Siena Institute Pioneers Collaboration in the New Evangelization

In 1994 the Dominican Order, in response to the Holy Father’s call for a New Evangelization, adopted a resolution requiring “every province to consider its present commitment to parishes and ask if each one represents the best basis for itinerancy in preaching to the unchurched.”

Since that resolution, some very promising work has taken shape in the form of the Catherine of Siena Institute founded in July 1997 by the Western Dominican Province. The Institute has the enthusiastic backing of Fr. Timothy Radcliffe, O.P., the Master of the Dominican Order, and has been given a startup grant by the Western Province with the equally enthusiastic support of the Provincial, Fr. Daniel Syverstad, O.P. The two people sharing responsibility for the Institute are Fr. Michael Sweeney, O.P. and Sherry Weddell, a laywoman and convert to the Faith from Evangelical Protestantism.

“Vatican II,” says Sweeney, “called for a new evangelization of the modern world, by means of a renewal of the role of the laity. In the Council documents, and in post-conciliar magisterial documents–especially Evangelii NuntiandiRedemptoris Missio and Christifideles Laici–the laity are recognized to hold an office in the Church by their own right, by virtue of their baptism. They are possessed of a double responsibility: on the one hand, to remain in communion with the Church; on the other hand, to evangelize the world, both by the witness of their own faithfulness and by actively making disciples of others, while working to renew the temporal order in the light of the Gospel. In fulfilling their responsibility in the Church, they hold a real office: theirs is a real priesthood; they participate in the priestly, prophetic and kingly dignity of Christ.”

“The issue,” says Weddell, “is formation worthy of this mission. For the vast majority of Catholics, the parish is the only really accessible place where they could hope to receive significant formation. To be fully Catholic, evangelism requires not just the evangelizing preacher, but the evangelizing parish.” The fostering of well-formed evangelizing parishes is the goal of the Institute.

The Institute grew out of the distinct vocations of Sweeney and Weddell. Weddell, who became Catholic in 1987, was born and raised in Evangelicalism and had done graduate-level study with some of the foremost Evangelical missionary theologians, strategists and practitioners in the world as well as mission work in Europe and the Middle East. Her concern was to see Catholicism’s strong and rich theological basis for evangelization translated into a fuel for the same kind of energetic evangelizing activity which characterized the Evangelical tradition.

While Weddell was voicing these ideas, Sweeney was pastoring Blessed Sacrament parish in Seattle and acting as Provincial Promoter for Pastoral Ministry for the Western Province. In 1995, he called together a small group of parishioners (including Weddell) to study magisterial teaching on the role of the laity in the mission of the Church. Out of these discussions came a conference for Western Province Dominican pastors to explore how to make their parishes centers of evangelization. Sweeney asked Weddell to address the conference.

As a result of the presentations given by Sweeney and her, the Province voted unanimously to make lay formation a top priority. This was followed by further work, both theological and pastoral, by Sweeney and Weddell, most prominently in the establishment of a pilot lay formation program at Blessed Sacrament in 1996 and, when this succeeded, with the establishment of the Institute.

The Institute aims to create parish-based resources on the lay office and mission reflective of the teaching of the Council; to foster an orthodox and creative understanding of collaboration between the clergy and the laity; to form laity in the Church’s Tradition; and to help kindle creative evangelism in the heart of the parish. Toward that end, a number of projects have been and still are being created, but the single most important project of the Institute to date has been the Spiritual Gifts Discernment Program, a project that has begun to attract both national and international attention and which has excited the interest of both lay people and clergy.

What is the Spiritual Gifts Discernment Program?

“It is,” says Weddell, “is a program designed to help Catholics discern the charisms of the Holy Spirit they have been given. It helps them begin to learn how to use those charisms to serve God and other people.”

Many people identify the term “charism” exclusively with phenomena like speaking in tongues or prophecy. However both Weddell and Sweeney insist this is a very constricted understanding of what the Church means in speaking of charisms.

“According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church,” says Weddell, “‘Charisms, or spiritual gifts, are special abilities given to Christians by the Holy Spirit to enable them to be powerful channels of God’s love and redeeming presence in the world.’ These charisms, or spiritual gifts, differ from natural talents in that they are not “inborn” or inherited from our parents, but are given to us by the Holy Spirit, whom we received through baptism and confirmation.”

“There are three primary lists of gifts in the New Testament (in Romans 12, I Corinthians 12, and Ephesians 4),” says Weddell. “The Program covers 24 of the most common charisms, including most of those listed in St. Paul’s letters. But these are not exhaustive.”

Nor are they only the province of a few. On the contrary, Weddell and Sweeney both stress that the New Testament and the Catechism teach that all Christians are given one or more charisms. As such, the Institute regards charisms as essential tools for doing the work of the New Evangelization and has created the Catholic Spiritual Gifts Discernment Program in order to help all the baptized discern and develop their gifts.

“Charisms should be taken into account when we try to discern our vocation,” says Weddell. “We have found that when people discern their charisms they often discover a new sense of personal purpose and direction as a lay Christian. As such, the discernment of charisms is often a wonderful catalyst of spiritual growth.”

Weddell notes, “Participants regularly comment about how healing an experience it is to discern their gifts. Those who judged themselves for not measuring up to someone else’s standard are freed by recognizing that their giftedness and calling may be different. Those who judged other Christians for having different priorities are able to relax and recognize the validity of the many calls within the larger Body of Christ.”

The program is offered in two parts: the shorter Called & Gifted Weekend and the Extended Gifts Discernment Program.

Weddell says, “Participants in the Called & Gifted Weekend take the Catholic Spiritual Gifts Inventory, learn the characteristics of the most common charisms (and how to begin discerning their own charisms), and learn some of the implications of gift discernment for parish life, lay/clergy collaboration, and the mission of the Church. The Extended Gifts Discernment Program enables those who have taken the Called & Gifted Weekend to spend time discerning a single charism of their choice via a personal interview, personal experience, small group work, and additional presentations on advanced topics.”

“The goal of the Institute is to make this program transplantable to any parish,” says Weddell, “So the Institute teachers will be traveling quite a bit as well as taping the Called & Gifted Weekend so that parishes and other groups can readily access the material.

This is of benefit, not only to laity, but to clergy as well, says Sweeney. “The program has the potential to move parish ministries from being ‘needs-based’ to being ‘charism-driven.’ Our communities are filled with organizational and pastoral ‘needs’ that we usually try to meet by recruiting anyone who shows any interest–or who, perhaps, is just unable to say ‘no’. Because we seldom look first at the gifts and call of individuals, our communities often contain generous and energetic people who have been burned-out or even traumatized trying to fill ‘vacuums’ for which they were ill-equipped. Discerning the gifts of individuals helps avoid these problems.”

Weddell adds, “A pastor, for instance, with no charism of administration need not face alone the burden of making the organizational machinery of the parish work. If he knows there are laypeople in his parish with such charisms who not only excel at such work but find it spiritually fulfilling, he can tap them and be freed to use his charisms for the body of Christ. Everybody wins.”

(The Catherine of Siena Institute can be accessed on the World Wide Web at (email or by phone at 1-888-878-6789.


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