The Problem with “Not” Having a Personal Relationship with Jesus

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.

The Morning of the Resurrection, by Sir Edward Burne-Jones.

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.

  1. Gaudium et spes, 24.
  2. 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 PraelatorumPars Il: Europa, 742.
  3. 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.
  4. Ibid., 47.
  5. See Michael Waldstein, “Wojtyła’s Book about Scheler”.ła_on_scheler.pdf
  6. Wojtyła, Karol. Sources of Renewal: The Implementation of the Second Vatican Council. (William Collins Sons and Co.Ltd, London, 1980.) p.36.
  7. Ibid. (p. 27).
  8. 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.
  9. The Roman Catechism: (The Catechism of the Council of Trent). Tan Books and Publishers (Rockford, IL). Fifteenth Printing.  1982. (p. 11).
  10. Sources of Renewal, (p. 20).
  11.  Ibid. (p.20-21).
  12. Ibid.
  13. 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.”
  14. 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 …”
  15. Redeemer of Man, 13.
  16. 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.
  17. Catechesis in Our Times, 23.
  18. Redeemer of Man, 20.
  19. Mission of the Redeemer, 46.
  20. On the Holy Spirit in the Life of the Church and the World, 62.
  21. Splendor of Truth, 18.
  22. Ibid., 19.
  23. Novo Millenio Inuente, 33.
  24. Spe Salvi, 3.
  25. Lumen Fidei, 8.
  26. Ibid., 22.
  27. Joy of the Gospel, 265, 266.
Dr. Carole Brown About Dr. Carole Brown

Dr. Carole Brown is the director of the Office of New Evangelization in the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City. She completed her Ph.D. at the Milltown Institute (National University of Ireland) in Dublin in 2010. Her dissertation is entitled: "Crossing the Threshold of Faith: Karol Wojtyla/Pope John Paul II's Approach to the Problem of the Conversion of the Baptized."


  1. Thanks for this Dr. Carole Brown! Although I had read the documents you quoted years ago, without understanding the history, development of thought and Pope John Paul II’s significant contribution, I lacked serious understanding of the personal relationship with Jesus experience within and outside the church. Thanks also for the kindness you expressed to Dr. Boyd. Thank the Lord that both of you cared enough to write on this subject – you both ignited thoughtful reflection. Blessings!

  2. Avatar james wyse says:

    An essential conversation. Very good work.

  3. Thank you Dr. Carole Brown for writing an excellent article. You cite many fine references showing that a personal relationship with Jesus is not a term just recently “in vogue” or purely Protestant, but that it is part of the Magisterium’s evangelical language and has been for a long time. We all long to experience the realities of God, in more than by simply reading or studying of Him. Christ is the ultimate experience in our world. Experience Him. Love Him. Be in a personal relationship with Him.

  4. Ya done good Daughter.

  5. Avatar Marcel LeJeune says:

    I believe Dr. Brown has identified the major issues with Dr. Boyd’s article.
    I might point out, once again, that being Catholic is not defined by “not being Protestant”.

    We can use language and appropriate it with our understanding of it. This is what our leaders have done, in making the “personal relationship with Jesus” an even more explicit teaching than it was previously.

    Thank you Dr. Brown!

  6. If protestants do not have divine Faith, they certainly can not even know God. Their religion is all made up and has little or nothing to do with Faith. To believe is to Come. They do not enter the Church because they do not believe in God. Their personal relationship is with a fantasy in their heads.

    • Father McGavin Father McGavin says:

      I wonder whether Isabel knows, really knows, any Protestants. It certainly is true that people often remain Protestants because they do not fearlessly search the fullness of the Faith. But it is certainly true that many Protestants do have a lively faith in Christ and a “personal relationship” with Him. It further is certainly true that some people remain Protestants because the witness of the Catholic Church does not attract. Goodness me! many Catholic congregations are most unwelcoming, and, indeed, many are hardly “congregations”, but just people who come and go just to catch a Mass, but not to be a gathering of the People of God. Isabel, please soften your hard view of our “separated brethren”. I think Dr Brown’s article excellent, and a good answer to formalistic religion.

