… a baptized, confirmed Catholic who faithfully partakes of the sacraments of reconciliation and Holy Communion in the manner prescribed by the Church certainly has a “personal relationship” with Jesus, whether or not he or she uses that phrase to describe it.
“Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus?”
It’s a question that Catholics are hearing much more frequently in the Church these past few years—a question many associate primarily with evangelical Protestant groups. Since mid-2012, however, a “New Evangelization” book and program have been making the rounds amongst Catholic parishes, making liberal use of that phrase. The book is Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus, by Sherry Weddell; it has a charismatic bent and is liberally sprinkled with the phrase, “a personal relationship with Jesus.” Though this essay is not meant to be a book review, I shall rely on many examples from Ms. Weddell’s work, as it illustrates very well the thinking behind what appears to be a current trend in the “New Evangelization.”
The basic assumption of the people who ask others whether they have a personal relationship with Jesus—and the premise of Ms. Weddell’s book—seems to be that most Catholics don’t have such a relationship; and this is what they need in order to be “intentional disciples” who spread the Good News (and, presumably, bring converts into the Church).
The problem with this approach is that it has a distinctly “Protestant” ring to it; that is, the emphasis is on “me ‘n’ Jesus,” with less emphasis on understanding the teachings of the Church that Jesus instituted. No matter how beneficial it might be to have a “personal relationship with Jesus,” if a clearly recognizable Catholic identity is not promoted, then this type of “evangelization” is counterproductive. The “New Evangelization” should not be out to make Protestants of our Catholics; indeed, we should be out to make Catholics of our Protestant friends and relatives.
Influence of Personalism and Immanentism
Let’s consider the implications of asking whether one has “a personal relationship with Jesus.” Frankly, the question is not one that has a Catholic meaning. The object of the question is more likely to be “me” or “I” than it is Jesus, and in American Protestant circles, the phrase is spoken in reverent tones, as if those words alone are sufficient for salvation. What exactly does it mean to have a personal relationship with Jesus? The concept itself is purely subjective; there is really no way to define it, and there is no way to observe it.
On the other hand, for Catholics there is an observable measure of one’s relationship with our Lord. The Eucharist is the source and summit of our life as Catholics, and a baptized, confirmed Catholic who faithfully partakes of the sacraments of reconciliation and Holy Communion in the manner prescribed by the Church certainly has a “personal relationship” with Jesus, whether or not he or she uses that phrase to describe it. Of course, this presupposes a belief in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. It presupposes a belief in hell and in the necessity of sacramental confession. In other words, it presupposes a basic knowledge of the faith.
I suspect that the concept of a “personal relationship with Jesus” emerged from the philosophical distinction between a personal God and an impersonal God—but that distinction, too, is fraught with problems of definition and interpretation. I also suspect that the emergence of the philosophy of personalism as a driving force in the change in perspective on many Catholic issues also allowed this “personal relationship” idea to enter the minds of Catholics who have been exposed to Protestant thinking. And hand-in-hand with personalism comes the concept of immanentism, which is explained by one author in this way:
The immanence of God refers to the fact that He is present in a very special way in everyone who is in the state of sanctifying grace…
Immanence, then, is very much a good thing. Immanentism, on the other hand, is not at all a good thing, and that is because, by denying the transcendence of God, it, of course, utterly falsifies the divine nature. To deny the transcendence of God is to refuse to acknowledge the fact that he is absolutely distinct from and superior to his creatures, and the result of doing that is to end up with a knowledge which, whatever else may be said of it, is not knowledge of the one true God at all.
Fr. John Hardon, S.J., in writing on the subject of immanentist apologetics, refers to it as “A method of establishing the credibility of the Christian faith by appealing to the subjective satisfaction that the faith gives to the believer.” Coupled with this emphasis on the subjective, there is a downplaying of the objective criteria of our faith, even to the point of rejecting miracles and prophecies. Purely personal motives for faith, motives that have mainly to do with feelings, are given primary place. “Religion, therefore, would consist,” Father Bouyer remarks, “entirely in the religious feeling itself.” 1
This definition paints a perfect picture, I think, of what lies beneath the surface of the question, “Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus?” In the same mode, but using different words, author Sherry Weddell suggests that the leaders of a parish “discipleship program” should ask parishioners to “describe your lived relationship with God.” I believe that these are “loaded” questions which a well-informed, and well-formed Catholic could easily lay to rest by stating, “I attend Mass and receive Holy Communion on Sundays and Holy Days of obligation; I receive the sacrament of reconciliation frequently; and I perform corporal and spiritual acts of mercy as the opportunities present themselves in my daily life.” Not to mention that there are countless devotions a person can practice that enhance his relationship with the Almighty, such as Eucharistic Adoration, praying the Rosary, and the Divine Mercy chaplet, and praying the Liturgy of the Hours (or some portion thereof). All of those devotions lead us into a deeper relationship with our Lord, though they may or may not be accompanied by the “warm fuzzies” that some seem to identify as indicating a “personal relationship.”
Conversion or Consolation?
