Christian believers know the God who created the Universe … as a person who reveals himself as Love and Gift, and Personal in his nature. Jesus revealed that the One True God also has an inner life that is not only personal, but Tri-Personal, and therefore, social.
Recently, Homiletic and Pastoral Review was the platform for the initiation of a very important conversation regarding “The Problem with a Personal Relationship with Jesus.” That conversation was occasioned by Dr. Jay Boyd’s reflections on Sherry Weddell’s book Forming Intentional Disciples, a work that has been the catalyst of a much larger conversation that is taking place in the western Church at the moment. She has done us a great favor in initiating this conversation and exposing some of the conflicted reactions towards the “personalistic” trends that are unfolding in the Church in our day. The article and the debate that unfolded in the comment box revealed the need for a more fulsome exposition of Church teaching on this matter. This essay is an attempt to meet that need.
Dr. Boyd raised a number of important problematics around the issue of whether or not Catholics have a “personal relationship with Jesus,” and if so, in what way. On the one hand, of course they do—she writes, “…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.” On the other hand, she says, “the question (of whether or not one has a personal relationship with Jesus) is not one that has a Catholic meaning.” Apart from this confusing juxtaposition of assertions, she conflates the “personal relationship with Jesus” with sacramental practice.
She goes on to wonder about the origins of the phraseology of the “personal relationship with Jesus.” She writes, “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.” In this regard, Dr. Boyd is partly right and partly wrong.
A personal God is, indeed, the stark alternative to an impersonal “Force” who governs the universe; the ancient philosophers were able to reason their way to such a notion of God as the uncaused cause, noncontingent being, the unmoved mover—truths all discoverable without benefit of Revelation. But they could not reason their way to the full truth about God’s personal nature without the benefit of God “pulling back the veil,” re-vealing himself, as he did with the Jews. Christian believers know the God who created the Universe, the Logos, the uncaused cause, the noncontingent, uncreated BEING, as a person who reveals himself as Love and Gift, and Personal in his nature. Jesus revealed that the One True God also has an inner life that is not only personal, but Tri-Personal, and therefore, social. Through her communio, the inner life of the Church images, in a certain way, the inner life of the Trinity. 1
Dr. Boyd also rightly discerns that the philosophy of personalism is a driving force behind the idea of a personal relationship with Jesus. She detects the influence of “phenomenology,” and she is correct about this too. But she has misidentified the source of this influence. The interlocutor who has introduced this new, evangelical-sounding language is no Protestant, but our recently sainted Pope John Paul II, following a trajectory set at the Second Vatican Council.
Cardinal Karol Wojtyła and the Second Vatican Council
When St. John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council, he emphasized that the purpose of the council was not simply to discuss established doctrine. Rather, he said, “the Christian, Catholic, and apostolic spirit of the whole world expects a step forward toward a doctrinal penetration and a formation of consciousness in faithful and perfect conformity to the authentic doctrine, which, however, should be studied and expounded through the methods of research and through the literary forms of modern thought. The substance of the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another.” This distinction between the substance of the faith and the “way” in which it is presented is significant. What is the appropriate “way” (modus) for communicating the ancient doctrine?
This question was also a preoccupation for the newly minted Bishop Karol Wojtyła of Poland. Prior to the council, his submission to the ante-preparatory commission made a number of suggestions that influenced the agenda for the Second Vatican Council, among which was the suggestion that the Church should attempt to establish a more adequate Christian anthropology that might enable it to engage with the dominating materialistic tendencies of the modern age. These had degenerated into ideologies that, while exalting the possibilities of humanity without God, ended in such terrible human misery throughout the 20th century. Wojtyła’s input to the ante-preparatory commission for the council proposed a Christian personalism in response to the many competing forms of non-Christian humanism then in vogue. 2 After the Second Vatican Council, it was Wojtyła who highlighted this innovation in conciliar teaching, largely unnoticed by the rest of the world: a personalistic turn, a new attention to the subject of faith, alongside the objective content of the faith.
