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Discipleship (Part I) – A Vision of the Discipleship Process [D1]

Updated: Apr 27, 2022

After initial conversion, a disciple grows and matures in several stages – initial catechesis, adherence to Christ, ongoing formation, and then missionary initiative, eventually becoming a disciple-maker. Let’s consider what the Bible, the Church and the Saints have to say about this crucial topic [1].

Listen to the podcast here:

Opening Prayer

Lord, You are the fullness of life, of holiness and of joy. We are like trees by flowing streams, for You, Lord, have placed us by the source of life, the Cross of Your Son. Fill our days and nights with the love of your wisdom, that we may bear fruit for ever and be counted in the assembly of Your saints [2]. Amen.

A Vision of Growth

Boy ah! You better study hard ah – your PSLE coming! If you do badly for your PSLE, you won’t get into a good Secondary school, and you won’t get to the JC / poly / ITE you want, or the University / institute of higher learning / overseas course you need to become [name the profession / career]!

Ever heard something like this? This may be a typical well-intentioned parent casting a vision for a child’s long-term educational and career growth. From the moment they are 11 or 12 years old (or very often much younger), forecasting into their early or mid-20s and beyond.

Of course, while this is one possible and entirely valid vision, it is not the only path one can or must take in life. Success and happiness are measured in different ways, and you can get there through many alternative or different routes.

But the key point is this – if we cast a long-term vision for our children’s educational and career paths, and take deliberate steps to help them get there, why shouldn’t we likewise cast a long-term vision for our growth and maturity from disciple to disciple-maker, and to take deliberate steps to get there? Surely, our spiritual growth is equally if not much more important than our earthly growth?

Without vision, we are satisfied with status quo. There is no impetus to grow, and little or no risks are taken. We amble along, without a compass. With vision, we can regularly adjust our course, we venture much more, we can regroup from time to time, and we push forward with renewed enthusiasm – in a specific and purposeful direction.

The Church’s Essential Mission – Disciple-Making / Evangelization

The Church “exists in order to evangelize”, and the “task of evangelizing all people constitutes the essential mission of the Church.” (Pope St. Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi, 14). (Erratum: the podcast mentioned that Pope St. John Paul II wrote Evangelii Nuntiandi. This is inaccurate; the author is Pope St. Paul VI).

Pope Francis adds that:

“Evangelization takes place in obedience to the missionary mandate of Jesus: ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you’ (M[att] 28:19-20).” (Evangelii Gaudium, 19).

Christ entrusting his disciples with the missionary mandate - Appearance on the Mountain in Galilee, by Duccio di Buoninsegna (1255–1319)

Making disciples is inseparably connected with evangelization – it is the very reason why the Church exists.

And the Church points out that there are various “stages” or “essential moments” in the process of evangelization (General Directory for Catechesis (GDC), 49), or disciple-making:

  • Missionary Activity: Directed toward non-believers and those who live in religious indifference.

  • Initial Catechetical Activity [3]: For those who choose the Gospel and for those who need to complete or modify their initiation.

  • Pastoral Activity: Directed toward the Christian faithful of mature faith in the bosom of the Christian community.

A simple way to remember these 3 stages or moments are their initials, “MIP” – mission in progress. These moments are not unique – they may be repeated, if necessary (GDC, 49).

Let’s consider each of these in turn.

1. Missionary Activity

The Church’s missionary activity to the unconverted is directed towards the unbaptized (mission ad gentes) as well as the baptized (New Evangelization). It is, however, important to note that the:

“New evangelization cannot supplant or be substituted for 'the mission ad gentes,' which continues to be the paradigm and primary task of missionary activity.” (GDC, 59).

In other words, we cannot focus solely on evangelizing Catholics, but fail to evangelize the world (i.e. to neglect to “Go” and “make disciples of all nations”). Both must be done. Mission must be our very lifeblood.

Roots of the Singapore Catholic Church [4]

Plaque marking the relics of Saint Laurent-Joseph-Marius Imbert, Cathedral of the Good Shepherd, Singapore

Fr. Laurent Imbert, a MEP priest, was sent abroad as a young missionary, and in 1821, was scheduled to sail from Penang to go on mission in China.

At this point, Fr. Laurent received word from his Bishop to call at Singapore and inform him of the position. He set foot in Singapore in December 1821. He found 12 or 13 Catholics in Singapore, and wrote back to his Bishop to report that they seemed “to lead a wretched life” and that they were “very anxious to have a priest amongst them”.

It was through Fr. Laurent that the first official Catholic contact was made in Singapore. He urged his Bishop to send a missionary, if not to remain permanently, at least to visit the Catholics there from time to time. He saw, with the eyes of faith, the spiritual potential of the Gospel bearing much fruit in the Lord’s time, in contrast with others before him, including one MEP priest on an unofficial visit passing through Singapore who had opined that “I do not think there would be any place to sow a mustard seed”.

Starting from 1832, 11 years after St. Laurent’s initial request and several other appeals from the few local Catholics for a priest, the MEP missionaries started to be sent permanently to Singapore to establish the Church here. St. Laurent’s martyrdom in Korea inspired the name of the very first church to be built in Singapore, the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd [5].

The MEP missionaries witnessed, they proclaimed the Gospel, and our founding Singaporean Catholics were converted. The Singapore Catholic Church was birthed out of the Church’s missionary activity through the MEP missionaries.