Another misconception of those who tout the “personal relationship with Jesus” idea seems to be that there will be “distinct internal turning points” as this relationship develops. In fact, it seems to be Ms. Weddell’s personal prejudice, as expressed in her book, that a person must experience such “turning points” in order to progress in the spiritual life; she deplores the fact that there is “no expectation” of such turning points among the lay faithful. However, such an expectation can lead to false “epiphanies,” and many saints counsel against having a desire or expectation to receive this type of spiritual consolation. Therefore, it is not necessary—or even desirable—to have a “turning point” or an “overt conversion experience” to be a Catholic in good standing, who does, indeed, have a “relationship with Jesus.”
But people are drawn to and “convinced” by conversion experiences. Protestant evangelizers know this very well. In an article entitled “How I Led Catholics Out of the Church,” Steve Wood, a convert to the Church, recounts his own extensive experience at facilitating such conversions when he was an Assembly of God youth minister:
Most Protestant services proclaim a simple gospel: repent from sin and follow Christ in faith. They stress the importance of a personal relationship with Jesus and the reward of eternal life. Most of the Catholics who attend these services are not accustomed to hearing such direct challenges to abandon sin and follow Christ. As a result, many Catholics experience a genuine conversion.
… Protestant pastors, evangelists, youth leaders, and lay ministers are acutely aware that conversion experiences in Protestant settings often lead to a Protestant faith and church membership. Why do so many Catholic leaders fail to see this? Why are they so nonchalant about a process that has pulled hundreds of thousands of Catholics out of the Church? 2
Note that Wood states that most of the Catholics attending these Protestant services “are not accustomed to hearing such direct challenges to abandon sin and follow Christ.” The failure of most pastors to talk candidly about sin, and its consequences, in their homilies has far-reaching effects. Of course, it is not just a failure of the parish priest; it is a failure of the past translation of the Missal which omitted so many references to sin in the prayers of the Mass. Lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi; we can’t live a life of conversion from sin if we don’t know that such is expected of us! Although the new translation has corrected that to some extent, there still exists a poverty of conversion-evoking phrases in the current prayers when compared to the prayers of the 1962 Missal. For Catholics, in many cases, there is no call to conversion in the Catholic Church, because pastors have such a great fear of hurting someone’s feelings. And yet, that call to conversion is heeded mightily in Protestant settings. Catholics seldom hear the message that they are sinful, and so they see no need for the sacrament of reconciliation (“I haven’t killed anyone” being a common excuse for not going to confession).
Steve Wood also points out (emphasis in original):
In my experience as a Protestant, all the Catholics who had a conversion in a Protestant setting lacked a firm grasp of their Catholic faith.
In twenty years of Protestant ministry, I never met a Catholic who knew that John 3: 3-8 describes the sacrament of Baptism. It wasn’t hard to convince them to disregard the sacraments along with the Church that emphasized the sacraments.
The Book of Proverbs says: “He who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him” (Prv 18:17). Catholics without a scriptural foundation for their Catholic beliefs never hear “the rest of the story.” My selective use of scripture made the Protestant perspective seem so absolutely sure. Over time, this one-sided approach to scripture caused Catholics to reject their Catholic faith.
Most Catholics today seem to believe, as the Protestants do, that there is no scriptural basis for the sacraments, and for many of the teachings of the Church; they haven’t been told. They also don’t understand the relationship between Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium. They don’t understand that the Church teaches from a position of authority that no Protestant denomination can ever enjoy.
Calling the faithful back to the sacraments is, I believe, the Catholic way to encourage the “genuine conversions” Steve Wood mentions; and genuine conversions are what we are after. Sound liturgy and sound doctrine are key catechetical tools; sadly, though, they are currently missing-in-action in many parishes, from what I have read and experienced. For instance, returning to Ms. Weddell’s book, we are given this description of a parish in the Midwest:
I could feel a spiritual energy that I have hardly ever experienced before at Mass, as though the intensity of the prayer of those gathered lifted my own prayer to a new level. I mentioned this to several parishioners, and they told me that what I had experienced was normal.
This is a very subjective and personalistic view of Mass, and of what Mass should be. Mass is about worshiping God, about giving God what is due him, not getting a good “spiritual” feeling out of it, or feeling that one’s own prayers have reached a “new level.” What is that new level? How is it defined? What does it mean? Descriptions like this appear frequently in the book—prayer services are “explosive,” or a discussion group is “absolutely great,” or Adoration was a “powerful experience.” These descriptors sound good and feel good, but they are not necessarily indicators of true spiritual growth or maturity. In fact, how can we deign to make evaluations of anyone’s spiritual state at any particular time? Are those reporting these “amazing” events speaking for everyone present? Are they privy to the innermost thoughts and motivations of the participants? Clearly not.