Wojtyła’s interest in this development in Magisterial teaching no doubt grew out of a long held interest in the relationship between faith and experience. His first doctorate was an inquiry into “faith as experience” in the writing of St. John of the Cross. St. John of the Cross had mastered the scholastic framework of St. Thomas and situated his account of mystical experience upon it. R. Buttiglione notes that Wojtyła detected in the writing of the Spanish saint “a kind of phenomenology of mystical experience.” 3 However, Buttiglione also noted that, “In fact the thesis has an evident tendency not to translate the experiential language, which comes from the subject of St. John of the Cross, into a metaphysical language which relates to the object.” 4 Occasionally, Wojtyła remarked in his dissertation that it is much better to experience the realities described by St. John of the Cross than to study them in the abstract.
His second doctorate took him into the murky waters of an emergent field of philosophy: phenomenology, or the study of experience. Wojtyła chose to explore the ethics of phenomenologist Max Scheler, in search of a mutually acceptable frame of reference that could help bridge the gap between an ecclesial and secular approach to morality. He concluded that Max Scheler’s work could not serve this end. For one thing, the rules that governed phenomenological inquiry required “bracketing” all presuppositions. This, of course, is impossible for Christians because we may not bracket divine revelation. For another thing, Scheler grounded his ethical theory in a hierarchy of emotions rather than objective reality. In fact, objective reality was itself something that phenomenology had put in brackets. For these same reasons, Wojtyła said, a Christian cannot be a phenomenologist. However, he also came to another conclusion: even if a Christian cannot be a phenomenologist as such, he can still make use of its tools. The theologian, Wojtyła writes,
should not forego the great advantages which the Phenomenological method offers his work. It impresses the stamp of experience on works of ethics and nourishes them with the life-knowledge of concrete man by allowing an investigation of moral life from the side of its appearance. Yet, in all this, the phenomenological method plays only a secondary assisting role …5
Prior to the Second Vatican Council, Wojtyła was already applying the phenomenological method to the experience of human love in light of Church teaching, resulting in his book Love and Responsibility, published in 1960.
After the Council, Wojtyła essayed at length on the conciliar texts in his book Sources of Renewal, which was a study guide to help with the implementation of the council in Poland. The book provides a helpful synthesis of council teaching, but also gives a profound insight into the mind of the man who would become pope a decade later. In particular, it introduces his sensitivity to the issue of “subjectivity” with respect to matters of faith. He wrote, “It was impossible to treat the Church merely as an ‘object’: it had to be a ‘subject’ also. This was certainly the intention behind the Council’s first question: Ecclesia, quid dicis de te ipsa? Church, what do you say of yourself? This direct question to the Church as a subject was also addressed to all the individuals of whom the Church is composed.” 6 He indicates that the council conceived of faith in a “somewhat existential sense, as a state of consciousness and an attitude on the part of individual believers.” 7 This personalistic frame of reference helps us to understand conciliar teaching through an “existential” lens (ie., pertaining to “experience”) as he did. 8
For the purposes of this present article, let us sample three conciliar texts in which this personalistic thrust is evident. The first is from Dei Verbum, the Constitution on Divine Revelation.
“The obedience of faith” (Rom 13:26; see 1:5; 2 Cor 10:5-6) ”is to be given to God who reveals, an obedience by which man commits his whole self freely to God, offering the full submission of intellect and will to God who reveals,” and freely assenting to the truth revealed by Him. To make this act of faith, the grace of God and the interior help of the Holy Spirit must precede and assist, moving the heart and turning it to God, opening the eyes of the mind and giving “joy and ease to everyone in assenting to the truth and believing it.” (Constitution on Divine Revelation, 5)
Four hundred years earlier, the Council of Trent had acknowledged that the word “faith” had a variety of meanings, but it opted to treat “only of that faith by which we yield our entire assent to whatever has been divinely revealed.” 9 Trent’s treatment of “assent” is modified only by the word “entire,” without further elaboration. It tended to conflate the assent of faith with intellectual “knowledge” of what God has revealed and the Church teaches. The Second Vatican Council illuminates this assent with a simple, personalistic description—“committing one’s whole self freely to God.” It speaks of a movement of the heart, the experience of having the eyes of one’s mind opened, the emotional experience of joy, and “ease in assenting to the truth.” Commenting on this development in Sources of Renewal, Wojtyła says that man’s proper response to God’s self-revelation consists in self-abandonment to God, not simply accepting a particular set of propositions. 10 He writes, “It is this fundamental dimension of faith, springing from the supernatural reality in which God is encountered … whether we develop its substantive or its existential content. The essential enrichment of faith in all its aspects must be achieved in that fundamental dimension which is newly brought into prominence by the Constitution on Divine Revelation.” 11 He goes on to assert that, in his analysis, “the personal aspect seems to us primary and fundamental.” 12
Another conciliar text that is important to our discussion is found in the Decree on Missionary Activity (Ad Gentes), paragraph 13.