  7. Avatar Paul Rodden says:

    Thank you carole. Excellent piece. I learnt a lot from it as I did Dr Boyd’s article.

    In ‘Evangelical Catholicism’, George Wiegel implies that what he calls ‘Counter-Reformation’ spirituality and apologetics is as good as dead. I came back to the Church through those writers as do other people I know, and people still do, yet those writers don’t seem to use this ‘modern’ terminology.

    I’m no great expert as I said in the previous discussion, but ‘on the shop floor’, as I call it, none of my friends at Church would read anything like HPR. Also, people I know who might, are often wanting to ‘ram’ their approach down people’s throats, whether its ‘Intentional Disciples’ or some form of ‘pentecostalism’, (or, quite probably, whatever’s going to be the next trend after Intentional Discipleship, too).

    From my experience in the pews, what I see of a trend in ‘orthodoxy’ is more ‘Forming Intellectual Disciples’ and its simply attracting like minds, predominantly ‘Theorists’ in Kolb’s Learning Styles.

    In short, there seems to be an erosion of ‘catholicity’ into a war between various pressure groups and cognoscenti, wanting to make disciples in their own image, whatever flavour, wanting to stamp out diversity as well as dissent.

    Maybe people ‘at the highest level’ are talking about a ‘personal relationship’ with Jesus, but so what? I don’t find this language in the ‘out’ counter-reformation spiritual writers, for example, so don’t I have a personal relationship with Jesus, then? Fr Quadrupani, as well as St Francis de Sales warn against what many today look for, or assume are signs of, ‘relationship’ with God, don’t they?

    What if the phrase is likely to make the person I am speaking to, cringe or misunderstand? Do I have to talk about a personal relationship with Jesus just because the Popes have? There are plenty of other things they have said that I wouldn’t try to get into every conversation, and wouldn’t consider anyone who didn’t use that language somehow ‘not as spiritual’.

    As I said previously, and which you acknowledged here, language can be abused, and that is a real concern. However, the ‘coterie mentalities’ or ‘pressure groups’ I observe carefully seem to be wanting a monochrome church in their own image.

    The respondents above who are shouting ‘hurrah’ here are the ones that were shouting ‘boo’ at Dr Boyd. I often see a sort of ‘schadenfreude’ and partisan oneupmanship in commboxes which seems to reinforce more what I see as more toxic than helpful.

    To me, there are too many people trying to run their own personal agendas through in the name of the New Evangelisation rather than actually listening to the people they’re trying to ‘convert’.

    I have found that rather than techniques and programmes, having a genuine and sincere personal relationship with my neighbour is the most effective way of enabling them to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. This is what I though Personalism was, in practice: trying to ‘be Jesus’ to people, in or out of the church, scholar or janitor.

    It seems to me, from observation, there are too many people out there who want to change people whilst looking down upon them. People they want to change whilst not wanting to be friends with them. They ‘deign’ to ‘help’ people with their spirituality.

    Maybe we could call it ‘the New Proselytism’?

  8. Avatar Tom McGuire says:

    Thank you Dr Carole Brown for this excellent explanation of Catholic teaching. You did it with great care and concern for issues raised by Dr Jay Boyd. Your response is an example of dialogue so needed today. When we differ on critical questions, the tendency is to show how my position is correct and the other’s is wrong. In doing this, we close off dialogue and deny the good that can come from the other’s insights and concerns.

  9. Carole, simply fabulous.

    You’ve marvelously blended the collective Voice of God speaking to us personally and corporately: “Awake O sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” (Eph. 5:14) God’s breath through these… through us… hearkens back to Ezekiel’s call to the field of dry bones… (Ez. 37)

    In the simple heart of it, we have been personally and corporately suffering from amnesia. The form that is particularly illusive is a kind of ritual sufficiency, afflicting many of us with soldier-like dedication and conformity, evidencing all the signs of faith, but perhaps lacking that intimate relationship with Jesus Christ that Pope Benedict so eloquently established biblically as the heart of ritual (Jesus of Nazareth trilogy).

