What is the lifeblood of the church and its service to the world? Pope Francis says nothing new in “The Joy of the Gospel” when he stresses the importance of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. What is striking, however, is the passion with which he makes his case and the fullness of his account of what that relationship involves.
As a Catholic working in one of the world’s most secularized countries, I am acutely aware of the timeliness of this exhortation. Here in the Netherlands, the recent 50-year decline in church involvement has been accompanied by a proportionate decline of belief in the divinity of Christ and of attestation to a personal relationship with God. I cannot help but wonder about the relationship between these developments, especially given Christ’s reminder, “Without me you can do nothing” (Jn 15:5). I am also intrigued by the fact that signs of new life here in the Dutch church have come most visibly from ecclesial communities that strongly emphasize a personal relationship with Christ. For this reason I would like to draw attention to the pope’s treatment of this theme in “The Joy of the Gospel.”
Since papal teachings arrive steadily from Rome, we may be tempted to treat them as pro forma exercises—as just another sign the pope is doing his job. But Francis warns repeatedly against indifference. The main reason for “The Joy of the Gospel,” he makes clear, is not to close the Year of Faith and summarize perspectives from the 2012 Synod on the New Evangelization but to serve a suffering humanity. The human race suffers physically and mentally. It suffers from poverty, disease, thwarted opportunity and violence; from loneliness, emptiness and the fear of death. In his analysis the pope ranges widely but also gets specific—mentioning, for example, the current plights of refugees and victims of human trafficking. In his view, no one is free of suffering. Even those who insulate themselves against it know fear within, feel the decline of the body and see the pain borne by others if not by themselves.
“The Joy of the Gospel” reminds us, however, that we do not stand empty-handed before this pervasive suffering. We may address it with a healing love that casts out fear. This love comes from God, and we have recourse to it thanks to Jesus, the Son of God, who died that we might embrace it. In his Gospel we find an answer to “our deepest needs” (No. 265). “Those who accept Jesus’ offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness” (No. 1).
What Gets in the Way
Unfortunately, we Christians sometimes forget what we are about. In “The Joy of the Gospel,” Francis perceives that we (he explicitly includes himself) at times shut God out and lose our enthusiasm for sharing and proclaiming his love. How can this be? In a particularly insightful section (Nos. 76-109), he describes the temptations faced by those who work in and for the church. As I read this account of how worldliness undermines the would-be evangelist, my first thought was, when did the pope start stalking me? Time and again, he cites examples of blasé egoism that I recognize from my own life.
The underlying problem, of course, is that while Christ has definitively “saved” us, we still have to accept that salvation and allow it to flower within us. Meanwhile, we are beset by influences that urge us to do otherwise. The nature of this social pressure, Francis observes, varies from religious persecution and the lack of religious freedom in some countries to more subtle forms of resistance to the Gospel elsewhere. The latter applies in both my native country, the United States, and my current European home, the Netherlands, where highly secularized market economies preach competitiveness and materialism. In thoroughly capitalist environments, the highest choice (one is led to believe) is the choice for oneself. All else is relative. As for salvation, a range of options is on offer, and invariably the alternatives are more easily and cheaply had than the one proposed by the church. Within such a context it is not surprising that faith corrodes, turning the (aspiring) loving giver into a demanding consumer. Compounding the problem is widespread suspicion and cynicism toward the church’s message—some of it understandable in light of the sex-abuse crisis, for example—that induces many Christians “to relativize or conceal their identity and convictions” (No. 79).
I recognize myself in this description of the self-conscious proclaimer. How hard it is to speak of Christ in a country where the faith has been largely abandoned! How hard it is to get children to church when none of their classmates go! How hard it is to recommend discipleship in a rich country that excels at meeting immediate needs! One tires of answering for and defending the church. It is so much easier to keep quiet and fit in.
I see myself, too, in the pope’s warning against “an inordinate concern for personal freedom and relaxation” (No. 78). And not only myself: this preoccupation thrives in Dutch society. Few concepts resonate more winningly in the Western world than self-actualization, and this is increasingly associated with autonomy (“I alone decide about my life”) and comfort-based approaches to “wellness.” It amazes me how much time, energy and money can go into self-care. Yes, certainly, we must nourish the body and mind God has given us. But far too often I see myself putting self-indulgence ahead of loving service. Francis, bracingly confrontational, calls self-absorption “slow suicide” (No. 272).
I could go on. Let us just say I find the pope’s analysis of the situation (far more extensive than I have presented here) to be persuasive—painfully so.
Renewing the Relationship
So what to do about it? How are we to emerge from our self-centeredness, that we might welcome again and share God’s love? According to Francis, the key lies in “a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ” (Nos. 3 and 8). We must hear again—or for the first time—the kerygma, the core of the Gospel message: “Jesus Christ loves you; he gave his life to save you; and now he is living at your side every day to enlighten, strengthen and free you” (No. 164). And not only hear it. We must experience in a profound, existential way that Christ’s resurrection is not an event of the past but “a vital power...an irresistible force,” by means of which beauty is every day born anew in the world (No. 276). We must make room in ourselves that he might live and reign throughour lives.
