A Personal Relationship with Jesus
Dear Friends, in a recent article in Homiletics and Pastoral Review (HPR), a problematic perspective was advanced regarding how a Catholic should understand the idea that we must have a personal relationship with Jesus. I asked a scholar of St. John Paul II’s perspective on the topic, Dr. Carole Brown, and Ralph Martin who is a well-known scholar on the New Evangelization, to comment on the piece. Ralph indicated that Peter Herbeck had composed a solid response on the topic and Peter has given us permission to publish it here. As well, if this topic is interesting to you, Dr. Brown’s response was also published by HPR and can be found here: The Problem with “Not” Having a Personal Relationship with Jesus.
A Personal Relationship with Jesus
by Peter Herbeck
Is it possible, legitimate or even wise for Catholics to speak about the importance of having a “personal relationship with Jesus?” In the past few months, a discussion about this question has arisen among some Catholic theologians, authors, bloggers and lay folks. Some say the phrase is essentially Protestant and inconsistent with Catholic teaching.
One author concluded that the terminology is “purely subjective,” and often leads those who emphasize it to become “cafeteria Catholics,” people who pick and choose Catholic doctrine and practice based on their own subjective judgments.[i] She argues that thinking and speaking about faith in God in these terms can lead Catholics to base their faith on emotions and a “personal sense” of what Jesus wants them to believe and do. Others say the phrase leads to a de-emphasis of doctrine, sacraments and devotions that are distinctively Catholic. In other words, it relativizes the faith and people toward Protestantism.
I couldn’t disagree more with those who draw that conclusion. There is nothing inherently Protestant about a “personal relationship with Jesus.” It is not simply “an idea” that has “entered the minds of Catholics who have been exposed to Protestants.”
Numerous Magisterial and Papal documents use the exact phrase “personal relationship” with God. It is perfectly clear that the terminology is not inherently Protestant or alien to proper Catholic sensibilities. Consider the following examples.
Made for Relationship
The Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation describes how God has designed the human person in His image and likeness precisely to enable us to know Him personally: “The invisible God out of the abundance of his love speaks to men as friends and lives among them, so that he may invite and take them into fellowship with himself,”(§2).
God desires to be in a personal relationship with each one of us. He has given us the capacity to know Him. He wants to speak to us as friends, and to “take us into fellowship with himself.” What an extraordinary gift!
The Second Vatican Council and the recent Popes have urged all the baptized to respond to Jesus’ command to “go make disciples of all nations.” The Decree on the Mission [Activity] of the Church says that proclamation and conversion must be, “sufficient to make a man realize that he has been snatched away from sin and led into the mystery of God’s love, who called him to enter into a personal relationship with Him in Christ” (§13).
The language here is clear: God seeks a relationship with each one of us that is personal. These same words are echoed by St. Pope John Paul II:
In the complex reality of mission, initial proclamation has a central and irreplaceable role, since it introduces man “into the mystery of the love of God, who invites him to enter into a personal relationship with himself in Christ” and opens the way to conversion. (Redemptoris Missio, 44)
We are reminded that through the words of Scripture God seeks a “personal relationship” with His people:“The word of God is the first source of all Christian spirituality. It gives rise to a personal relationship with the living God and with his saving and sanctifying will,” (Vita Consecrata, 94).
The Bible “gives rise to a personal relationship” because Jesus reveals Himself to us on every page. The Holy Spirit, the one who “searches the depths of God,” (1 Cor 2:10) inspires that word in such a way that we actually encounter Christ in the words of scripture. He speaks directly to our spirit, enabling us to know Him.
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI called for a “new season” of the reading of the Word of God by all the baptized, “so that their prayerful and faith-filled reading of the Bible will, with time, deepen their personal relationship with Jesus”(Verbum Domini, 72).
He also reminds us that the personal relationship we have with Jesus is deepened and shared most profoundly in the Eucharist:
The personal relationship which the individual believer establishes with Jesus present in the Eucharist constantly points beyond itself to the whole communion of the Church and nourishes a fuller sense of membership in the Body of Christ. (Sacramentum Caritatis, 68)
It’s obvious from these texts that the phrase “personal relationship with Jesus” is an important part of the way the Magisterium of the Church refers to our faith in Christ. It’s not foreign or simply a Protestant imposition. Rather, it expresses an essential element of a deeply Catholic understanding of conversion and discipleship.
Normal Catholic Life
Catholics should not feel as though they are treading on dangerous ground when using this terminology or that they are somehow promoting a Protestant understanding of faith. It’s normal, or it ought to be, a normal part of Catholic life.
To say, “I have a personal relationship with Jesus,” is simply to say that I know, with deep personal conviction, that God knows me and He loves me. I know it because while I was yet a sinner, Christ died for me (Rom 5:8); He poured His love into my heart through the Holy Spirit (Rom 5:5). Through the Holy Spirit, I have seen what God has prepared for me in Christ Jesus (1 Cor 2:9-10); I have come to understand the gifts bestowed on me by God (1 Cor 2:12). By His mercy I have “tasted the heavenly gift…the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come” (Heb 6:4-5).
I know Him in whom I have believed (2 Tim 1:12). I haven’t come to know him apart from the Catholic Church or despite the Catholic Church, but within the Catholic Church. The Jesus I know personally is the Jesus of the Bible, of the Catechism, the Jesus I meet in the sacraments, and in my neighbor. It is the Jesus who has made Himself known to me not simply with “plausible words of wisdom, but by a demonstration of the Spirit and of power,” (1 Cor 2:4). He did that for me so that my “faith would not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God,” (1 Cor 2:5). And it is that faith, which by His grace, is near to me, on my lips and in my heart, enabling me to confess that Jesus Christ is Lord! Not only Lord of all, but my Lord and my Savior! (Rom 10:8-13).
He has done all of this for me, a sinner: wretched, pitiable, poor, blind and naked, (Rev 3:17), a foolish and weak man (1 Cor 1:26-27), who, apart from Christ lived without hope in the world (Eph 2:12).
This great mercy has come to me by grace, “not by my own doing, it is the gift of God,” (Eph 2:8). And now, I gladly boast in my weakness (2 Cor 12:9); I believe and so I speak (2 Cor 4:13). What I say is simple: I know Jesus Christ, in a personal way. I have a relationship with Him. He is my Lord, my Savior and my best friend. Do you know Him in this way? Would you like to? You can. He is here right now, with you, right where you are. He is standing at the door of your heart, knocking (Rev 3:20). Will you let him in?
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[i] Boyd, Jay, “The Problem with ‘A Personal Relationship with Jesus,’” Homiletic & Pastoral Review, July 10, 2014.
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Art: Bruiloft van Cana [Wedding at Cana], Maerten de Vos, ca 1596, CC-PD-Mark; 19th century steel engraving (de: stahlstich) of Jesus Christ, by Peter Carl Geißler, PD-scan|PD-old, both Wikimedia Commons.