Wherever God opens a door of speech for proclaiming the mystery of Christ (cf. Col 4:3), there is announced to all men (cf. Mk 16:15; 1 Cor 9:15; Rom 10:14) with confidence and constancy (cf. Acts 4:13, 29, 31; 9:27, 28; 13:46; 14:3; 19:8; 26:26; 28:31; 1 Thes 2:2; 2 Cor 3:12; 7:4; Phil 1:20; Eph 3:12; 6:19, 20) the living God, and he whom he has sent for the salvation of all, Jesus Christ (cf. 1 Thes 1:9-10; 1 Cor 1:18-21; Gal 1:31; Acts 14:15-17, 17:22-31), in order that non-Christians, when the Holy Spirit opens their heart (cf. Acts 16:14), may believe and be freely converted to the Lord, that they may cleave sincerely to him who, being the “way, the truth, and the life” (Jn 14:6), fulfills all their spiritual expectations, and even infinitely surpasses them.
This conversion must be taken as an initial one, yet 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. For, by the workings of divine grace, the new convert sets out on a spiritual journey, by means of which, already sharing through faith in the mystery of Christ’s Death and Resurrection, he passes from the old man to the new one, perfected in Christ (cf. Col 3:5-10; Eph 4:20-24). This bringing with it a progressive change of outlook and morals, must become evident with its social consequences, and must be gradually developed during the time of the catechumenate. Since the Lord he believes in is a sign of contradiction (cf. Lk 2:34; Mt 10:34-39), the convert often experiences an abrupt breaking off of human ties, but he also tastes the joy which God gives without measure (cf. 1 Thess 1:6).
This conciliar text is important, not only because it uses the explicit language of a “personal relationship with God in Christ,” but also because of the rich experiential description it provides when it describes the conversion of a non-Christian. Those who convert to Catholicism are enabled to cleave to Christ, who “fulfills all their spiritual expectations, and even infinitely surpasses them.” 13 The implication of such a text, of course, is that if this is the experience of those who convert to the Catholic faith, it should also describe what is happening “at home,” ie., among those who already belong to the Church by baptism. Yet, how many Catholics would describe their experience of Catholicism in this way? Both of these texts would be repeated in Magisterial teaching during Pope John Paul II’s pontificate, especially in the General Directory for Catechesis, 53-55, which, along with several other texts, comprise a descriptive account of what the experience of personal conversion is like.
The third conciliar text that can help to ground our considerations is in the Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) 1, which describes the Church as the Sacrament of intimate union with God. By her relationship with Christ, the Church is a kind of sacrament, or sign, of intimate union with God, and of the unity of all mankind.14
Intellectual assent is but one aspect of an integrated life of faith. By definition, a sacrament is something that causes what it signifies. If the Church is a “sacrament of intimate union with God,” then it follows that such an intimate union is not only possible for baptized believers, but a normative description of what mature faith is. These texts are but examples of the profoundly personalistic shift that took place at the Second Vatican Council with respect to the subject of faith.
