Spring 1984, Vol. 36, No. 1, pp. 65-74.

Clare Wagner:
      Current Trends: Signs of Radical Discipleship

Sister Wagner, O.P., is currently working in the Office of Catholic Education in the Chicago archdiocese. She has spent several years in the retreat ministry for religious and lay Christians, including ministry with the Dominican Preaching Team of Chicago.

THE newly articulated call to discipleship issued by the United States bishops in their pastoral letter on war and peace, The Challenge of Peace: God's Promise and Our Response, makes startling demands on the people to whom it is addressed. Veteran peacemakers question the depth of the prophetic dimension of the letter, but for average Catholics who take it seriously, it requires a new perspective and a significant deepening of faith and commitment.

The pastoral says that "discipleship reaches out to the ends of the earth and calls for reconciliation among all peoples so that God's purpose, 'a plan for the fulness of time, to unite all things in him' (Eph. 1:10), will be fulfilled."(1) How many Catholics in the United States are ready for "reconciliation among all peoples"? Reconciliation with the people in the next neighborhood or under the viaduct is a monumental task. In the pastoral letter, the church is described as at the service of peace and as a community of conscience, prayer, and penance.(2) What preparation have we had to be a community of peacemakers? Until now, has the church proclaimed the necessity of love for our enemies? Catholics are asked to consider the principles in the document binding, and then to dialogue and to make judgments in the light of the principles. How prepared are this country's Catholics to discern together and to trust their judgments? Prayer is spoken of in the letter as an "encounter with Jesus who is our peace" and from whom we learn peace (290). Contemplative prayer is highly recommended for the believer as the place where there is "total disarmament [or surrender] of the heart" which develops love and "fosters a vision of the human family as united and interdependent in the mystery of God's love for all people" (294). Where in the religious formation of most Catholics in the parishes across this nation is there a place for serious contemplative prayer? The document is well named "Challenge of Peace."

There are signs, however, of hope in a growing readiness for radical discipleship among the people in parish pews. A genuine response to the bishops' challenge to become a community of conscience, prayer, and penance is possible. We will consider here three "stories of discipleship" which signify new life in the multitudes who constitute the church.


The first group of disciples consists of parents of children who are mentally handicapped. Through facing a great deal of suffering, and through wrestling with the problems of raising a special child, these parents have become people of deep faith. Out of their common need and an unusual willingness to help one another, they have formed a close Christian community. The families came to a religious education program in which college students instructed their children in one-to-one teaching situations and parents met to grow in faith through study, reflection, and discussion. On a particular Sunday, the issue for discussion was abortion. Having done sufficient reading, the parents formed small groups in order to respond to the church's teaching on abortion and to the nation's law on it.

I saw one group of eight women in deep conversation, listening intently to one another and speaking thoughtfully. I noticed long moments of silence and tears on faces. They had posed this hypothetical question: "If I had known early in pregnancy that our child was retarded, and if it was acceptable, according to the church, to have an abortion in this case, would I have chosen to do so?" In sharing the heart of their experiences, each one spoke of how she considered her child and the pain, cost, and joy of having that daughter or son and what had happened in the family because of the special child's presence. They spoke of the value of life, of the quality of life, of the part that service has in the life of a Christian disciple, and of the kind of service exacted of them. They focused for a time on their human needs and on the importance of this community to them. They shared thinking on God's intent for humankind and on the evidence of Jesus' compassion in the Scriptures. All of this was done with examples and with some moving witness. They had certainly wrestled with God. An identical decision was voiced by each woman: "I would not have chosen abortion even if I could. My special child is a gift of God in our lives."

In this true story, mature people with a strong moral sense made their way together to a position reflecting values, insight, and sensitive consciences. A serious response to the bishops' peace pastoral can be expected from them.

