"Have you accepted Jesus as your personal savior?" the man asked me earnestly.
I paused for a moment to consider the question. Not because I don't recognize the Son of God as my Lord and Savior, but because my response would say a lot about me and the Church.
We Christians really should have a common language, but the truth is that we don't often communicate with each other well. The trouble is that words have meaning and some words mean different things to different people.
For an Evangelical, for example, "accepting Jesus" refers to a discrete event in time during which a person submits to Jesus' Lordship, and becomes a Christian. The new Christian recognizes Jesus as his Lord and Savior, and usually follows this decision with a prayer asking Jesus to come into his heart.
For a Catholic, "accepting Jesus" is not a one time event, but has many and varied meanings.
"Accepting Jesus" could mean daily conversion of heart where we surrender our lives once again to Christ in the Morning Offering: "Lord Jesus, I offer you my works, prayers, joys and sufferings this day for the intentions of your Sacred Heart and in union with the holy sacrifice of the Mass throughout the world."
"Accepting Jesus" could also mean receiving our Lord in the Most Holy Eucharist where we physically receive His Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity under the appearance of bread and wine.
Both of these methods of accepting Jesus speak of personal relationship with the Savior. I have written many times about the communal nature of our Catholic faith, that we are joined to the Church in Heaven (Church Triumphant) and in Purgatory (Church Suffering) through our baptism (cf 1 Peter 3:20-21, Eph 4:5). Being aware of our connection to the rest of the Church is important, but we should not neglect our own personal relationship with our Lord either.
As with most things Catholic, it's not either/or…it's both/and.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church weighs in on the subject of personal relationship Jesus: Because God creates through wisdom, his creation is ordered: "You have arranged all things by measure and number and weight." The universe, created in and by the eternal Word, the "image of the invisible God", is destined for and addressed to man, himself created in the "image of God" and called to a personal relationship with God (#299).
You see, we must neither confine our relationship with Jesus to Holy Mass nor the quiet of our rooms, for Jesus Christ is both King and Brother. While different spiritualities appeal to different people, we must both unite ourselves with the whole Church and present ourselves to Jesus Christ as individuals. To loose one is to diminish the other.
Submitting to the Lordship of Jesus should be more than just a one-time event; instead it is a daily act of love and gratitude for our Lord's sacrifice on the Cross. Our response to His love must never be merely a fond memory of the day we gave our lives to Christ.
Having said all that, we shouldn't loose sight of the need to truly give ourselves over to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. The Evangelical's surrender-event is a good model; daily conversion of the heart has to start somewhere…we just must never let it remain there.
So what answer did I give to my earnest evangelist when he asked me if I'd accepted Jesus as personal savior?
I answered, "Yes, everyday."