This encapsulates the 3 core activities in the Church’s missionary activity:

  • Witness: By word and deed, to witness amongst people the new and Christian way of being and living, including through dialogue and charity (see generally, GDC, 47-48).

  • Proclaim: First or primary (explicit) proclamation of the Gospel (the Kerygma), and the call to conversion (see generally, GDC, 47-48, 51, 61).

  • Convert: Initial conversion to Jesus Christ and becoming His disciple (see generally, GDC, 53, 55-56).

Initial conversion is the starting point in the journey of intentional discipleship (we covered this in “A” for Awakening). In searching for, encountering, and following Jesus, others would have witnessed to us, and proclaimed the Gospel to us and called us to conversion. The witnessing and proclaiming is done by other maturing disciples who came before us, and we as young or new disciples are recipients and beneficiaries of the Church’s missionary activity.

But what comes next?

2. Initial Catechetical Activity

The Acts of the Apostles gives us an enlightening example of what is required after initial conversion (Acts 18:24-26):

“24 Now a Jew named Apol′los, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was an eloquent man, well versed in the Scriptures. 25 He had been instructed in the way of the Lord; and being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John. 26 He began to speak boldly in the synagogue; but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him and expounded to him the way of God more accurately.”

Saint Paul with Saints Aquila and Priscilla, unknown author

Apollos, as a new believer, required the guidance and teaching of older and more mature Christians (Priscilla and Aquila), to understand “the way of God more accurately”. As we have seen above, the Church calls this “initial catechetical activity” or initial catechesis.

What are some of the fundamental characteristics of initial catechesis (GDC, 67)?

  • Comprehensive and systematic.

  • An apprenticeship of the entire Christian life.

  • Promotes an authentic following of Christ.

  • Helps the disciple to transform the old man in order to assume his baptismal responsibilities and to profess the faith from the heart.

  • Centred on what constitutes the nucleus of Christian experience, the most fundamental certainties of the faith, and the most essential evangelical values.

Examples of important topics include understanding the fundamental articles of faith (see “C” for Creed), what is and how to read, study and pray the Bible (see “B” for Bible), an overview of God’s plan for our salvation in history [6], what is prayer and how to do it [7], and the Sacraments [8], including the Mass and the Eucharist [9], which is the source and summit of our faith, amongst other topics.

These are all covered in catechism for children, RCIY and RCIA, amongst other excellent programs. However, for many of us, the lessons may have been forgotten or not applied – and we may need to re-learn and apply them. They are all as important as milk (1 Cor 3:2) is to a baby.

There are two critical components which applies to all stages of the discipleship process.

First, every young disciple needs to journey personally with an older disciple, whether a mentor or a spiritual director [10]. We learn best by watching and imitating someone more experienced. “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor 11:1). And the Church today desperately needs more mentors to personally accompany others in their processes of growth [11].

Second, throughout the discipleship process, we all need to be in a genuine Christian community (GDC, 69 and 86) [12]. Indeed, Pope St. John Paul II once exhorted:

“A person who has given adherence to Jesus Christ by faith and is endeavoring to consolidate that faith by catechesis needs to live in communion with those who have taken the same step. Catechesis runs the risk of becoming barren if no community of faith and Christian life takes the catechumen in at a certain stage of his catechesis.” (Catechesi Tradendae, 24)

As with the urgent need for more mentors, there is likewise an indescribably pressing need for Catholics to form (or to start meeting again) in genuine Christian communities.

# Join us in Part 2, as we examine the 3rd and critically important stage of the discipleship process, Pastoral Activity (which includes adherence to Christ, ongoing formation, and missionary initiative).

** Is there anything in this session which struck you or any thoughts, experiences or ideas which come to your mind? Please leave a comment below. We would love to hear from you.

Download the slides here:

D1 Discipleship - Slides
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1. Unless otherwise stated, all Scriptural references are taken from the RSV, 2nd CE.

2. Adapted from one of the Psalm-Prayers in the Office of Readings (5th Sunday of Lent).

3. Also called “initiatory catechesis” or “initial catechesis”.

4. Source: E. Wijeysingha (in collaboration with Rev. Fr. Rene Nicolas, mep), Going Forth, The Catholic Church in Singapore 1819-2004 (2006), at pp.71-72, 78-79, 101-103.

5. News of Bishop Imbert’s note to Frs. Chastan and Maubant (“The Good Shepherd is the one who lays down his life for his sheep”) and their martyrdom in Korea reached Singapore at a time when the MEP missionaries, led by MEP Fr. Jean Marie Beurel (who is considered as the founder of Catholic Singapore) were considering an appropriate name for the very first church to be built in Singapore. Inspired by the account of Bishop Imbert’s martyrdom, the Church was dedicated to the Good Shepherd, and was named the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd (completed in 1847). It was to house the future Archbishops and good shepherds of Singapore.

6. We will discuss this in “H” for History of Salvation.

7. We will discuss this in “P” for Prayer.

8. We will discuss this in “S” for Sacraments (and Worship).

9. We will discuss this in “E” for Eucharist and the Mass.

10. We will discuss this in “J” for Journeying with Others.

11. See Evangelii Gaudium, 169-173, where Pope Francis calls this “spiritual accompaniment”, and emphasized the urgent need for more mentors, “Today more than ever we need men and women who, on the basis of their experience of accompanying others, are familiar with processes which call for prudence, understanding, patience and docility to the Spirit, so that they can protect the sheep from wolves who would scatter the flock.”

12. We will discuss this in “K” for Koinonia (community).

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