Discipleship Beyond the First Encounter

Address by Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila
Catholic Foundation Networking & Speaker Series
February 9, 2017

This morning I have been asked to speak about the meaning and importance of discipleship, since it is at the heart of the Gospel and of my vision for the Archdiocese of Denver. My deepest desire is that the archdiocese be filled with authentic missionary disciples who are able to transform society through their faith and witness.

Before going further, it’s important to define what I mean by a person who is a missionary disciple. People who are missionary disciples are men and women who have truly encountered Jesus Christ in a personal way and that encounter changes the course of their lives and forms their worldview. Simply put, a missionary disciple is a person like St. Peter or St. Paul, or more recently Julia Greeley or St. Teresa of Calcutta – someone whose loving friendship with the Lord informs every decision they make and emboldens them to bring the Gospel to their everyday interactions.

To be a disciple is not something that happens in a single instant, [something] that is done and over with. In fact, it’s the opposite. Like any friendship it grows continually through the conversion of the heart and mind to be more like Jesus. Discipleship is life-long journey of ever deeper intimacy with Jesus.

Today I want to address what the journey of discipleship looks like beyond our initial encounter with Christ, since that is where most of us are at in our walk with the Lord. To do that, I will focus on three questions:

  1. What is the foundation for discipleship?
  2. What is lacking in our current efforts to form life-long Catholics?
  3. How do I help others become missionary disciples?

There is a moment from the life of Cardinal Van Thuan – a Vietnamese bishop who spent 13 years imprisoned by the Communist regime for his faith – that illustrates a moment of decision that occurs for many of us after our initial encounter with the Lord. Speaking to a religious education congress in Los Angeles just months before his death, Cardinal Van Thuan recounted:

From the very first moment of my arrest, the words of Bishop John Walsh, who had been imprisoned for 12 years in Communist China, came to my mind. On the day of his liberation Bishop Walsh said, “I have spent half my life waiting.”

It is true. All prisoners, myself included, constantly wait to be let go. I decided then and there that my captivity would not be merely a time of resignation but a turning point in my life. I decided I would not wait. I would live the present moment and fill it with love. For if I wait, the things I wait for will never happen. The only thing that I can be sure of is that I am going to die.

No, I will not spend time waiting. I will live the present moment and fill it with love.

… Alone in my prison cell, I continued to be tormented by the fact that I was forty-eight years old, in the prime of my life, that I had worked for eight years as a bishop and gained so much pastoral experience and there I was isolated, inactive and far from my people.

One night, from the depths of my heart I could hear a voice advising me: ‘Why torment yourself? You must discern between God and the works of God – everything you have done and desire to continue to do, pastoral visits, training seminarians, sisters and members of religious orders, building schools, and evangelizing non-Christians. All of that is excellent work, the work of God, but it is not God! If God wants you to give it all up and put the work into his hands, do it and trust him. God will do the work infinitely better than you; he will entrust the work to others who are more able than you. You have only to choose God and not the works of God!”[1]

Choosing God over the works of God is a choice that every serious disciple must confront. The secure foundation of every disciple’s life is your relationship with each Person of the Trinity. Knowing in your heart that you are first loved by God and made for God is essential. This relationship leads the disciple to understand in your heart that you are a beloved son, a beloved daughter of the Father. Your love for Jesus, the Father, and the Holy Spirit and your love for his Church is what must impel you to good works, and not the other way around. As St. Paul wrote to the Christians of Corinth, “the love of Christ impels us”.[2]

Without our love for Christ and his grace moving us, our own will power will soon fail. When we encounter difficult circumstances, the power of an idea sustains much less than the enduring tenacity of love. Think, for example, of the Blessed Mother at the foot of the cross. Her trust in God and her love for him allowed her to persevere through the greatest loss imaginable and the greatest challenge to her faith in the words of St. John Paul II.[3] The foundation for discipleship is living one’s life in the heart of the Trinity, in communion with each Person of the Trinity.

We can now turn to the second question: What is lacking in our efforts to form life-long Catholics? For several decades the Church has dedicated herself to improving the quality of catechesis, and rightly so, given the low quality it suffered from. We can be thankful that great strides have been made since the publication of the Catechism in 1992, the spread of good youth ministry, the renewal that’s taken place in some Catholic colleges and the creation of programs like the Catholic Biblical School, FOCUS, ENDOW, and the Augustine Institute’s “Formed.”