    Here is a call to recognize that if we are not fundamentally aware of our sin (“Who is Pope Francis?” > “He is a sinner”), we have no real need for our Savior. We will not go to Mass hungry.

    What a great, evangelical movement would be ignited if we were to connect our innate draw to drama and it’s many forms (95% of our discretionary time)– it’s structure of life, death (struggle) and resurrection (clearer identity > mission)–to our own nature, and see in this nature our capacity to do more than spectate, but participate in the very life of Jesus Christ! To make Him known!

    Every drama merely spectated is but a shadow of the ultimate drama we’re called to participate.

    Sherry Weddell distinguished between actus fidei and virtus fidei: it’s possible for us to receive, without really Receiving. What awakens this subjective capacity? In the very pattern and person of Jesus Christ, our proclamation must be: I am broken. I am incomplete. I am insufficient.

    How the masses would flock to Holy Mass if we were aware that God fashioned us of privation, that He alone might be our Provision; that liturgy makes accessible our participation of our ultimate drama… they are what they eat… countering eating of our anti-identity “fruit,” we partake of our true identity: Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ!

    This movement of the Holy Spirit through the Catholic Church, a “new Pentecost” prayed for by every modern pope, can not and will break forth from our conceptual boxes– until we look in the spiritual mirror of our true selves and see Him, until our hearts are broken by what breaks his… until we are emptied like Jesus Christ (Phil. 2)… until we cease worshiping emotions or concepts (with all due not of their importance, as ends in themselves they point to ourselves) in the name of God… until we go to the broken, incomplete, impoverished Bethlehem of our lives and find the masses waiting there with us… that He might pour His Spirit through us.

    Might I humbly ask of any here to please pray for Mass Impact ( — our small role in laboring for parishes to become dynamic communities of missionary disciples (Pope Francis)… seeking to engage every person in our geographic regions in their true identity and mission: Jesus Christ?

    Come, Lord Jesus, come.

  10. Avatar Paul Rodden says:

    Hi Tom,
    I like your point: “When we differ on critical questions, the tendency is to show how my position is correct and the other’s is wrong. In doing this, we close off dialogue and deny the good that can come from the other’s insights and concerns.”
    – I agree. The question for me is how we do this, or more often, if we do.

    I think both are right from within their own frame of reference. It is a shame Dr Boyd didn’t interact, but there were several times when I pointed out to Dr Brown that I felt she was was ’tilting at windmills’, or painting a caricature of my position (and Dr Boyd’s). It was as if she wasn’t reading what I was writing, but simply reacting, possibly in a habitual manner, to what she expected me to be saying, because ‘all critics’ throw up the same old tiresome chestnuts and red-herrings.

    As I said again and again, I was constantly affirming the importance of a personal relationship with Jesus, but not ‘a personal relationship with Jesus’, but it seemed like no-one wanted to hear that. I could be wrong, but to me that phrase has to be contextualised, relevant, and applicable to the circumstances, temperament, background, etc., of the audience. That’s why both are right.

    To me, Dr Brown is more ‘singing to the choir’, whilst Dr Boyd’s piece was more about how the phrase ‘personal relationship with Jesus’ might be received (misinterpreted) by those who have individualistic/subjectivist presuppositions which they have ‘inherited’ from their culture (secularism) or religion (Non-Denominational Evangelicalism). The question in this case, is one of the appropriateness of its use in any context with a potentially defective worldview receiving it. My issue was one of practical, shop floor, Phenomenology.

    What is the worldview of the ‘ordinary’ Catholic in ‘the pew’?, and how much might that possibly tainted by urban legends, superstitions, values and understandings of the world, formed by a predominately individualistic/’Protestantised’ culture? That is, the result of the ‘Unintended Reformation’.