Personalism in the Magisterium of Pope John Paul II
Pope John Paul II’s Magisterial teaching is personalism on steroids. From his very first encyclical, Redeemer of Man, Pope John Paul took pains to illuminate the experience of man in light of the Incarnation of Jesus. He writes:
The man who wishes to understand himself thoroughly … must with his unrest, uncertainty and even his weakness and sinfulness, with his life and death, draw near to Christ. He must, so to speak, enter into him with all his own self, he must “appropriate” and assimilate the whole of the reality of the Incarnation and Redemption in order to find himself. If this profound process takes place within him, he then bears fruit not only of adoration of God but also of deep wonder at himself. How precious must man be in the eyes of the Creator, if he “gained so great a Redeemer,” and if God “gave his only Son” in order that man “should not perish but have eternal life. …” In reality, the name for that deep amazement at man’s worth and dignity is the Gospel, that is to say: the Good News. It is also called Christianity. This amazement determines the Church’s mission in the world and, perhaps even more so, “in the modern world.” (Section 10)
What an unusual and fresh way of understanding the relevance of the incarnation to the everyday experience of the human person! This description captures the sense of knowing and being known, loving and being loved, that we normally associate with the word “intimacy.” He goes on to say,
… as the Council teaches, “by his Incarnation, he, the Son of God, in a certain way united himself with each man.” The Church therefore sees its fundamental task in enabling that union to be brought about and renewed continually. The Church wishes to serve this single end: that each person may be able to find Christ, in order that Christ may walk with each person the path of life, with the power of the truth about man and the world that is contained in the mystery of the Incarnation and the Redemption and with the power of the love that is radiated by that truth. 15
Tempted as we often are to understand God’s love in only a general and collective way, rather than in a personal way, John Paul insists that Christ has united himself with “each” and “every” person, repeating these words 16 times in sections 13-14 alone. 16
One year after his election, Pope John Paul completed the work that his predecessors had left unfinished—the apostolic exhortation that synthesized the input of the bishops who had gathered for the 1977 Synod on Catechesis. Having been one of the participating bishops at that synod, the events that led to his sudden elevation to the papacy enabled him to put his own “personalistic stamp” on the project. Who knows whether Pope Paul VI or Pope John Paul I would have been as sensitive as he to the personalistic themes of the council? Catechesis in Our Times contains numerous passages that dwell upon the integration of the subjective and objective dimensions of our faith. In section five of that document, for example, he tells us that the defining aim of catechesis is to put people “in touch with, in communion with, in intimacy with Jesus Christ.” Sections 18, 19, and 20 are incredibly rich and experientially descriptive passages. Paragraph 19 gets to the heart of the problem of catechesis. After detailing the general progression of stages of evangelization, in which the Church clearly still thinks of adult conversion as the “normative” situation, he writes:
But in catechetical practice, this model order must allow for the fact that the initial evangelization has often not taken place. A certain number of children baptized in infancy come for catechesis in the parish without receiving any other initiation into the faith and still without any explicit personal attachment to Jesus Christ; they only have the capacity to believe placed within them by Baptism and the presence of the Holy Spirit. …
It is important not to miss this: chances are good that children who have no explicit personal attachment to Jesus Christ will grow up to be adults with no personal attachment to Jesus Christ, unless conversion is intentionally fostered rather than presumed.
What does the pope mean by “only the capacity to believe”? Sacramental theology always treats of two principles that are necessary for the sacraments to be fruitful. The first, ex opere operato, refers to the power and efficacy of the sacrament itself. Baptism, for example, is a potent grace—it is powerful. To use a rough analogy, gasoline is also powerful; but when we are carrying it in a gas can to fill our stalled car, although we are grateful for its potency, we are also grateful that this potency is only “potential”—not “actual.” Once it is in the gas tank, we turn the key, and the potential of that gasoline is actualized, released into energy and movement. In the case of baptism, the correlative principle is the ex opere operantis (from the work of the worker), which refers to the subjective disposition of the one who receives the sacrament. In the case of baptism, the “Yes” of the receiver is the spark which actualizes baptismal grace. John Paul describes this moment in Section 25, where he indicates that catechesis is a deepening of the experience when, as a result of hearing the ardent proclamation of the kerygma, “a person is one day overwhelmed and brought to the decision to entrust himself to Jesus Christ by faith.” This “act of self- entrustment to Jesus” is a personalistic expression of what the Church means by ex opere operantis. Failure to engage this dimension is one of the reasons why catechesis can be such a frustrating experience for everyone involved. If the ex opere operantis kicks in, it introduces something entirely new to the process: “… the Christian … having accepted by faith the person of Jesus Christ as the one Lord, and having given him complete adherence by sincere conversion of heart, endeavors to know better this Jesus to whom he has entrusted himself.” That, in a nutshell, is what it means to embark upon a personal relationship with Jesus. Such an endeavor (to know better this Jesus to whom one has entrusted oneself) culminates in sacramental practice that enlivens and sustains the whole Christian life. But what a tragedy when no such endeavor is ever sparked, and when the potency of baptismal faith remains latent.
