eager to discern their vocations and their giving is 300% higher than average.

Give me an example of how this works.

One parish in a medium-sized city has been doing evangelization retreats for about 10 years and it has had more than 500 parishioners attend. One woman told me that after the retreat, she had a dream in which she saw the words “works of mercy.” She went through the Called and Gifted process and it also indicated she might have a charism of mercy. To test this, she got involved with her parish's St. Vincent de Paul Society and her whole life changed.

Her experience of working with the poor was so compelling that within a year, she had organized a team of homeless male firefighters. By the second year she had opened her area's first day center for the homeless. It all started with one small step of obedience.

One of the most brilliant questions I've ever been asked is: “How do I find the Mother Teresa in the back of my parish?”

The saints and apostles of the 21st century are in our parishes and communities right now, but until their destiny is revealed to them through a relationship with Christ, what God intends for them is often beyond their imagination. If we aren't calling people to discerning discipleship and fostering it at the parish level, it isn't going to happen for most of us.

I know you are hopeful for the future of the Church. Tell me why.

During the last two years I've begun to see a new group of leaders emerging into their own around the country. The John Paul II generation is just now entering institutional leadership. They are moving into parish and diocesan leadership and are seeking each other out and forming creative alliances. They include sharp young lay women and men, newly ordained priests and other clear, unapologetic apostles of Jesus Christ in areas such as religious education and family life.

What do you have planned next?

This summer we are offering our first “Making Disciples, Equipping Apostles” seminar in Colorado Springs and Oakland, Calif. We're offering five days of training for anyone who is really interested in how to make their parish a center of adult discipleship.

Tim Drake writes from St. Cloud, Minnesota.