But there is a second aspect of discipleship that is an indispensable companion to intellectual formation: the mentoring or modeling component. In the time of Christ, this handing on of a way of life – the art of Jewish living, so to speak – occurred through the rabbi-disciple relationship. The disciple would imitate the rabbi in everything, even down to how he walked, talked and dressed. The thought was that by imitating even the smallest details, the disciple would acquire the rabbi’s virtues.

But this dimension of handing on the faith is becoming harder to find, especially as fewer families remain intact. Thankfully, there are parents and other people who still help the next generation understand what it looks like to live the faith. We see this type of mentoring in FOCUS, which teaches its missionaries and student leaders the spiritual habits and virtues necessary to live a vibrant Catholic life and share the faith with others.

Additionally, FOCUS uses what is known as the “multiplier effect.” After spending a year or two in a Bible study and being mentored, rather than staying in the same small group, the person is who is being “discipled” is sent out to start a new Bible study group.*[4] Hence, there is continual growth in mission and bringing the Gospel to many more people. We are never called to remain in one small group, but rather we are called to continually go out and bring others into the Gospel encounter.

Without the accompaniment of a faithful parent or mentor, many young people only experience the Catholic faith at a superficial level and are at risk of what Pope Benedict XVI called “practical atheism.”

In a 2012 general audience he described this trap as follows: “… the truths of faith or religious rites are not denied but are merely deemed irrelevant to daily life, detached from life, pointless. So it is that people often believe in God in a superficial manner, and live ‘as though God did not exist’ (etsi Deus non daretur).” In the end, however, this way of life proves even more destructive because it leads to indifference to faith and to the question of God.

He then warned, “In fact human beings, separated from God, are reduced to a single dimension — the horizontal — and this reductionism itself is one of the fundamental causes of the various forms of totalitarianism that have had tragic consequences in the past century, as well as of the crisis of values that we see in the current situation.”[5]

We observe this crisis in the totalitarian violence since the election of President Trump. The ideological thinking of the far left, radical secularism, and atheism, has led to violence against innocent people in the destruction of storefronts, starting cars on fire, and attacking people with different points of view, especially on college campuses. Some of our universities and colleges are no longer places where people seek truth, and listen to many different ideas and proposals, but rather have become places of only one accepted thought. Furthermore, the fact that there are so many calling for the assassination of President Trump on social media is a sign of this totalitarian thinking. Imagine if people did that during other administrations, the media outcry that would have been there. However, today, it seems that the media and even a handful of politicians only fuel the ideological outcry and refuse to participate in civil dialogue.

If we are serious – and I believe we are – about helping the current and subsequent generations to be faithful disciples who are equipped to live and share the faith in a secular and increasingly hostile society, then we need to focus on improving this crucial aspect of discipleship. Pope Francis has reminded us of the importance of accompanying people where they are at to bring them to the encounter with Jesus. It is the method of Jesus, who encountered the sinner first and then moved them away from sin towards the truth. The woman caught in adultery is a great example of this.[6] That doesn’t mean it will be easy, since teaching people a way of life is far less systematic and more experiential. Forming lifelong Catholics occurs best through witnesses to the faith and living the faith in the world.

This brings me to the final question: How do I help others become missionary disciples?

Christ spent three years forming the 12 Apostles. He taught them by his example, sent them out on short missions, had them experience his death and resurrection, and finally, sent them the Holy Spirit. Only after this period of formation did he give them the mission to carry the Gospel to the ends of the earth.[7]

When one thinks of the importance of this mission and of how we spend years training for our various professions, it makes sense that becoming a missionary disciple is a gradual and life-long process.

The first component of helping others to become missionary disciples is to teach them to pray. Spending time in personal daily prayer with each Person of the Trinity is the necessary foundation for the life of every missionary disciple.

There are numerous resources on daily prayer, but one of the most important is the practice of prayerfully reading and meditating on the Scriptures known as Lectio Divina, which can always be done in conjunction with Eucharistic adoration. From the rich soil of God’s Word, one can then grow in the practice of prayer, which St. Teresa of Avila best described as “nothing else than an intimate friendship, a frequent heart-to-heart with Him by whom we know ourselves to be loved.” Only heart-to-heart conversation with the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit will provide the graces to live one’s faith in the heart of the Trinity and in the world.

The second component of growth in discipleship is to bring the disciple-in-formation with you on mission, just as Jesus did with the Apostles and his other disciples. Leroy Eims, the author of The Lost Art of Disciple Making, put it this way:

I have made mistakes in this regard. I have tried to train men by gathering them together in a quiet basement once a week to discuss the Christian life and then supplement this with occasional seminars or special meetings. It didn’t work. But men who have ministered with me in the push and shove of life, out where we face victory and defeat daily, out in the world of real living, are today productive for Christ. I have watched them bear fruit that remains.[8]

Practically speaking this means inviting the person to engage in works of charity with you, in sharing the Gospel with others, or in some kind of activity that helps build virtue or character. Any of us who have helped in soup kitchens, at the Samaritan Shelter, at Christ in the City, or have gone on mission trips to foreign countries, know the impact of those works of mercy that change our lives. It is important after these encounters to take the time to reflect on how they helped you experience an encounter with Christ in the love of your neighbor.

