Recently, I read an “off-the-cuff” address that Pope Francis gave to an audience of consecrated men and women. He spoke about a few different things, but the one that really struck me was the importance of identifying true vocations as opposed to simply letting anyone enter an order, join the seminary, etc. I thought about this in light of a parish finding discipleship leaders, and it really seems to make sense to me. So, I’d like to take an excerpt from his address and adapt it for our use as we consider the process for finding strong discipleship leaders. Here is my adaptation (the bold text is what I changed from vocation/consecrated terms to discipleship/parish terms):

And I confess to you that it costs me much when I see the drop in the number of quality discipleship leaders, and this awakens in me a temptation against hope: “But, Lord, what’s happening? Why has the womb of intentional discipleship become so sterile?” Some parishes are doing the experiment of “artificial insemination.” What do they do? They receive: “But yes, come, come, come …” And then the problems [begin] that exist inside there … No. One must receive with seriousness! One must discern well if it’s a true vocation and help it to grow. And I believe that. Against this temptation of losing hope, caused by this sterility, we must pray more. And we must pray without getting tired. It does me much good to read that passage of Scripture, in which Anna – Samuel’s mother – prayed and asked for a son. She prayed and moved her lips, and prayed … And the old priest, who was somewhat blind and couldn’t see well, thought she was drunk. But the heart of that woman [said to God]: “I want a son!” I ask you: in face of this drop in good discipleship leaders does your heart pray with this intensity? “Our parish is in need of loving and caring adults, our parish is in need of authentic relationships and community…” The Lord who is so generous, will not fail in His promise, but we must ask for it. We must knock on the door of His heart. (see full original translated text here)

One of the most common fears and frustrations of parish leaders who are desiring to cultivate an atmosphere of discipleship in their parish comes from the inability to find good discipleship leaders. Similar to a vocational calling, being a discipleship leader should be a calling. If we simply search for warm bodies to fill in spots in order to gain numbers, we are missing the point, and it is then that “problems begin to exist inside.”

Let us apply this patience and discipline that Pope Francis is asking of consecrated communities to our efforts in discipleship and pray with intensity. We are so trained to be in “program success” mode that we often forget that we should instead be in “person success” mode. May our work in the Church be focused on helping individuals discover the beauty of the spiritual life and growing in their ability to truly discern God’s will, and may we be willing to sacrifice the attractiveness of “successful” programming and the “security” of high attendance in order to do so.