WITH my writings of late on the Pope, the Catholic Church, and the understanding of how divine truth flows, not through personal interpretation, but through the teaching authority of Jesus, I received the expected emails and criticisms from non-Catholics (or rather, ex-Catholics). They have interpreted my defence of the hierarchy, established by Christ Himself, to mean that I do not have a personal relationship with Jesus; that somehow I believe I am saved, not by Jesus, but by the pope or a bishop; that I am not filled with the Spirit, but an institutional “spirit” that has left me blind and bereft of salvation.
Having almost left the Catholic faith myself many years ago (watch My Testimony), I understand the basis of their misunderstanding and bias against the Catholic Church. I understand their difficulty embracing a Church that, in the Western world, is almost all but dead in many places. Furthermore—and as Catholics, we must face this painful reality—the sexual scandals in the priesthood have greatly eroded our credibility.
As a result, the faith as such becomes unbelievable, and the Church can no longer present herself credibly as the herald of the Lord. —POPE BENEDICT XVI, Light of the World, The Pope, the Church, and the Signs of the Times: A Conversation With Peter Seewald, p. 25
It makes it more difficult for us as Catholics, but not impossible—nothing is impossible with God. There has never been a more incredible time to become a saint than now. And it is just such souls through whom the light of Jesus will pierce any darkness, any doubt, any deception—even that of our persecutors. And, as Pope John Paul II once wrote in a poem,
If the word has not converted, it will be blood that converts. —POPE JOHN PAUL II, from poem, “Stanislaw”
But, let me first start with the word…
FINDING THE SUMMIT
As I wrote some time ago in Mountains, Foothills, and Plains, the Summit of the Church is Jesus. This Summit is the foundation of the Christian Life.
In my early school years, we had no Catholic youth group. So my parents, who were devout Catholics in love with Jesus, sent us to a Pentecostal group. There, we made friends with other Christians who had a passion for Jesus, a love for the Word of God, and a desire to witness to others.
One thing they often spoke of was the need for a “personal relationship with Jesus”. In fact, years before, I remember being given a comic book at a neighborhood bible study that told the story of God’s love, expressed through the self-sacrifice of His Son. There was a little prayer at the end to invite Jesus to be my personal Lord and Savior. And so, in my little six year old way, I invited Jesus into my heart. I know He heard me. He’s never left…
CATHOLICISM AND THE PERSONAL JESUS
Many Evangelical or Protestant Christians reject the Catholic Church because they’ve been led to believe that we do not preach the need to have a “personal relationship” with Jesus. They look at our churches adorned with icons, candles, statues, and paintings, and misinterpret sacred symbolism for “idol worship.” They see our rituals, traditions, vestments and spiritual feasts and regard them as “dead works,” devoid of faith, life, and the freedom which Christ came to bring.
On the one hand, we must admit a certain truth to this. Many Catholics do “show up” to Mass out of obligation, going through the rote prayers, rather than from a real and living relationship with God. But this does not mean that the Catholic Faith is dead or empty, though perhaps many the heart of an individual is. Yes, Jesus said to judge a tree by its fruit. It’s quite another thing to cut the tree down altogether. Even St. Paul’s detractors showed more humility than some of their modern counterparts.1
Still, the Catholic Church in many of its branches has failed; we have neglected at times to preach Jesus Christ, crucified, died, and risen, poured out as a sacrifice for our sins, so that we may know Him, and the One who sent Him, that we may have eternal life. This is our faith! It is our joy! Our reason for living… and we have failed to “shout it from the rooftops” as Pope John Paul II exhorted us to do, especially in the churches of the affluent nations. We have not succeeded in raising our voices above the noise and din of modernism, proclaiming with a clear and undiluted voice: Jesus Christ is Lord!