Is it possible that many baptized people do not experience their faith in this way, do not experience conversion on a personal level? Apparently so! And this is why we need a new evangelization, which attends to both the objective and the subjective dimensions of faith. Pope John Paul II writes in Ecclesia in Europa that “Many of the baptized live as if Christ did not exist: the gestures and signs of faith are repeated, especially in devotional practices, but they fail to correspond to a real acceptance of the content of the faith and fidelity to the person of Jesus. The great certainties of the faith are being undermined in many people by a vague religiosity lacking real commitment. …” Therefore, we can conclude that external sacramental practice does not, in fact, amount to a personal relationship with Jesus. To use another analogy, imagine a blind and deaf person standing in a plaza. Directly in front of them is a person who very much wants to communicate with him—the voice is raised, the eyes are focused, the arms are waving—yet, the person cannot perceive that anyone is there. A Catholic certainly can have a personal relationship with Jesus through the sacraments—indeed, our relationship with him culminates in our faithful reception of the Eucharist. Without conversion, however, a baptized person’s spiritual senses are not activated to perceive Jesus’ presence in the Eucharist. The pope warns against this kind of impoverished sacramental life that “very soon turns into hollow ritualism if it is not based on serious knowledge of the meaning of the sacraments.” But by the same token, he also warns against a merely intellectual catechesis that “fails to come alive in the sacramental practice.” 17 “Without this constant, ever renewed, endeavour for conversion, partaking of the Eucharist would lack its full redeeming effectiveness, and there would be a loss or, at least, a weakening of the special readiness to offer God the spiritual sacrifice. …” 18
What does St. John Paul mean by conversion? He offers us a powerful and personalistic definition in Mission of the Redeemer—so evangelical that it could, indeed, be mistaken for something a Protestant might say. (Perhaps, the Protestants aren’t wrong about everything, after all!) St. John Paul writes,
From the outset, conversion is expressed in faith which is total and radical, and which neither limits nor hinders God’s gift. At the same time, it gives rise to a dynamic and lifelong process which demands a continual turning away from “life according to the flesh” to “life according to the Spirit” (cf. Rom 8:3-13). Conversion means accepting, by a personal decision, the saving sovereignty of Christ and becoming his disciple. 19
Is it typical for Catholics to manifest their faith in a way that is total and radical? How many have ever been called to make an explicit decision for Jesus Christ? (And let’s be honest: do we not often make fun of Protestants for doing exactly that?)
To return to the topic of the Eucharist as the culmination of our personal relationship with Jesus, St. John Paul II expounded on the personalistic dimension of Eucharistic communion in his encyclical on the Holy Spirit:
Through the Eucharist, the Holy Spirit accomplishes that “strengthening of the inner man” spoken of in the Letter to the Ephesians. Through the Eucharist, individuals and communities, by the action of the Paraclete-Counselor, learn to discover the divine sense of human life, as spoken of by the Council: that sense whereby Jesus Christ “fully reveals man to man himself,” suggesting “a certain likeness between the union of the divine persons, and the union of God’s children in truth and charity.” This union is expressed and made real especially through the Eucharist, in which man shares in the sacrifice of Christ which this celebration actualizes, and he also learns to “find himself … through a … gift of himself,” through communion with God and with others, his brothers and sisters. 20
Dr. Boyd’s article rightly points out that far too many Catholics reject Catholic moral teaching. I would agree, and I would argue that one of the reasons they do not have the energy for the moral life is that they do not have a life-giving relationship with Jesus and, therefore, they do not draw life from the sacraments, or order their life according to their sacramental communion. And certainly, if faith formation leaders think that a personal relationship with Jesus is only for Protestants, they will not encourage people to understand their sacramental life in a personalistic way. Pope John Paul describes how differently morality is experienced when one has, or has not, experienced conversion—again, in an experientially descriptive way—in The Splendor of Truth. He writes,
Those who live “by the flesh” experience God’s Law as a burden and, indeed, as a denial or, at least, a restriction of their own freedom. On the other hand, those who are impelled by love and “walk by the Spirit” (Gal 5:16), and who desire to serve others, find in God’s Law the fundamental and necessary way in which to practice love as something freely chosen, and freely lived out. Indeed, they feel an interior urge—a genuine “necessity” and no longer a form of coercion—not to stop at the minimum demands of the Law, but to live them in their “fullness.” 21
It is not hard to recall the very difficult conversations that have arisen in the Church in recent decades regarding various aspects of the Church’s moral teaching, and the very great number of Catholics who experience it as “burdensome.” When they tell us in various ways that they find it burdensome, (i.e., “Rules, rules rules!!”), they are telling us something important about the subjective reality of their spiritual experience. They have not yet transferred from the realm of the flesh to the realm of the spirit.