Happily, Francis does not leave it at a lovely image. He goes on to specify reorientations of thought and practice that will help us to grow in communion with Christ. What follows is a brief summary of his recommendations.
A reorientation of thought. The essential first step in this process of rediscovering Christ is, of course, to acknowledge our full dependence on God in coming to know God. Only God can bridge the gap between him and us. Renewal of the personal encounter with Christ thus begins with an appeal to the Holy Spirit, that he might lead us to Christ. Such an appeal is indeed already a sign of the Spirit at work within us (God is ever the initiator). And Francis encourages us with his observation that Christ always meets us more than halfway. “Whenever we take a step toward Jesus, we come to realize that he is already there, waiting for us with open arms” (No. 3).
If a willing heart is the essential precondition to a vibrant friendship with the Lord, Francis points out that we need to engage our minds as well. The mind allows us to focus on what is truly important and to imagine unforeseen possibilities (always helpful when dealing with God). We Christians easily get bogged down in “secondary” matters—church politics or lesser points of doctrine, for example—“that do not convey the heart of Christ’s message.” The pope reminds us that we recognize a hierarchy of truths in our tradition (Nos. 34-37) and that love of God and love of neighbor are the points Christ himself put at the top of the list (Mk 12:28-31). Getting to know Christ better involves learning to think as he does—to join him in seeking what he seeks and loving what he loves (No. 267).
Expanding our minds is also necessary, because, as Francis notes, we enclose Christ in “dull categories” of our own making (No. 11). Instead of letting God “bring us beyond ourselves to attain the fullest truth of our being” (No. 8), we either detach ourselves from God or reduce God to our size. One finds startling manifestations of this in the Netherlands, where increasingly “God” is understood (even by large numbers of Catholics) to be an impersonal, higher force. According to the latest numbers in the research project God in Nederland (1966-present), 55 percent of Catholics fall into this category. Sadly, for these Catholics God is an abstraction, and—as I often remind people in parishes here—you cannot have a relationship with an abstraction. The same survey shows only a slight majority of respondents (55 percent) calling Jesus “the Son of God or sent by God,” with the rest saying he was “an extraordinary person with extraordinary gifts” (30 percent), “an ordinary person” (12 percent) or “did not exist, is a legend” (3 percent).
This research confirms my impression from 11 years of work with Dutch parishes—namely, that Arianism, the denial of Christ’s divinity, is hardly a thing of the past. In answer to this challenge, the pope urges us to rediscover the Jesus of the Creed: the crucified one, now seated at the right hand of the Father.
A reorientation of practice. But knowing Christ is more than a mental exercise. Above all it is an existential encounter that remakes us. For it to occur, we need spiritual practices that invite Christ into our lives. Francis recommends to this end the tried and true: listening to God’s Word (at Mass, but also in Bible study and lectio divina), receiving the Eucharist, turning to him in prayer (particularly in contemplative forms like eucharistic adoration), receiving spiritual direction, finding support in a small Christian community and performing works of mercy and reconciliation. Interesting to see in the Netherlands is how helpful new ecclesial movements and small Christian communities can be in promoting a vital relationship with Christ. The Focolare movement, Sant’Egidio, the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, the Emmanuel Community and many others prioritize the personal relationship with Christ and send forth believers who are ready to share their faith with others. At the national resource center for parishes where I work, we are looking into how parishes can do more of the same.
With Jesus in the world. To Catholic ears, “a personal relationship with Christ” may sound like a private, unworldly encounter. But Francis says it is the opposite. While acknowledging that in trying times the church may be tempted to reject the world and retreat into a closed-off friendship with the Lord, he warns that doing so is a betrayal of the Gospel: “True faith in the incarnate Son of God is inseparable from self-giving, from membership in the community, from service, from reconciliation with others” (No. 88). In fact, Jesus calls to us from the world, where he is present “in the faces of others, in their voices, in their pleas” (No. 91). Being church, Francis says, means participating in God’s great plan of fatherly love. It means “proclaiming and bringing his salvation into our world, which often goes astray and needs to be encouraged, given hope and strengthened on the way” (No. 114). Just as much, it means recognizing that God is already out there, active and alive, for heaven and earth are full of God’s glory.
With Christ we need not fear the future, for in him all things are “gathered up—things in heaven and things on earth” (No. 181; cf. Eph 1:10). He reconciles “God and man, time and eternity, flesh and spirit, person and society” (No. 229). Our world is ever in his hands, and his is a tenderness that never disappoints (No. 3). This is the joy that Christians know and gladly proclaim.