One can’t be a Christian in America without encountering the expression “personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” For many Catholics, this phrase is not a particularly accurate description of their faith. It conjures images of evangelical Protestants surrounded by the drumbeat of contemporary Christian music, or inspires visions of a lively service in a megachurch, with faith potentially reduced to an emotional response that’s been whipped up in the moment.
But is that an accurate description? Are Catholicism and “a personal relationship with Jesus Christ” mutually exclusive? When we set aside preconceived notions of what a “personal relationship” is, or what we think it is, we may be surprised to find there’s no need for opposing camps when discussing the truth about a relationship with Jesus Christ.
A common argument against the assertion that Catholics need a personal relationship with Christ is that such a thing is unnecessary or redundant. For some it would seem that so long as Catholics follow all the precepts of the Church, then we are already doing the personal work that is required of us.
The five precepts of the Church require Catholics to attend Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation, to confess sins at least once a year, to receive holy Communion at least once (during the Easter season), to observe days of prescribed fasting and abstinence, and to provide for the material needs of the Church according to one’s abilities. These precepts are minimum requirements for life as a Catholic. The Church, a wise mother, gives us these precepts, which can sanctify us and draw us closer to Christ, much as an earthly mother tells her children to eat their vegetables in order to stay healthy and strong.
For Catholics, participation in the Church’s life reaches its culmination in the Eucharist, the most intimate gift the Lord can offer us on earth: His body, blood, soul and divinity. So, the notion that keeping the precepts places us in a personal relationship with God is correct. But does it stop there?
Pope Benedict XVI put it well at a 2008 audience: “We are only Christians if we encounter Christ. Of course, he does not show himself to us in this overwhelming, luminous way, as he did to Paul to make him the apostle to all peoples. But we too can encounter Christ in reading sacred Scripture, in prayer, in the liturgical life of the Church. We can touch Christ’s heart and feel Him touching ours. Only in this personal relationship with Christ, only in this encounter with the Risen One do we truly become Christians.”
All Christians are called to the authentic encounter — the relationship — of which Pope Benedict spoke. The Church’s precepts do not mention reading Scripture or developing one’s prayer life, but Pope Benedict and pontiffs before and after him have exhorted us to do these things. It seems as if the precepts presume the components of a relationship with Jesus.
The concept of a personal relationship with the Lord is an ancient one. In Deutoronmy 6:5, we are told to “love the Lord, your God, with your whole heart, and with your whole being, and with your whole strength.” Jesus repeats this command often throughout the New Testament, as can be found in Matthew 22:37, Mark 12:30,33 and Luke 10:27. The prologue of the Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us: “At every time and in every place, God draws close to man. He calls man to seek him, to know him, to love him with all his strength” (No. 1).
The Judeo-Christian tradition is filled with the intimate relations of nuptial imagery, such as in the Song of Songs, likening our relationship with the Lord to the personal nature of the marriage relationship. Likely, we won’t dispute that marriage demands more than a bare-minimum fulfillment of marriage precepts, so why might some scoff at the idea that more is needed in our relationship with God? What spouse wouldn’t be appalled to hear, “We went through the ceremony, we’re legally bound — what more do you want?” Foundational aspects of true intimacy would clearly be missing: shared feelings, sufferings, joys and the depth of communication that reaches beyond casual friendship.
A marriage is grounded in commitment, regardless of feelings, as feelings will inevitably ebb and flow, and a relationship with the Lord calls for the same commitment, diligent attention and self-donation. And just as a marriage matures with every encounter, our relationship with Christ deepens as we encounter Him in Scripture, prayer and the sacraments, all of which serve to both nurture the relationship and anchor us when feelings fluctuate.
In comparing faith to a marriage, however, objections arise: “Isn’t there a danger that we will focus too much on feelings? Doesn’t all this talk of ‘relationship’ diminish the nature of God and elevate us to an undeserved level?”
Those are valid questions. It is prudent to acknowledge that our faith is not based on how we feel about the Lord. Objectively, God is God; we are His creatures and there is a gap between us that cannot be closed while still pilgrims on this earth. But the God who, out of pure love, brought us into being makes it clear — in Scripture, and through the teaching of His Church — that He desires great breadth and depth of love from His creatures.
In his book “St. Francis of Assisi,” G.K. Chesterton said, “To this great mystic [Francis] his religion was not a thing like a theory but a thing like a love affair.” That kind of language makes some Catholics nervous about “personal relationship.” But a love affair doesn’t mean losing ourselves in emotion or acting like a giddy newlywed. Authentic love is far more than initial infatuation. Real love is sustained through repeated acts of the will. We fall in love, we commit, and we promise to live out that commitment for the rest of our lives. Love is the anchor — in marriage and faith — that holds us in place when dryness, boredom and suffering set in. The initial consolations of both earthly and divine love fortify us for the future and ripen our souls for the richness that is to come.
Conversion, and a relationship with Christ, may begin with intellectual assent and obedience to precepts, but it needn’t stop there. Mature faith — like mature friendship, love and marriage — is a complex, organic entity, always growing. And just as human relationships vary in character, so will relationships with the Divine. They are neither “all about feelings” or “only about” keeping the precepts and receiving the sacraments. A faith life is not an either/or situation, but a both/and proposition.
Catholicism is a universal faith, lived and expressed in numerous ways. Witness the varying forms of spirituality, whether Benedictine, Dominican or Franciscan, among others. The Church approves them all. A personal relationship with Jesus Christ can look very different from one individual to the next. It’s not about choosing the camp of emotion versus the camp of solemn behavior. It’s about, as Pope Francis said: “Our own constantly renewed experience of savoring Christ’s friendship and his message. It is impossible to persevere in a fervent evangelization unless we are convinced from personal experience that it is not the same thing to have known Jesus as not to have known him, not the same thing to walk with him as to walk blindly, not the same thing to hear his word as not to know it, and not the same thing to contemplate him, to worship him, to find our peace in him, as not to” (Evangelii Gaudium, “The Joy of the Gospel,” No. 266).
Do Catholics need a personal relationship with Jesus Christ? If we can believe Scripture, the catechism, popes, the Fathers of the Church and the saints, the answer is “yes.” These have taught us that seeking an ever-deepening relationship with Jesus Christ is at the core of our faith. But we needn’t get bogged down in the semantics surrounding the issue. We can agree that a personal relationship is necessary without worrying about rigid illustrations of what that relationship looks like. From the charismatic college student to the elderly woman steadfastly praying the Rosary, from the hipster who loves chant or the middle-aged Knight of Columbus, personal relationships with Christ are unique, varied and impossible to label from the outside. The important point is that there’s nothing un-Catholic about pursuing the intimate bond that the Lord wants to have with each and every one of us. At its foundation, our connection to Jesus Christ is one of love. As Pope Benedict said in a General Audience in 2009: “Faith is above all a personal, intimate encounter with Jesus, and to experience his closeness, his friendship, his love; only in this way does one learn to know him ever more, and to love and follow him ever more. May this happen to each one of us.”