Of course, all of these descriptions of the experience of the personal subject of faith are embedded in treatises that are rich theological reflections on the objective truths given to us in Divine Revelation. But John Paul’s particular gift to the Church is to help us to make our faith in those objective truths “personal.” The Christian moral life cannot be aspired to without an explicit, decisive choice to follow Christ.
Following Christ is, thus, the essential and primordial foundation of Christian morality: just as the people of Israel followed God, who led them through the desert towards the Promised Land (cf. Ex 13:21), so every disciple must follow Jesus, towards whom he is drawn by the Father himself (cf. Jn 6:44).
This is not a matter only of disposing oneself to hear a teaching, and obediently accepting a commandment. More radically, it involves holding fast to the very person of Jesus, partaking of his life, and his destiny, sharing in his free and loving obedience to the will of the Father. By responding in faith, and following the one who is Incarnate Wisdom, the disciple of Jesus truly becomes a disciple of God (cf. Jn 6:45). 22
The Catholic moral life is not a purely white-knuckled act of the will. It arises as a response to the call to intimate communion with Jesus Christ. Ultimately, for Pope John Paul II, the call to intimate communion with Jesus Christ is an experience of falling in love. In Novo Millenio Inuente he writes,
…we who have received the grace of believing in Christ, the revealer of the Father, and the Savior of the world, have a duty to show to what depths the relationship with Christ can lead.
The great mystical tradition of the Church, of both East and West, has much to say in this regard. It shows how prayer can progress, as a genuine dialogue of love, to the point of rendering the person wholly possessed by the divine Beloved, vibrating at the Spirit’s touch, resting filially within the Father’s heart. This is the lived experience of Christ’s promise: “He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him, and manifest myself to him” (Jn 14:21). It is a journey totally sustained by grace, which nonetheless demands an intense spiritual commitment, and is no stranger to painful purifications (the “dark night”). But it leads, in various possible ways, to the ineffable joy experienced by the mystics as “nuptial union.” How can we forget here, among the many shining examples, the teachings of St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila? (…) Yes, dear brothers and sisters, our Christian communities must become genuine “schools” of prayer, where the meeting with Christ is expressed, not just in imploring help, but also in thanksgiving, praise, adoration, contemplation, listening and ardent devotion, until the heart truly “falls in love”. 23
Pope John Paul II often explored the subjective experience of biblical characters to illustrate the personalistic dimension of faith—the rich young man figures often in his teaching, but we also meet the prodigal son and his father, Peter, and many others. His successors, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis, have likewise both been intentional about revealing what the subjective dimension of our faith looks like when it is integrated with the objective. Pope Benedict asks and answers this question in his encyclical letter Spe Salvi: “Can our encounter with the God who, in Christ, has shown us his face, and opened his heart, be for us, too, not just ‘informative’ but ‘performative’—that is to say, can it change our lives so that we know we are redeemed through the hope that it expresses?” His answer, of course, is “Yes.” He tells the beautiful and touching story of Josephine Bakhita, a slave who had been trafficked to Europe at the age of nine. She eventually ended up in Venice, where, for the first time, she heard about a new “master”—“the living God, the God of Jesus Christ.” Pope Benedict describes what this subjective experience was like for her:
She came to know that this Lord even knew her, that he had created her—that he actually loved her. She, too, was loved, and by none other than the supreme “Paron,” before whom all other masters are themselves no more than lowly servants. She was known and loved, and she was awaited. What is more, this master had himself accepted the destiny of being flogged, and now he was waiting for her “at the Father’s right hand.” Now she had “hope”—no longer simply the modest hope of finding masters who would be less cruel, but the great hope: “I am definitively loved, and whatever happens to me—I am awaited by this Love. And so my life is good.” Through the knowledge of this hope she was “redeemed,” no longer a slave, but a free child of God. She understood what Paul meant when he reminded the Ephesians that, previously, they were without hope, and without God in the world—without hope because without God. Hence, when she was about to be taken back to Sudan, Bakhita refused; she did not wish to be separated again from her “Paron.” 24
Pope Francis, likewise, has retained this personalistic emphasis in his Magisterial teaching. With Pope Benedict, he authored Lumen Fidei.
