By Maureen Smith
MERIDIAN – The Diocese of Jackson’s 2018 Convocation centered on forming lifelong intentional disciples. The keynote speaker, Sherry Weddell, has written a book and authored a companion program to help people activate their faith. She challenged the 120 priests, deacons and lay ministers to tell their stories, accompany their parishioners and transform their faith communities.
This year the gathering included the priests from the Diocese of Biloxi as well as the department directors from the chancery staff. Bishop Joseph Kopacz of Jackson and Bishop Louis Kihneman of Biloxi meet regularly to support one another and the two discussed how this conference would be a good opportunity for both dioceses to benefit from Weddell’s expertise. The addition of the Biloxi group led to a lively four-day gathering at the Northeast Conference Center which included daily morning prayer and evening Mass at St. Patrick Parish.
Weddell started her workshop with some harsh realities. In some parishes, up to 80 percent of people stop going to church once they are confirmed. Secular culture is full of so-called ‘nones,’ who profess no religious affiliation. Catholic schools where students are surrounded in Catholic culture, are no longer ubiquitous. The landscape, however, is not hopeless. Weddell shared stories of overwhelming success – parishes where a majority of the members are engaged, active, evangelizing disciples.
She believes that telling the story of Jesus and inviting people to tell their own story of their relationship with God can help people move through the stages of faith from what she calls a seeker to a disciple to an apostle. She outlined how most people progress through a series of thresholds of trust, curiosity, openness and seeking as they journey toward a life of intentional discipleship. The pastors gathered were invited to share their reactions, concerns and strategies as the week progressed.
Weddell explained that many people undergo two conversions, one which puts them on a path to seek discipleship and a second which inspires them to use their talents to serve the church and evangelize others. She presented a series of case studies to support her work. She encouraged the priests to give their people opportunities to connect to Jesus through devotions such as adoration and intercessory prayer so they feel connected to God.
Organizing the event fell on the diocesan Continuing Formation Committee. The group seeks and plans opportunities for the clergy and lay ministers to participate in professional and spiritual development. Pam Minninger, lay ecclesial minister for Gluckstadt St. Joseph Parish is on the committee. She said they were inspired by the Pastoral Priorities when they decided to invite Weddell. “We wanted the convocation to be relevant to the diocesan goals and started brainstorming. Her name was one of the first to come up, being so relevant to the ‘forming lifelong, intentional disciples’ goal. We decided ‘why not try’ to get her even though she is so well known. I emailed, and the Holy Spirit took care of the rest,” she explained.
In addition to diocesan priests, some of the religious order priests who are active as pastors and administrators in the diocese attended. Missionary Servant of the Most Blessed Trinity priest, Father Roberto Mena, sacramental minister at Forest St. Michael Parish, said the presentation fits right in with his work. “It was a good response from the priests. I am trying to figure out what will be next for the whole diocese. I have an idea for my local parish, but I think the diocese is trying to be in the same place together with the vision – toward the goal of making every baptized person a disciple of Jesus,” he said. He also saw a connection between the message at the convocation and his religious community. “This is our own charism – to make every baptized person an apostle, although she is using a different approach. We want to make people aware that your baptism calls you to follow Jesus. You have a mission because of your baptism,” said Father Mena.
Father Alfred Ayem, SVD, of Jackson Holy Ghost Parish found the week “very motivational – challenging and personally, I think it’s something worth implementing to see how we can get people back.” He also supported the idea of speaking openly about Jesus and repeating the salvation story. “We don’t do that enough,” he said.