…there’s no easy way to say it. The Church in the United States has done a poor job of forming the faith and conscience of Catholics for more than 40 years. And now we’re harvesting the results—in the public square, in our families and in the confusion of our personal lives. —Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., Rendering Unto Caesar: The CatholicPolitical Vocation, February 23rd, 2009, Toronto, Canada
But this failure does not therefore annul the Catholic Faith, its truths, its authority, its Great Commission. It does not void the “oral and written” traditions which Christ and the Apostles handed down to us. Rather, it is a sign of the times.
To be absolutely clear: a personal, living relationship with Jesus Christ, indeed the Holy Trinity, is at the very heart of our Catholic Faith. In fact, if it is not, the Catholic Church is not Christian. From our official teachings in the Catechism:
“Great is the mystery of the faith!” The Church professes this mystery in the Apostles’ Creed and celebrates it in the sacramental liturgy, so that the life of the faithful may be conformed to Christ in the Holy Spirit to the glory of God the Father. This mystery, then, requires that the faithful believe in it, that they celebrate it, and that they live from it in a vital and personal relationship with the living and true God. —Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), 2558
POPES, AND THE PERSONAL RELATIONSHIP
Contrary to the false prophets who seek to discredit Catholicism as being merely concerned with maintaining an institution, the need to evangelize and re-evangelize was very much the thrust of Pope John Paul II’s pontificate. It was he who brought into the Church’s contemporary vocabulary the term and urgency for a “new evangelization”, and the need for a new understanding of the Church’s mission:
The task which awaits you—the new evangelization—demands that you present, with fresh enthusiasm and new methods, the eternal and unchanging content of the heritage of the Christian faith. As you well know it is not a matter of merely passing on a doctrine, but rather of a personal and profound meeting with the Saviour. —POPE JOHN PAUL II, Commissioning Families, Neo-Catechumenal Way. 1991.
This evangelization, he said, begins with ourselves.
Sometimes even Catholics have lost or never had the chance to experience Christ personally: not Christ as a mere ‘paradigm’ or ‘value’, but as the living Lord, ‘the way, and the truth, and the life’. —POPE JOHN PAUL II, L’Osservatore Romano (English Edition of the Vatican Newspaper), March 24, 1993, p.3.
Conversion means accepting, by a personal decision, the saving sovereignty of Christ and becoming his disciple. —Ibid., Encyclical Letter: Mission of the Redeemer (1990) 46.
Pope Benedict has been no less lucid. In fact, for such a renowned theologian, he has a profound simplicity in words, which time and again point us toward the need to encounter Christ personally. This was the essence of his first encyclical:
Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction. —POPE BENEDICT XVI; Encyclical Letter: Deus Caritas Est, “God is Love”; 1.
Again, this Pope also addresses the true dimensions and genesis of faith.
Faith by its specific nature is an encounter with the living God. —Ibid. 28.
This faith, if it is authentic, must also be an expression of charity: works of mercy, justice, and peace. But the evangelist must first himself be evangelized.
Practical activity will always be insufficient, unless it visibly expresses a love for man, a love nourished by an encounter with Christ. —Ibid. 34.
...we can be witnesses only if we know Christ first hand, and not only through others — from our own life, from our personal encounter with Christ. Finding him really in our life of faith, we become witnesses and can contribute to the novelty of the world, to eternal life. —POPE BENEDICT XVI, Vatican City, January 20th, 2010, Zenit
PERSONAL JESUS: COMMUNION WITH THE HEAD…
Many well-meaning Christians have abandoned the Catholic Church because they did not hear the Good News preached to them until they visited the “other” church down the street, or listened to a television evangelist, or attended a bible study… Indeed, says St. Paul,
How can they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone to preach? (Romans 10:14)
Their hearts were set on fire, the Scriptures came alive, and their eyes were opened to see new perspectives. They experienced a profound joy which to them seemed in stark contrast to the mumbling monotone masses of their Catholic parish. But when these revitalized believers departed, they left behind the other sheep who were so desperate to hear what they had heard! Perhaps worse, they moved away from the very Fountainhead of grace, Mother Church, who nurses her children through the Sacraments.