    In the context of Catechesis, therefore, Dr Brown’s piece is most relevant, whereas with an ‘Evangelist’ hat on, Dr Boyd’s seems most relevant.

  11. Avatar Carole Brown says:

    Paul, God Bless You!

    You write, “As I said again and again, I was constantly affirming the importance of a personal relationship with Jesus, but not ‘a personal relationship with Jesus’, but it seemed like no-one wanted to hear that.”

    Forgive me, but what on earth does that mean? You simply may not entertain both these positions simultaneously! And until we resolve that one, I don’t think we can talk sense about the rest. I truly do not mean to be difficult. I want you to have what is on offer, as I want everyone on your shop floor (and mine) to have it.

    May I suggest Fides et Ratio?

    • Avatar Paul Rodden says:

      Hi there Carole.
      Thanks for your courteous reply. Much appreciated! :)
      I apologise if I was not clear, but maybe that’s why my comments drew so much ‘ire’? :)

      What I meant was there is a difference between a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and what some people call ‘a personal relationship with Christ’, but might be something else.

      For example, I would say I have a personal relationship with Jesus, yet I have to trust what the Church and the Spiritual Masters have taught on the matter, for it is not based in any ‘personal experience’ (i.e., some sort of ‘feeling’). That is, ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’, but I have never had any ‘warm fuzzies’ or ‘voices in head’ telling me what to do. I have to say that my ‘experience’ of God is simply one of an implicit assurance he’s there. That is, I would say there has never been anything ‘human’ about my relationship with Jesus, as if he was my mate across the road. I would say that any experiences I do have, are outside me, that is, experienced in human ‘otherness’ and divine transcendence, not as a directly subjective occurrence.

      But also, even if that assurance leaves me, and I am no longer certain ‘my Redeemer liveth’, something within keeps me full of hope and anticipation. The Mass keeps me ‘in the zone’ whatever my feelings or difficulties. The Mass – Our Lord – is the anchor in the storm.

      So is my experience a personal relationship with Jesus when there’s nothing ‘personal’, about it, as far as I can tell? Or should I give up, or search out some Catholic ‘guru’, method, or technique, where I can be guaranteed to have ‘an experience of Jesus’? Can experiences of Jesus be summoned through certain practices? Can grace be marshalled, at my will?

      My background is more in Sociology and Psychodynamics, and my so concerns are about religious pathologies, and the links between spirituality/personality (psyche) and neurosis, hysteria, homophily, collective effervescence, self-deception, wishful thinking, and other forms of autogenic or psychosomatic episodes.

      Firstly, many people expressing these ‘symptoms’ seem to talk most about having a ‘personal relationship with Jesus’, to the point of annoyance. It also is often accompanied by Jesus ‘telling them what to do’, or that the ‘frisson’ they feel at a Praise and Worship session that makes the hairs on the back of their neck stand up, is definitely Jesus. They also have a ‘Jesus’ who seems, coincidentally, to agree with them more than disagree.

      Secondly, these people often show addictive symptoms and search out more and more ‘worship experiences’ in order to jet their ‘fix’, like ‘storm-hunters’. Their criterion of judgement, even if Catholic, is often one based in these subjective phenomena, and they often ‘church hop’ when the Church/pastor/congregation is no longer ‘meeting my need’, and I see it even in forms of Traditionalism, in ‘Latin Mass Groupies’, who often judge the ‘quality’ of the Mass by accidental, rather than substantial, factors.

      The second group is what I’d put under the heading of a ‘personal relationship with Jesus’ – in quotes – in the sense that the more vocal or insistent the desire to ‘ram it down’ people’s throats (insensitivity to others, context, and appropriateness) the more incredible and suspicious I find their claims, especially if they start saying, ‘If you just…then Jesus will…’. What is that guaranteed in the spiritual life – there’s some sort of correlation between my actions and God’s – as if he’s a divine vending machine?

