Someone asked me this recently and it’s a question I hear often. Do Catholics have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ? I’ve noticed that, years ago, when I busied myself with apologetics and was a bit caught up in what the technicalities are in Catholic teaching and Catholic history, this question was often directed at me personally. “Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ?” As my relationship with Jesus has deepened, and as more people have gotten to know me, I’m not asked this question anymore. I think it’s clear to most people who know much about me that the answer to the question is yes. Ask the evangelicals who voted for Rick Santorum out in Iowa after he visited all 99 counties if they think he (a Catholic) has a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. I’m sure most of them will say “yes” to that. Some have called him an “evangelical Catholic.” So, are people like he and I, who are in love with Jesus and who will talk about our faith pretty openly on a personal level at times, the norm or the exception? That last question is a question I’m asked a lot, too.
St. Michael’s media, which is a pretty diehard, rough and tumble, apologetics site (nothing wrong with that, really), has a domain called CatholicBasicTraining.com and I found an article there on this topic: “I Have a Personal Relationship With Jesus Christ!”
One of the most common (and, indeed, tiresome) statements made by a number of our Evangelical brethren is that they “have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ” or that He is their “personal lord and savior!”
Why would it be “tiresome” to hear that phrase? I think the answer is that if you have to tell someone that you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ in order for them to know it, then you probably need to work on that relationship. Also, this is a phrase that (in my experience) is generally tossed out right at the point where the Evangelical is getting a bit frustrated by the technical talk coming from the Catholic, and they blurt this out as a technical point which, when you think about it, is a bit hypocritical. When “personal relationship with Christ” becomes a technicality that you offer to make a point about Catholic technicality, you’ve hit a wall in the discussion. So yes, in some circumstances, it can be “tiresome,” for a Catholic to hear this question.
Having said that, I do think Catholics can be overly technical in their explanations of things, as we would find if you were to quote the article from St. Michael’s media at a dinner party. It is that focus on technical explanations that can make a lot of Evangelicals think we don’t “get” the love part. We can get caught up in saying that you have to believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, or that you have to be receiving the Eucharist in order to have a personal relationship with Christ, but truly (technically?) one need only touch the hem of His garment to have a personal relationship with Him.
We Catholics would say that it is only in the Catholic Church where this relationship can reach its fullness (and that’s a fact), but in a sense, we all have a personal relationship with Him on some level because we are human beings made in the image of God, united with Him in our flesh due to the Incarnation. I mean, if you want to be technical about it, that’s the reality. So, really, everyone has a personal relationship with Jesus Christ whether they even believe in Him or not. We’re all connected to Him through our creation and through the Incarnation. Not all are saved, however, because not all will choose to be saved. (Note: I’m referring here to the Catholic definition of “saved,” of course.)
For me, my relationship is very personal, and yet it permeates everything about me. As it says in my favorite meditation at the Passionist Nuns’ website:
Christ’s desire is to claim us as His beloved. This desire is extended to all, yet specific to each. As the prize of acceptance He offers a gift: a crown. We must accept His crown of roses, although it is comprised of many thorns. Yet it must be so. For the world misunderstands suffering–it attempts to eliminate pain. The world would be scandalized by the acceptance of such a crown. Thus the necessity of roses, the jewels of holiness which are so perfectly and lovingly adhered to each thorn.
That is about my personal relationship with Jesus, but it is also about yours. It is “specific to each.” This is not something that can really be absorbed through instruction alone. Though we can read what it is about, we cannot know it unless we live it, and we cannot live it unless we, like our Blessed Mother, give our “Yes” to God and choose to live it. That is yet another thing that makes it “personal” to each of us.
From the Passionist Nuns’ blog:
I would like to tell you some important things, but a person who does not love, does not know how to speak about love. The language required is learned only from love. Listen to the divine Lover and let him teach it to you. — St. Paul of the Cross
That is my reality. It is also yours. That truth is the same for all, but again, it is manifest in each person in a manner that is “specific to each.”
I would agree with my Evangelical friends that Catholics sometimes get too caught up in explaining rules to people. (I plead guilty, in fact.) I also think Evangelicals don’t understand fully the joy of the Cross which we Catholics insist on carrying with Him, which is where Christ’s pure and selfless love is. That they do not is a sorrow for me, not a judgment on whether they are going to heaven. It’s not that we think God demands that we be perfect. It’s rather that God desires that we be the perfect version of what He made us to be, and He enables us to become that, helps us to become that, and will make us that saint…if we say “yes” to Him and obey His will in all things. If we say no, we have chosen to separate ourselves from Him. But then, if you have a personal relationship with Jesus, you don’t think about it in terms of “being a saint.” You think only that you want to know Him more and more…and more.
If you can’t choose to love someone, it’s not a relationship…right? And if you aren’t constantly saying “yes” to His perfect will, then what good can that be? Saying no to Him is unthinkable, really, yet many do and claim they are “saved” and that God will accept them anyway. How can you think that way? How can you not want to try to constantly be more like Him? I don’t get that.
Do Catholics have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ? Well, if they do, and if you do, then you won’t have to ask that question. You will know it. If you are not sure whether they do or not, then you should remember, that’s why it’s called a personal relationship. It’s not about your perception of them. It’s about the state of their heart which is known, ultimately, only to them and to God Himself.