Didn’t Jesus command us eat to his Body and drink his Blood? What then, dear Protestant, are you eating? Doesn’t Scripture tell us to confess our sins to one another? To whom are you confessing? Do you speak in tongues? So do I. Do you read your bible? So do I. But my brother, should one eat from only one side of the plate when Our Lord Himself provides a rich and full meal in the Banquet of His very Self?
My flesh is real food, and my blood is real drink. (John 6:55)
Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus? So do I. But I have more! For each day, I gaze upon Him in the humble disguise of bread and wine. Every day, I reach out and touch Him in the Holy Eucharist, who then reaches out and touches me in the depths of my body and soul. For it was not a pope, or a saint, or a doctor of the Church, but Christ Himself who declared:
I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world. (John 6:51)
But I do not hold this gift to myself. It is for you too. For the greatest personal relationship we can have, and which our Lord desires to give, is the communion of body, soul, and spirit.
“For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. (Ephesians 5:31-32)
This communion, this personal relationship, does not happen in isolation, for God has given us a family of fellow believers to belong to. We don’t evangelize people into an ethereal concept, but a living community. The Church consists of many members, but it is “one body.” “Bible-believing” Christians reject Catholics because we preach that salvation comes through the Church. But, isn’t this what the Bible says? First of all, the Church is Christ’s idea; secondly, He builds it, not on a spiritual experience, but on people, starting with Peter:
And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church… I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. (Matt 24:18)
This authority Jesus further extended, not to the multitudes, but only to the other eleven Apostles; a heirarchal authority to preach and teach and administer what Catholics eventually called “the Sacraments” of Baptism, Communion, Confession, and Anointing of the Sick, among others:
…you are fellow citizens with the holy ones and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the capstone… 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… Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained… This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me… Is anyone among you sick? He should summon the presbyters of the church, and they should pray over him and anoint [him] with oil in the name of the Lord… Therefore, brothers, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught, either by an oral statement or by a letter of ours… [for] the church of the living God [is] the pillar and foundation of truth… Obey your leaders and defer to them, for they keep watch over you and will have to give an account, that they may fulfill their task with joy and not with sorrow, for that would be of no advantage to you. (Ephesians 2:19-20; Matt 28:19; John 20:23; 1 Cor 11:25; 1 Tim 3:15; Heb 13:17)
Only in the Catholic Church do we find the fullness of the “deposit of faith,” the authority to fulfill these precepts that Christ left and asked of us to carry forward into the world in His Name. Thus, to keep oneself separated from the “one, holy, catholic,2 and apostolic Church” is to be like a child reared by a foster parent who gives the child many of the basics for his living, but not the full inheritance of his birthright. Please understand, this is not a judgment of a non-Catholic’s faith or salvation. Rather, it is an objective statement based upon the Word of God and 2000 years of lived faith and authentic Tradition.
We need a personal relationship with Jesus, the Head. But we also need a relationship with His Body, the Church. For the “cornerstone” and the “foundation” are inseparable:
According to the grace of God given to me, like a wise master builder I laid a foundation, and another is building upon it. But each one must be careful how he builds upon it, for no one can lay a foundation other than the one that is there, namely, Jesus Christ… The wall of the city had twelve courses of stones as its foundation, on which were inscribed the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb. (1 Cor 3:9; Rev 21:14)
While hearing about Christ through the Bible or through other people can introduce a person to Christian belief, “it must then be ourselves (who) become personally involved in an intimate and deep relationship with Jesus.” —POPE BENEDICT XVI, Catholic News Service, October 4th, 2006
Man, himself created in the “image of God” [is] called to a personal relationship with God… prayer is the living relationship of the children of God with their Father… —Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 299, 2565
This writing was first published October 5th, 2006.
- The Fundamental Problem
- The Unfolding Splendor of Truth
- Mountains, Foothills, and Plains
- Catholic Fundamentalist?
- Protestants, Catholics, and the Coming Wedding
- The Ark and Non-Catholics
- Dynasty, Not Democracy
- Charismatic? Search for the series Part I – VII
was painted by Mark’s wife, and is available as a magnetic print
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