      In short, one feels more proselytised than evangelised around them (and woe-betide you if you disagree with them!), and unfortunately, they are the people most using the ‘personal relationship with Jesus’ jargon the most. One finds oneself not wanting to hear more, but run.

      If our relationship with Jesus is a lifestyle, a way of behaving, or primarily a belief system, it can easily be something merely mimetic or ersatz, one’s ‘niceness’ is then often ‘too good to be true’.

      In a sense, all I can do is love God, and let him sort out the rest. It depends on whether my personal relationship with Jesus is sacramental or sentimental. Only one is authentically transformative.

      To me, it seems that people who have a genuine personal relationship with Jesus are people that other people of good will, Christian or not, are attracted to, and with whom one finds oneself wanting to have a personal relationship, too.

  12. Avatar Carole Brown says:

    Dear Paul,
    Thanks very much for your explanation. It helps somewhat. I thought I would attempt a response, respecting this as an honest inquiry. (There have been times in our dialogue when you seemed a bit “contrarian”–it is not always easy to discern “tone” in a comment box, so let me proceed with an affirmation of my respect for earnest inquiry.)

    It strikes me that we are in one of the many Catholic “Both-Ands”. You are anxious to draw sharp lines between the sacramental (to be affirmed) and the “sentimental” (to be rejected). Ok. Yes, our life in Christ is most concretely expressed in sacramental life. But, there is a subjective dimension to the Christian experience that engages our entire person, including our emotions, our psyche, our spiritual senses. So, without encouraging a “sappy sentimentality”, I can affirm that the Lord can engage us on every level of our experience, including our feelings and emotions. I am a product of the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius, which teaches us to pay careful attention to consolations and desolations of various kinds as we dialogue with the Word of God in prayer, in order to exercise discernment of spirits,and figure out what God wants us to do. As Catholics, we do not rule out spiritual experience. However, there is a process of growing into maturity. It begins in immaturity! There is a long, involved journey to distinguish between the inspirations of the Holy Spirit, and “the world, the flesh and the devil.” The Wisdom of Sirach, Chapter 4, tells us that wisdom leads us by winding ways, testing us with her trials, “bringing fear and faintness on him, trying him out with her discipline till she can trust him, and testing him with her ordeals, she then comes back to him on the straight road, makes him happy and reveals her secrets to him.” Boy, have I had some experience with the ordeals!

    Most of my “experience” with the Lord (hence, my personal relationship with him) has been generated through interaction with the Word of God, and the grace extended to me from a sacramental life. I have heard his voice in the Isaiah 3-:21 description, guiding me to take this step, or not take that one. I have made mistakes in my discernment at times, experienced confusion about God’s will. But I have also experienced concrete guidance. The Lord uses everything. Nothing is wasted.

    There can be many motivations for being somewhat dismissive of spiritual experience. Having lived in Ireland for 8 years, I’m aware that in some parts of the world the prevalence of mental illness can cast a long shadow over declarations of spiritual experience. No less a psychologist than Victor Frankl declared St Joan of Arc to be a schizophrenic. I have a lot of respect for him, but can’t help but wonder if the tendencies of modern methods of inquiry provoked him to rule out “a priori” supernatural intervention in human affairs.

    Without wishing to ram anything down your throat (you use such violent images), I would simply wish to encourage you to remain open to the possibility that the Lord would reveal himself to you in a way that you can “experience”. Jesus made a promise in that regard inJohn 14:21. As a rule of thumb, genuine spiritual experience will exhibit the fruit of the spirit, and will never contradict the Scriptures or the teaching of the Church.

    I hope this helps.

    • Avatar Paul Rodden says:

      Hi Carole.
      Thanks again.