The kind of obedience modeled in the incident described is just emerging for the majority of Catholic believers. We read in a recent issue of America: "A popular exaggeration has been the view that blind obedience to the Church is a safe path to salvation."(3) This "popular exaggeration" has militated against mature Christian decision making and the formation of conscience necessary to grow into a community of conscience.(4) A mature, well-educated, middle-aged Catholic couple still claim that they cannot have a discussion about faith with parishioners in their homes unless the pastor approves. An older woman shrieked with joy when she learned she no longer had to believe in limbo because, although she stopped believing in it years ago because of her experience of God and her knowledge of life and children, she had felt guilty and never spoke her doubt or changed belief to even her closest friends. Recently, a priest told of telephoning his devout Irish mother one Sunday afternoon and hearing her say: "It was extremely cold this morning. I did not go to Mass," and after a long pause, "and nothing happened." He wondered what she thought would happen, but she made a discovery for herself after all those years. The law is not unbending; the believer need not be a slave. But certain patterns have had such tremendous power and the idolatry of authority has been so common, that other modes of being faithful and Christian are not recognized or appreciated.

Dorothee Soelle has said that "under. the dictatorship of established norms and behavioral patterns, the sensitivity of the conscience wilts like a plant without moisture."(5) The "wilted plants" in the Christian community are many; and consciences accustomed to listening, dialoguing, discerning, and making judgments -- as the faithful are challenged to do in the bishops' peace pastoral are few.

The women in the discussion group and their process reflect an understanding of obedience which indicates that they could enter fully into the challenge of the peace pastoral. Study, listening in silence to inner responses to the question, speaking out of reflection, hearing one another with care are just the qualities of discernment required for the serious questions related to war and peace. Time for encounter with Jesus in word, Spirit, and community were essential for the women, as they are for disciples developing a church at the service of peace. Important, too, is the fact that the women were able to imagine themselves into the situation of a mother who knew the child in her womb was retarded and was considering the possibility of abortion. They could move deeply into her thoughts, feelings, struggle because of their own experience. If one cannot imagine the horrors of nuclear war or of the continuation of the arms race and its consequences, one cannot risk freedom, even life, to resist that evil. If one cannot imagine the realm of God or the vision of God fulfilled, one cannot maintain hope and even experience joy in the darkest of situations.

Even the question the women formulated about obedience emerged out of freedom and imagination. The serious consideration of realities they knew was a major factor in their process. In an effort to search and understand, they considered their children, the law, values, pain, life in their circumstances, life as Jesus saw it and acted in it. Though they evidenced a great respect for exterior authority, they never made it a god. They did not put obedience on as armor for the sake of security, but made themselves vulnerable and open to be touched and formed by the various ways the Spirit works. There was nothing automatic, blind, mindless, or heartless about the work of conscience which the group did. A discovery anew in community of what abortion meant, what life meant, what compassion meant was the fruit of their discerning. What occurred there can occur in regard to issues of war and peace in the study of the pastoral letter.


A second group of emerging disciples and a hopeful sign for a church of conscience, prayer, and penance is a group of young mothers in a Chicago northside parish. The parish is bilingual; the people have middle to low economic status, and many of the believers have a poor image of themselves as Christians.

The women I spoke with were reticent to claim any significant knowledge of God. Simple, ordinary Catholics is the way they would describe themselves. I initiated our sharing with the question: "What experience have you had in your life which made you say, 'There must be a God'?" After some silence they began to respond, identifying childbirth as an experience that spoke to them of God.

My first feelings about birth were fears. It was unknown, and I had heard stories of the pain; it was a task I wasn't sure I was up to. I prayed. I knew Jesus was afraid. God helped with my fear. I felt he was with me. All the suffering was worth it because new life comes of it.

Once I saw the baby, I realized God and I had done something together; you can't create alone.

I felt so much love, and awe at how perfectly the baby was made; God's hand was in all of this.

It struck me that only God could make a woman's body so wonderful that it could do this -- nourish and give birth to a baby.

Sarah looked so tiny and fragile. I knew only God could make her grow up. I knew God would care for her. I trusted that.

In spite of so many complications, I had a healthy baby; I knew there had to be a God and I was filled with thanksgiving and joy.

I lost my first baby. I knew there had to be a God who would give my baby life somehow.

As we talk, I realize that since God made us, God understands all these feelings we have and is with us.

These sentences are samplings from a morning of shared insights and feelings about a common experience in which people met God. The women knew not what they knew. Because of the prevalent way of knowing among Catholic believers, the women had to discover that their experience was sacred and that the God they found there was real. They needed to be made conscious of knowing God in their experience and to be encouraged to trust this way of knowing.

