Many people perceive Christianity as something institutional — rather than as an encounter with Christ — which explains why they don’t see it as a source of joy. Pope Benedict XVI
When Catholics venture beyond the walls of their parish church into the marketplace to evangelize, it is important that they remember the spiritual life cannot simply be taught to the unchurched because human persuasion alone will not convert anyone. Disciples of the living God are called to reveal His tangible Presence to those who are searching for salvation. When the Spirit of Christ flows through Christians who are His vessels to those who are hungry and seeking God, God is able to catch them in the net of His love.
An Experiential Faith
Christianity is above all an experiential faith, a living relationship with Christ. A Christian is not a person who merely accumulates intellectual knowledge about God nor simply fulfills tradition and the letter of the law. Pope Benedict and Pope Francis have repeatedly emphasized that Christianity is an encounter with Jesus.
The evangelization of the person and of human communities depends totally on this encounter with Jesus Christ. Pope Benedict XVI
We must always have the courage and the joy of proposing, with respect, an encounter with Christ, and being heralds of his Gospel. Jesus came amongst us to show us the way of salvation and he entrusted to us the mission to make it known to all to the ends of the earth. Pope Francis
Pope Benedict understands that when Catholics are living out a vibrant relationship with Jesus, their joy will attract others into the Church. Holy Scripture is filled with God’s promises of an exciting relationship between the Almighty and man :
Revelation 21:3 and I heard a great voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people,and God himself will be with them.
Revelation 3:20 Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.
Jn 14:23 Jesus answered and said to him, “Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him.”
Yet, somehow Catholics mistakenly believe the phrase “a personal relationship with Jesus” is a Protestant slogan when it is proclaimed right in The Catechism of the Catholic Church. The following excerpt clearly states the importance of a personal relationship with God in the lives of Roman Catholics.
The Church professes faith in the Apostles Creed (Part One) and celebrates faith in sacramental liturgy (Part Two) so the faithful might conform to God’s will in the Ten Commandments (Part Three). To believe, celebrate, and live this mystery demands a personal relationship with the living God through prayer (Part Four). ”Prayer is a surge of the heart, a simple look toward heaven, a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy” (St. Therese of Lisieux).
Christian prayer is a Covenant relationship in Christ, springing from the Spirit and ourselves and directed toward the Father in union with Christ’s human will.
Prayer is the living relationship of the children with the Father, Son, and Spirit. The Kingdom is ”the union of the entire Holy Trinity with the whole human spirit” (St. Gregory of Nazeanzus). Prayer is the habit of being in the presence of the Trinity.
During prayer, the Spirit of God slowly transforms our inner spirits into the very image of Christ. To live in truth means I discover my real self in the ground of my being which is hidden in God. It is not a process for the faint of heart because the longest, toughest journey we can make is from our heads to our hearts. Since Christianity is not simply an intellectual assent, there are actually entire seasons in our spiritual lives when God invites us to “close the wings of our intellects and open the wings of our hearts” (Catherine De Heuck Doherty, founder of Madonna House).
A Personal Relationship With Jesus in the Church
Although my conversion to the Catholic Church was the result of direct intervention by God, it was also the result of the words and action of God’s disciples. My spiritual experiences occurred in the family of God. Pope Francis explains that a relationship with Christ is not just for Protestant evangelicals but for Catholics who are then safeguarded by the Roman Catholic Church. An authentic Christian cannot be a ‘free agent’:
On the contrary, you cannot love God without loving your brothers, you cannot love God outside of the Church; you cannot be in communion with God without being so in the Church, and we cannot be good Christians if we are not together with those who seek to follow the Lord Jesus, as one single people, one single body, and this is the Church.
I was raised in the cool, calm and conservative Presbyterian church where nobody talked about a personal relationship with Jesus and no one talked about accepting Christ’s forgiveness, allowing Jesus to save us or about committing our lives to God. Yet, as a Protestant child who went to Sunday School from 3-years-old into my mid-teens, I grew up on the stories of Jesus, singing songs about His love and memorizing Bible verses. I was a prayerful kid; I sensed God was close to me even as a small child. One of my Sunday School teachers, who I realize now was a holy man, always turned to me to interpret passages of Scripture in class, then beamed at my responses afterward. After I committed my life to God at 16-years-old, my mum remembered this teacher repeatedly told her, “You know Mrs. Myers, Melanie is a child of God.”
Intimacy with God
Listening to an evangelical friend in high school stirred a desire in me for deeper intimacy with God. Like the idealistic teen I was, I dared to stand up in front of a National Conference of Canadian Presbyterian ministers, missionaries and elders and asked,
“After eleven years of faithful Sunday School attendance, why did no one tell me it was even possible to have a personal relationship with Jesus? Do I have to go to the Jesus People or the Pentecostals to learn how to be to be filled with the Holy Spirit?”
Of course, everyone clapped as I sat done with my heart pounding. A lovely missionary, with her silver hair swept up in an elegant bun and her eyes twinkling with the love of God, asked me,
“Have you accepted Jesus as your Saviour?”
I was baffled,
“I am not sure; I don’t think so.”
She looked at me, really looked into my eyes,
“I am sure you already have because just now you spoke in the Spirit, with His power and clarity. Just to make sure, when you are in your room tonight, ask Jesus to forgive your sins and accept the salvation He offers you. Then commit your life to Christ. Tomorrow we will pray together for the in-filling of His Holy Spirit.”
That night, I felt foolish like I was speaking to thin air or the wall, but I said the words, committing my life to Christ. The next morning and, in fact, for the next few years, I was flying in the midst of the “honeymoon stage” which swept me right into the arms of the Catholic Church.
I Thought Catholics Were Heretics
When I attended University, the only place alive in the Spirit was a Catholic Charismatic Prayer Group. I was confused how Catholics could be filled with the Holy Spirit but I assumed God merely tolerated their heretical faith and would soon show them the truth that they only needed faith in Jesus and the Bible. Period.
This IS the Body of Christ
Yet God pulled a fast one on me. I decided to accompany fellow students to a University Mass and was so shocked and overwhelmed by a powerful of the Presence of God, I could barely stand. When I heard the priest say, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” and “Happy are those who are called to His supper”, I wanted, no I craved the Eucharist. Of course, my Catholic friends told me I could not receive Holy Communion that evening but suggested I make an appointment with one of the Jesuits the next day.
Caught by Mary
A couple of months later, I could not sleep for a few nights. By then I lived with a Catholic Charismatic family. After I stumbled out of my bedroom desperate for relief, they prayed with me and announced God had been shining His light into my heart preparing a room for Mary. Would I invite Mary into my heart? Despite all my Protestant, theological objections, I surrendered to God’s inner promptings and said yes. Joy and peace flooded my soul instantly.
Well, when Mary lives in your heart and God places a hunger for the Eucharist in your heart, nobody wants you but the Catholic Church. Within 6 months, I joined the Church much to my family’s despair. As my grandfather lamented, “My God, how did she get herself into that mess?”
Caught and Taught
There is no greater joy than watching God work in someone’s heart. Of course, the most important thing for a potential evangelist to do is to live in God and allow His Holy Spirit to live in them. I was converted through direct intervention from God but also by believers who lived in Christ as He lived in them. These faithful Christians prepared my heart to listen to the words of a knowledgeable Jesuit priest who answered all my questions and doubts with wisdom. I was caught by God, then taught by brothers and sisters and swept right into the heart of His Church.