      You are right. We are in a ‘both/and’, and that’s why I was arguing what I argued in the last piece because I didn’t see the responses to Dr Boyd’s position considering it a valid one, but were being quite contrarian. :) To me, she was just challenging a widely held, but rarely evaluated, sacred cow of charismatics and Evangelicals because it’s the water they swim in. Getting people to think. If anything, I think it was bringing into the light an erroneous imbalance or a set of presuppositions which have crept into the New Evangelism. :)

      To some degree, it seems to me, your elucidation of your own experience, would fit with the gist of what Dr Boyd would approve, and my ‘experience of Jesus’ would be similar, too. Maybe I was not clear that I’m all for emotions, but not dopamine rushes which are taken to be emotions, but I’m not as articulate or well-read as yourself.

      To take up one of your points, immaturity – if developed properly – becomes maturity, but neurosis does not, does it? Neurosis, I thought, is when the psyche goes off track, becomes distorted, addicted, dysfunctional, etc., and so spirituality, being seen through this lens, can become distorted, addictive, dysfunctional, etc., and can often make things worse, unless treated by a wise Spiritual Director, no? The person has to get back on track. Jesus undoubtedly can help with that, but it has to be the real one, not the one of their own making that panders to their neurosis. It has to be a metanoia.

      One book I found useful in this regard was Fr Thomas Dubay’s, Authenticity: A Biblical Theology of Discernment, as well as Bernard Lonergan’s Method in Theology, Philip Rieff’s, The Triumph of the Therapeutic, and Christian Smith’s work on Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (and Theism!), among others.

      As Fr Neuhaus said in his obituary of Rieff on First things:
      People who try to practice orthodox Christianity and Judaism today, he says, inevitably remain trapped in the vocabulary of therapy and self-fulfillment. “I think the orthodox are role-playing,” he says. “You believe because you think it’s good for you, not because of anything inherent in the belief. I think that the orthodox are in the miserable situation of being orthodox for therapeutic reasons.”

      This is a real concern as the ‘language’ I hear used in these situations as described by Rieff, would uphold his understanding of the matter, and talking about a ‘personal relationship with Jesus’ would compound it, I feel.

      I wasn’t arguing for modern therapeutic methods so much as the dangers of mistaking phenomena which are not spiritual, but psychosomatic or neurotic, as genuine spiritual experiences.

      As to my ‘images’ as ‘violent’, have you ever visited any other blog’s commboxes? In fact, do you ever go to Church? Or is it that we only have Christians ramming their point of view down our throats, here in England? :)

      Lastly, I think St Joan of Arc has had an easy ride compared to St Catherine of Siena in the field of the Analysts. :) Unfortunately, these speculations, based on documents of some 600 years ago, all at least second-hand reports, and none being psychiatric appraisals based on interviews with her, and when the notion of ‘the self’ was in its infancy anyway, is as much valid psychology as the religious ranting of Richard Dawkins is valid theology, is it not?

  13. Avatar Carole Brown says:

    Paul, I don’t disagree substantially with most of what you’ve said here. I mentioned in my article that I’m speaking of “normal” human-spiritual development, without trying to deal with all the possible variations of mental incapacity or fragility. I suppose my main concern is any thesis that suggests that a personal relationship with the Lord is not something Catholics believe in, or have in any meaningful, conscious way. Objecting to it on the basis that it’s a protestant idea is a falsehood, seeing that it is fairly constant in the teaching of the church over the last fifty years. Dr Boyd is not the first to suggest that this is a protestant idea–I have heard the same thing from diocesan professionals. Catholics ought not say things like that, especially now that the Church’s position is clear. Whatever delicacies of the human condition may at times be cause for caution in language, a relationship with the Lord ought to be “normal” for a Catholic. It is the context within which the sacraments, the doctrines, the moral life, all make sense. The problem the New Evangelization is trying to address (or one of them, at least) is not that there is too much personal relationship with the Lord, but too little. It seems to be your position that there is too much emphasis on that sort of thing. If I’ve understood you correctly, then I suppose we shall have to agree to disagree.

    • Avatar Paul Rodden says:

      Hi Carole. Thanks for your reply.
      I don’t think I’ve ever said I’m against a personal relationship with Christ, even an intimate one, have I?
      In fact, I’m all for one: if it goes deeper. An issue of becoming what we believe is fine. My issue is with people who think their ‘personal’ method of relating to God is THE method. This is what I experience too many people meaning by personal.

