Sherry Weddell and her team of Catholic evangelists have helped to fire up 1000 parishes across the world. Now in Sydney, she has a message for us.
If we want to help others to follow Christ, including fellow Catholics living on the margins of the Church, she says, what’s most important in the beginning is not catechesis or apologetics, not special programs or retreats, but our ongoing and genuine friendship.
“In the task of evangelisation, trust is the first step. A lot of Catholics don’t have a bridge of trust of any kind regarding the Catholic Church, Christianity or even a Christian,” said Ms Weddell.
“So one of the first things that we learn is having an experience of one of these positive conversations about faith, or religion, or metaphysics or whatever, where I am not being judged and I am not being controlled, that builds a bridge of trust.”
Ms Weddell is the executive director of the Catherine of Siena Institute, which she co-founded in 1997 and author of Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus.
She helps lead an international team which has worked directly with more than 170,000 lay, religious and ordained Catholics on five continents. She is currently in Australia to run a series of seminars and workshops for clergy and lay people, including last Saturday at Lidcombe in Sydney’s west focussing on parish renewal for priests and their parish teams.
Ms Weddell is encouraged by local studies such as the 2017 Faith and Belief in Australia report which show that a significant number of people regard themselves as ‘spiritual but not religious’.
“Those people are a little bit closer to us than you might think. That’s actually a bridge for a lot of people,” she said. “About one quarter of the adult population in Australia fall in what’s classed as the ‘warm towards Christianity’ category.”
It is relaxed conversation in an atmosphere of friendship and trust, whether with fellow Catholics at church or even around the kitchen table or family barbecue with people of any or no faith background that can “open up more doors” to the next stage of the journey towards faith, with the other four stages identified by Ms Weddell as curiosity, spiritual seeking, openness to God, and finally, discipleship.
“Our job is to ask the leading question, the intriguing question that opens up more doors,” she said.
“We’ve seen people really grow spiritually just by telling their story of their experience of God, faith, the metaphysical or whatever, to someone who honestly just tries to listen.
“They’re not fixing them, not directing them, not catechising them, but just trying to understand that person’s perspective.
“Even if a person is saying a lot of crazy stuff, you have to be very careful if they are in that early stage not to drown a tablespoon of spiritual curiosity with a gallon of answers.”
Ms Weddell believes that while parish retreats and programs such as Alpha are useful tools, there is no ‘silver bullet’ when it comes to evangelisation.
“There’s not one program that is magically going to make this all happen,” she said.
“All we can do is try to move people in the right direction and ultimately in the end it is them responding to God’s call.”