Faith is linked to hearing. Abraham does not see God, but hears his voice. Faith thus takes on a personal aspect. God is not the god of a particular place, or a deity linked to specific sacred time, but the God of a person, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, capable of interacting with man and establishing a covenant with him. Faith is our response to a word which engages us personally, to a “Thou” who calls us by name. 25
Personal faith in Jesus Christ does not lead to narcissistic solitude, as those who mock the idea of “Jesus and me” suggest. Rather, he writes:
… the life of the believer becomes an ecclesial existence, a life lived in the Church. … (This) does not imply that the believer is simply one part of an anonymous whole, a mere cog in a great machine; rather it brings out the vital union of Christ with believers, and of believers among themselves. … Christians are “one”… yet in a way which does not make them lose their individuality; in service to others, they come into their own in the highest degree. 26
Far from threatening the corporate life of the Church, a personal relationship with Jesus is what makes us alive in the Church. “Remain in me,” Jesus said. “Without me you can do nothing.”
One of the primary tasks of the New Evangelization is to create the conditions that favor the personal conversion of the baptized. Catholic identity is not enough. We must become personally attached to Jesus Christ, in his Church, in dialogue with his word, through a conscious act of self-entrustment, nourished by the sacraments. We must not settle for sterile intellectualism, hollow ritualism, white-knuckled moralism, or anonymous collectivism. Pope Francis put it this way in his most recent Magisterial teaching, The Joy of the Gospel:
… Our infinite sadness can only be cured by an infinite love.
But this conviction has to be sustained by 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. It is not the same thing to try to build the world with his Gospel, as to try to do so by our own lights. We know well that, with Jesus, life becomes richer, and that with him, it is easier to find meaning in everything. This is why we evangelize. A true missionary, who never ceases to be a disciple, knows that Jesus walks with him, speaks to him, breathes with him, works with him. He senses Jesus alive with him, in the midst of the missionary enterprise. Unless we see him present at the heart of our missionary commitment, our enthusiasm soon wanes, and we are no longer sure of what it is that we are handing on; we lack vigor and passion. A person who is not convinced, enthusiastic, certain, and in love, will convince nobody. 27
A personalistic approach to faith, that honors both the objective and subjective dimensions of the mysterious process of conversion, engages the whole person. Dr. Boyd wonders (rightly) about the proper role of “feelings” in matters of faith. It is true that feelings and emotions can be notoriously unreliable friends in our quest to live our faith authentically, but we must not throw out the baby with the bathwater. We must be wise in maturing our emotions so that they serve, rather than undermine, our journey to salvation. Consider great saints like Ignatius or Francis—or indeed, St. John Paul II!—whose emotions figured so powerfully in their spiritual journey and in their evangelical appeal. Let us not settle for a Spock-like approach to faith, but a fully integrated human one that releases the “vigor and passion” that is essential to a convincing witness.