The Greek definition of knowing as "an intellectual looking at" predominated in Catholic tradition over the Hebrew understanding. That predominant view is closely related to a catechesis in which content alone is emphasized. It is possible to know the Commandments, the Baltimore Catechism answers, the precepts of the church, and a collection of prayers in this objective, detached way; but the revelation of God in childbirth, the meeting of Jesus in a prayer encounter, or the knowledge which moves a person to choose pacifism requires a different mode of knowing.

Thomas Groome has recently developed a new catechetical method based on the fact that our human experience is the locus of our experience of God.(6) This rediscovery is recognized as significant and necessary in the field of religious education. The Hebrew verb yada' signifies knowing more by the heart than by the mind. It is knowing that arises, not by standing back from something in order to look at it, but by active and intentional engagement in lived experience. "Knowing the Lord" is an activity in which God takes the initiative and is always encountered in lived experiences.(7) This is how Jesus knew, and was known by, his Father (John 10:15). This is the kind of knowing which is possible and required of the true disciple, and which dispels blindness to the sacred dimension of experience.

This is the kind of knowing operative in the young mothers who knew not what they knew as "simple, ordinary Catholics." What each said was quite profound and easily evoked by a single question. The first speaker told of her fear at the prospect of childbirth. In her very short statement, she named her feeling accurately and understood that it was there because she was entering the realm of the unknown and knew there was pain involved. It is no small thing for many of us to be able to own and understand our feelings, but this young woman went quite a bit further in reflecting on her experience. She immediately linked her story to the story of Jesus: "I knew Jesus was afraid," she commented. She evidenced an enviable faith by turning to God, naming God as her helper and as one present. Emmanuel -- God with us -- was a name of God she took seriously. Her last sentence makes one wonder if she had reflected on the childbirth image in Isaiah or in John 16, when she said, "All the suffering was worth it because new life comes of it." If, however, she had been asked to give the meaning of paschal mystery, she may have been at a loss for words.

All the statements reflect a relational kind of knowing, a knowing which involves the heart and affects the whole person. In the statements is a clear recognition of God as creator and of each speaker as God's creature. Appropriate and real feelings are named -- fear, awe, thanksgiving, joy, love, and trust. In several statements a movement from reflection on experience to insight can be seen: "Sarah looked so tiny and fragile. I knew only God could make her grow up." And: ". . . how perfectly the baby was made; God's hand was in all of this." For an ear sensitive to faith statements, faith permeated what the women said. The woman who noticed her baby's fragility said, "I knew God would care for her. I trusted that." The woman whose baby was stillborn said, "I knew there had to be a God who would give my baby life somehow." The woman who was afraid said, "God understands . . . and is with us."

Johann Metz wrote that radical discipleship must have a mystical and a political-societal dimension.(8) What these women manifested in this morning of shared faith was their capacity for the mystical, for the prayer that is encounter with Jesus who is our peace, for the contemplation which disarms the heart. The key to this mystical dimension for them was a way of knowing and naming God in their experience.

The mystical dimension, of course, as it develops, has transforming power which opens the disciple up to inevitable societal ramifications. As these women name and claim the God of compassion, presence, and creation as their own, how can they possibly close their eyes to additional truth? They might easily consider these questions: If the child of my womb is formed by, and precious to, the God whose name is compassion, is not the child of any woman's womb also precious? Is not any woman bearing a child my sister in suffering and giving life? Is not the sorrow of any woman losing a son or daughter in El Salvador or Africa or the streets of New York also my sorrow? This kind of knowing unleashes powers imprisoned in each of us which can free us for the transformation of the world.


Christians find difficulty following Jesus in all that he has asked of his disciples according to the Scriptures. Particularly difficult are the areas of loving one's neighbor as oneself, forgiving seventy times seven times (that is, always), loving one's enemies, walking an extra mile, laying down one's life for one's friend, and taking up the cross. And what areas are more integral to peacemaking than loving and forgiving? No wonder those who choose to be authentic peacemakers are called in the Sermon on the Mount "children of God." The work of peacemaking takes one to the roots of living as Jesus, the Son of God, lived.

To preach the teachings of Jesus listed above has never failed to evoke a strong response from the people of God in parishes. In the context of discussions following preaching on forgiveness and love of enemies, the following responses were typical. While pounding on the table, one person declared, "There is no way I will believe that my faith requires me to see a man of that race as neighbor and one I must love." In another parish, a young couple made a decision motivated by faith to adopt two emotionally disturbed children. One of the two young brothers adopted was born a drug addict because of his mother's problem; both boys had been in a series of foster homes. The couple shared with the gathered community their great struggles following this decision and also their strong sense that loving one's neighbor meant precisely this decision in their lives.