This kind of thinking—or rather, feeling—leads Ms. Weddell to another conclusion about the spiritual developmental level of the lay faithful, which, I would argue, is unfounded:
We learned that the vast majority of even “active” American Catholics are still at an early, essentially passive stage of spiritual development. We learned that our first need at the parish level isn’t catechetical. Rather, our fundamental problem is that most of our people are not yet disciples. They will never be apostles until they have begun to follow Jesus Christ in the midst of his Church. (p. 11; my emphases)
An important issue here, I think, is the difference between “contemplative” and “active” spiritual orientations. As an example, consider the Gospel story of Mary and Martha. I suggest that most of the people in parish ministries are “Marthas” rather than “Marys”; they are more “active” than “contemplative” in their spiritual outlook on life, and the “spiritual motivation” for parish work is not a priority for them. Further, I suspect that Ms. Weddell and her associates have this “active” bias themselves, and “actives” are generally not very understanding of “contemplatives”—just as the Martha of the Bible demanded, essentially, that Jesus tell Mary to do something. Contemplatives, like Mary, are in fact doing something, and as Jesus indicated, that something is very important—even if it doesn’t have manifest physical results. “Marys” are seen by “Marthas” as having a “passive stage” of spiritual development—a view that is not warranted by the “evidence.”
In the end, the phenomenological and personalistic construct of a “personal relationship with Jesus” leads to relativism. After all, implicit in the notion of a “personal relationship” with the Lord is the conclusion that one can define that relationship as one pleases. It’s personal,after all! This is a false notion of what a relationship with Jesus truly entails; it implies that one must “feel” something. But what of St. John of the Cross and his teaching on the Dark Night of the Soul? What would a person experiencing that aspect of spiritual development say in response to the question, “Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus?” I suspect the answer for such a person would be too sublime to be accurately expressed in words.
Furthermore, the danger with encouraging a personalistic view of one’s relationship with the Lord also encourages a personalistic view of the doctrines of the faith; in other words, it may lead toward “cafeteria Catholicism,” wherein individuals maintain that they are entitled to believe or disbelieve certain tenets. In fact, this is the belief system of a good many Catholics these days, as indicated by the many surveys that show that an overwhelming majority of those who self-identify as Catholics:
- do not believe in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist;
- do not believe Mass attendance is required to be a good Catholic;
- have used or currently use artificial contraception;
- do not believe that the Church is necessary for salvation.
Smaller but significant percentages of self-identified Catholics also believe that
- homosexual “marriage” should be legalized;
- abortion is allowed under some circumstances;
- marriage outside the Church is valid.
These are constant teachings of the Church that are routinely snubbed by Catholics, even (and one is tempted to say, “especially”) by those who claim to have a “personal relationship” with Jesus.
A program of evangelization and catechesis that focuses on this nebulous “personal relationship” may win some converts and “reverts,” but this begs the question: to what “Catholic Church” are they converting? Will they perceive the Church as a “loving,” accepting community, in which they can remain in their sin, or will they perceive the call to holiness? Will they be able to say “I believe and profess all that the holy Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims to be revealed by God”? Or will they believe that they can “form their own conscience” irrespective of the teachings of the Church?
As a former Protestant, I am well aware of the dangers in this “personal relationship” approach. I have been to many a Protestant prayer service in which those pious souls, who truly believed they had a “personal relationship with Jesus,” prayed for others out of a personal agenda, and proclaimed “a word” that they “felt” was given to them by the Holy Spirit—but which was misleading and even sinful. I have heard women who believe that they have a “personal relationship with Jesus” say that they also believe that the Lord has authorized them to use artificial contraception, or even have an abortion.
Steve Wood noted in his article that it might be dangerous for Catholics to participate in Protestant events and “ecumenical activities” unless they have a firm grasp of their faith, can articulate it to a non-Catholic and have “the maturity to realize that the most profound presence of Christ isn’t necessarily found in the midst of loud noise and high emotion, but in quiet moments like Eucharistic adoration (see 1 Kgs 19: 11-12).” He adds that:
Unfortunately, the majority of Catholic men born after WWII don’t meet the above conditions. For them, attending Protestant functions may be opening a door that will lead them right out of the Catholic Church.
I would suggest that many of the “New Evangelization” training programs proposed for Catholic parishes are actually more Protestant than Catholic in their underlying orientation, and that these programs might also be “opening a door” that leads the faithful astray. Even if parishioners don’t abandon their parish, they may be given a false view of what it really means to be a Catholic.
So, do we need a “personal relationship with Jesus”? Yes, of course we do! However, a “personal relationship with Jesus” does not seem to indicate fidelity to the Church. Conversely, though, fidelity to the Church does certainly indicate a “personal relationship” with Jesus—in the context of the Church Jesus himself instituted, and in conformity with his will.
What is needed in our parishes is not a call to a nebulous, ill-defined concept, but rather a call to return to the sacraments, and to seek an ever deeper understanding of those sacraments. We need a call to conversion to a firm belief in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. Primarily then, we are in need of a renewed appreciation of the Mass: Save the liturgy, save the world.
- “Immanentism: Catholicism and Religious Experience,” by D.Q. McInerny, Ph.D., at http://fssp.com/press/2011/04/immanentism-catholicism-and-religious-experience-by-d-q-mcinerny-ph-d/ ↩
- http://catholiceducation.org/articles/apologetics/ap0057.html ↩