In conclusion, this essay has been an attempt to expose the “personalistic modus” introduced by the Second Vatican Council, and each successive pontificate since. Dr. Boyd raised a number of concerns, many of which I consider to be valid, even if her presuppositions are wrong, and have led to her unfortunate dismissal of language that is now embedded in Magisterial teaching at the highest level. She is correct that people can get the wrong idea of what it means to have a personal relationship with Jesus—Catholics do sometimes claim that their personal relationship with Jesus gives them license to do things that are contrary to Church teaching. But there are also many Catholics who do not lay claim to a personal relationship with Jesus, who are likewise licentious and prone to relativism. Dr. Boyd is not alone in her reservations about what it means to have a personal relationship with Jesus in a Catholic context. Nor is she alone in her concerns about subjectivism, relativism, an overemphasis on feelings, and a myriad of other complicating features that this personalistic language introduces. She is right to reject “subjectivism” (in which I measure divine revelation by my feelings or experience), but we must not reject subjectivity (in which context my spiritual experience arises from a dialogue with divine revelation, and is sifted in light of it). Sound spiritual formation effectively integrates a proper attention to “subjectivity” with the objective teaching of the Church. Many Church professionals find this language an uneasy fit with their theology and pastoral practice. However, since the language of “personal relationship” is now part of the Magisterium’s evangelical language, it is critical that we have a right understanding of the terms, origins, and implications of this language for our work in advancing the Church’s mission. In light of this need, I hope this essay will help further the conversation in a constructive way.
- Gaudium et spes, 24. ↩
- His essay read, in part: “Unde problema personalismi christiani, quod opportunum videtur et conveniens doctrinaliter delineari. Personalitas humana ostenditur praecipue in relatione cuiuslibet personae humanae ad personalem Deum—en culmen ipsum omnis religionis, praesertim autem religonis in supernaturali Revelatione fundatae. Participatio Divinae naturae et vitae intimae Augustissimae Trinitatis per ratiam, unde expectatur perfecta unio in visione beatifica—haec omina non nisi inter personas inveniri possunt.” Acta Et Documenta Concilio Oecumenico Vatican Il Apparando: Series I (Antepraeparatoria), Volumen Il: Cosilia Et Vota Episcoporum Ac Praelatorum—Pars Il: Europa, 742. ↩
- Buttiglione, Rocco: Karol Wojtyla: The Thought of the Man Who Became Pope John Paul II. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, MI. (1997) 45. ↩
- Ibid., 47. ↩
- See Michael Waldstein, “Wojtyła’s Book about Scheler”. www.jp2forum.org/mlib/document/070511Wojtyła_on_scheler.pdf ↩
- Wojtyła, Karol. Sources of Renewal: The Implementation of the Second Vatican Council. (William Collins Sons and Co.Ltd, London, 1980.) p.36. ↩
- Ibid. (p. 27). ↩
- For an excellent analysis of Karol Wojtyła’s Sources of Renewal, see Peter Simpson’s very engaging essay, “What It’s Like to be a Christian,” First Things, June 2004. http://www.firstthings.com/article/2004/06/what-its-like-to-be-a-christian ↩
- The Roman Catechism: (The Catechism of the Council of Trent). Tan Books and Publishers (Rockford, IL). Fifteenth Printing. 1982. (p. 11). ↩
- Sources of Renewal, (p. 20). ↩
- Ibid. (p.20-21). ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- The Flannery translation of the documents renders this phrase as follows: “… the Lord who … will satisfy all their inner hopes, or rather infinitely surpass them.” ↩
- The Latin version of this phrase is rendered most faithfully into English by Fr. Walter Abbot, SJ. This phrase is part of a much longer sentence in the Latin, and reads as follows: “Cum autem Ecclesia sit in Christo veluti sacramentum seu signum et instrumentum intimae cum Deo unionis totiusque generis humani unitatis …” ↩
- Redeemer of Man, 13. ↩
- A personalistic approach respects the multitude of contexts within which the mystery of faith unfolds. We must acknowledge that there are numerous circumstances in which the Lord’s work in the soul is done in secret. Developmental disabilities, mental illness, and other circumstances often prevent outside access to the subjective experience of faith in these cases. For the purposes of this essay, I am treating only of the normal experience of persons who have reached the age of reason. ↩
- Catechesis in Our Times, 23. ↩
- Redeemer of Man, 20. ↩
- Mission of the Redeemer, 46. ↩
- On the Holy Spirit in the Life of the Church and the World, 62. ↩
- Splendor of Truth, 18. ↩
- Ibid., 19. ↩
- Novo Millenio Inuente, 33. ↩
- Spe Salvi, 3. ↩
- Lumen Fidei, 8. ↩
- Ibid., 22. ↩
- Joy of the Gospel, 265, 266. ↩