Though we commonly say that it is good news that Jesus reveals an all-forgiving God and asks the seventy-times-seven kind of forgiveness from his followers, this is not consistently heard as good news; in fact, it is a stumbling block for many. There is resistence to an all-forgiving God because such generosity seems unfair to the righteous. A very common reaction went like this: "All my life I have done what the church required and have kept every law. Do you mean that someone whose behavior has been the opposite of mine can be easily forgiven? Are you telling me that a murderer or somebody like a Hitler could be in heaven? I won't believe it."

In a game with a group of black eighth grade students, this question was posed: "Do you agree or disagree with this statement: Jesus would forgive all sins?" The young people had to stand on a sign marked "agree" or "disagree" to express their conviction. One boy reflected the struggle with the question in his whole body as he put one foot on the "disagree" sign, one foot off. He asked us to wait; he held his head; he moved back and forth; finally he shouted: "It seems like I should move to 'agree' because that's how Jesus was, but I just can't because my grandma said for some sins there's no forgiveness. She told me when I was little." The very good news is that the boy was struggling with the question; the sad thing is that he learned so well when he was very young. Had an invitation to consider again Jesus' forgiving ways not been given to the boy, his position in adulthood could have been the "I won't believe it" of the righteous believer.

Two women approached me after a forgiveness and healing ritual. One said: "Please pray for me that I will be able to forgive my son who is in prison for raping a young woman in our neighborhood. It's so hard; but I just realized God wants me to forgive him." The other said: "The girl my son is going to marry is pregnant and I just realized what I was doing when I was hoping she would have a miscarriage."

This collection of responses is not unusual nor extreme. People called to be disciples regularly deal with situations similar to the ones referred to. The Jesus who had unrestrained compassion and poured mercy on the most "unworthy" left his followers with the great consolation of his loving forgiveness for them, but he also left them with the costly challenge of doing as he did.

Barriers to following Jesus in his own time were righteousness and selfishness; that the same things get in the way of discipleship today is no surprise. The incidents reported here are reminiscent of gospel parables and events. They are mentioned here as signs of hope that a movement toward radical discipleship can be perceived in our church. In a sense, the way of following Jesus which takes these aspects of the gospel seriously is new and very difficult, but there is hope for radical discipleship wherever people are willing to struggle with forgiveness and love of neighbor and even of enemy, wherever there is a conscious choice to be compassionate.

The church, as well as our globe, is in a state of supreme crisis. At this time it does not seem possible to respond fully to the bishops' call to do the work of peacemaking because of underdeveloped discipleship among the faithful. Major changes need to occur within people before believers can claim that discipleship which "reaches out to the ends of the earth and calls for reconciliation among all peoples" (54).

The stories of discipleship recounted in this article, however, reflect experiences of people not on the cutting edge of church membership and not outside the church or standing still. Their struggles come out of daily experience where peacemaking begins, and in their responses they give evidence of a capacity for full, not truncated, discipleship. So, although there is reason to think that a full response to the peace pastoral cannot be expected, these stories of discipleship give reason to hope that the urgency of the crisis of our time and the consistency of the pastoral's message with the gospel message will move the faithful in the direction of radical discipleship.

  1. The Challenge of Peace: God's Promise and Our Response (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Catholic Conference, 1983), paragraph no. 54. Henceforth references to this document will be given in the text, in parentheses, citing the paragraph number.
  2. See title of section A, part IV, of Challenge of Peace.
  3. Edward Vacek, "Authority and the Peace Pastoral," America, 22 October 1983, p. 226.
  4. On formation of conscience, see Challenge of Peace, nos. 280-83.
  5. Dorothee Soelle, Beyond Mere Obedience (New York: Pilgrim Press, 1982), p. 5.
  6. Thomas H. Groome, Christian Religious Education (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1980).
  7. Ibid., p. 141.
  8. 8 "For a Renewed Church Before a New Council: A Concept in Four Theses," in Toward Vatican III, ed. David Tracy with Hans Küng and Johann B. Metz (New York: Seabury, 1978).