Pope Paul VI once described the final step in discipleship as, “The person who has been evangelized goes on to evangelize others.”[9] And any of you who have gone on a mission trip or evangelized someone else knows that the reverse is also true: that when we share the faith with others we are often evangelized by the very people we are seeking to evangelize.

Once the person you are mentoring has grown in their relationship with God and increased in virtue through the various trials that come from living the faith, then, with the power of the Holy Spirit, they should be instructed in how to teach others to become disciples. Every believer is called to become a disciple who is spiritually fruitful. For some of you, God is calling you to focus solely on forming your children or other family members first, and for others of you he might be giving you a call to reach out to people you don’t even know.

The time constraints of today’s talk limit how deeply we can dive into this topic, so I encourage you to read Pope Paul VI’s Evangelii Nuntiandi and Evangelii Gaudium by Pope Francis. For more practical guidance on living as a missionary disciple and teaching others to do the same, I’d suggest visiting the FOCUS student website, which has resources that can be used by people of any age.

As we come to the end of our time, I’d like to briefly summarize the main points I’ve made and share a story with you. This morning I’ve described how my hope for the Archdiocese of Denver is that it becomes a Church filled with authentic missionary disciples – people whose deepest desire is to follow Christ in every aspect of their lives and bring the joy of knowing him to others. To do that successfully, our lives must first be grounded in a personal relationship with each Person of the Trinity and a love for the Church and her sacramental life.

As we seek to form lifelong disciples, greater attention must be paid to cultivating our ability to serve as mentors in the faith who are able to convey not just knowledge but a way of life.

And finally, the formation of missionary disciples requires training in prayer, inviting them to engage alongside you in charitable and evangelistic activity, and teaching them how to mentor others, just as Jesus did with the 12 Apostles and then with the 72 disciples, and they in turn did when they went out into the world.

Following Christ as a missionary disciple is not easy. And for that reason I’d like to finish by telling you about the inspiring story of Msgr. Walter Ciszek, a Jesuit missionary who spent five years imprisoned by the Russian Communists for allegedly being a Vatican spy.

Msgr. Ciszek had always considered himself a tough man who was able to withstand almost anything, but after years of beatings, being drugged and interrogated, he signed papers that implied he was a spy. In his autobiography He Leadeth Me, Msgr. Ciszek recalled that moment.

I had asked for God’s help but had really believed in my ability to avoid evil and to meet every challenge . . . I had been thanking God all the while that I was not like the rest of men. . .  I had relied almost completely on myself in this most critical test—and I had failed. [10]

As the interrogations continued, God gave him the grace to break through the utter despair he felt.

I knew that I must abandon myself completely to the will of the Father and live from now on in this spirit of self-abandonment to God. And I did it. I can only describe the experience as a sense of “letting go,” giving over totally my last effort or even any will to guide the reins of my own life. It is all too simply said, yet that one decision has affected every subsequent moment of my life. I have to call it a conversion . . . It was at once a death and a resurrection.[11]

As each of us strives to follow Christ as a missionary disciple, may we too, learn to completely abandon ourselves to the Father, following in the steps of Jesus, trusting in the Father who has created us, [who] is good, who loves us, and who desires our true happiness.


[1] Extracts from “Experiencing God’s liberating power,” a talk Cardinal Van Thuan gave at a religious education congress in Los Angeles in 2002, shortly before passing away. http://www.card-fxthuan.org/his-works/faith-survived-in-prison.php

[2] 2 Cor. 5:14, NABRE.

[3] Redemptoris Mater, Pope John Paul II, #18-19, 1987.

[4] Description of FOCUS’ discipleship model differs from live delivery. It has been edited to reflect current praxis.

[5] Pope Benedict XVI, General Audience in Paul VI Hall, November 14, 2012.

[6] John 8: 1-11

[7] Mt 28: 16-20

[8] The Lost Art of Disciple Making, Leroy Eims, p. 36, NAVPress, 1981.

[9] Evangelii Nuntiandi, 24.

[10] He Leadeth Me, By Msgr. Walter Ciszek, S.J. pp. 73-74.

[11] Ibid, p. 83.