      I’m re-reading George Weigel’s Evangelical Catholicism, and I’ve found the same nagging doubts resurface. I think the book’s got so much going for it, except for what seems to be the progressivist bent of it.

      That is to me, he implies, if not states, that the ‘counter-reformation’ way, as he calls it, is as good as dead. However, if truth is truth, and these were legitimate ways to God ‘back then’, isn’t he implying tacitly, if not overtly, that spirituality is relative? Yet he claims to be in ‘continuity’. It seems to me somewhat ‘dispensationalist’ in the sense of where you cut the cake in order to consider oneself in continuity or not.

      In short, I seem to be seeing more and more Catholics (neo-progressives?) ‘reacting’ to the New Evangelisation in exactly the way the old ‘progressives’ they condemn, ‘reacting’ to Vatican II. Reaction to the reaction. A ‘Spirit of New Evangelisation’. People interpreting it selectively, just like the ‘Spirit of Vatican II-ers’.

      The ‘newness’ of the New Evagelisation, seems to have created its own ‘novums’. In this sense, it seems not to be a New Evangelisation, but a ‘New Evangelisation’ – in quotes – a disconnection with the past, to the degree its looking only at the past 50 years, too.

      It’s in this sense it seems ‘Protestant’, to me. Luther and Tetzel were both going round selling their latest methods for ‘church growth’, whilst the majority of the laity just kept on doing what they’d always done, rather like this in our pews today whom the experts want to change to their own brand or fad. The adherents all have their own ‘in’ patter and jargon. McCatholicTM. Too often it seems aloof or a coterie mentality.

      It is this that makes it ‘individualistic’, rather than personal, to me. It maybe personal – in a wholesome sense – on paper or ‘de jure’, but I’m concerned about it when the tyre hits the road, ‘de facto’.

      My feeling is that many people will get bored with Intentional Discipleship, or whatever, especially if something more entertaining comes along, more ‘personally satisfying’. Catholicism is countercultural in that sense. It’s consoling, not ‘satisfying’. Secular culture seeks out the satisfying, personally gratifying. To ‘feel good’. I hear many of the ‘new evangelists’ describing the spiritual life in terms of how they make them feel or ‘personal benefits’ accrued from being Christian.

      I’m sticking with things that cannot have a sell-by date and are part of an extended tradition. I really think these can be ever-new in expression, method, and ardour, in as much as we allow ourselves to be transformed into Christ, rather than using our dopamine levels as the judge of truth.

  14. Avatar Paul Rodden says:

    After writing the above, I came across a new article on my daily ‘blogroll’ published on Crisis Magazine.

    It summarises my point better that I could:
    De Sales vs. Luther on Freedom and Religious Devotion:

    ‘Seventeenth-century Christians desired an experience of their own worth and importance. They needed to feel that they were in control of, and responsible for, their own faith and worship. Christians, then as now, wanted their individual identity to count. Luther gave that to them in one way, St. Francis de Sales gave it in another. The former did it by encouraging people to define their own identity and relationship to God, the latter did it by encouraging people to accept their identity from God, and to live out their relationship with him accordingly.’

    • Avatar Paul Rodden says:

      It seems the supposedly out-of-date counter-reformation ways weren’t so out of date, as the problems that needed addressing then weren’t so dissimilar, were they?


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  2. […] 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. […]

  3. […] 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. […]

  4. […] In Carole Brown’s phenomenal article in HPR, she defends the importance of having a conscious, experiential personal relationship with Jesus. She also touches on Pope John Paul II’s decision to incorporate a phenomenological (loosely equivalent to “experiential”) approach in his teachings. Admitting that it was an insufficient ground for a systematic theology, he nevertheless upheld its importance to the work of theology and evangelization.  See The Problem with “Not” Having a Personal Relationship with Jesus. […]