Dan Burke is an award-winning author, writer, and speaker on Catholic spirituality. He has written and/or edited nine books on faithful Catholic spirituality and is the Executive Director and writer for EWTN’s National Catholic Register. Dan is the president of the Avila Institute for Spiritual Formation, and the creator of Divine Intimacy Radio and SpiritualDirection.com.
We have our deacons and our religious directors, our priests and bishops and our cardinals … and our pope. We have confession, the Eucharist, penance, indulgences, litanies and prayers repetitively prayed to Christ’s mother. Yet, what of Christ? As our protestant brothers and sisters contend, has the Catholic Church inserted a bloated bureaucracy of man-made religious practices between Christ and his people?
In contradistinction, our Protestant brothers and sisters — especially evangelicals — speak of a personal relationship with Christ as the primary mark of the faith. There is no mountain of rituals populated by ecclesial bureaucrats. They speak of a certain sweet simplicity. It is just them and Jesus — together, without any need for ancient mediations or the authority of men. They just go to Jesus, and Jesus answers.
We all know their mantra: “It’s a relationship, not a religion.”
In her book Come Meet Jesus: An Invitation from Pope Benedict XVI, Amy Welborn presents the proposition that it is exactly an intimate friendship with Christ that has energized Pope Benedict XVI throughout his life. Welborn provides a compelling and convincing compilation of texts from the Holy Father’s speeches and books in which he describes the importance and nature of a living and personal relationship with Christ.
Welborn’s work is interwoven with insightful quotations and superb commentary. However, simply stating that an intimate friendship with Christ is important or even necessary in Catholicism does not exonerate it from the charges brought against it. On one hand, we tout a friendship with Christ, and on the other we demand an adherence to ancient rituals. In her own words, Welborn comments on the Pope’s thoughts about this:
[Pope Benedict XVI] speaks often about listening to Jesus through his body, the Church, through the word of God, and through the liturgical life of the Church. Our first instinct might be to see this in a negative way, as if he is trying to tell us that the ways in which we can meet Jesus are limited and must be controlled. But this is truly the opposite of the pope’s intention. He wants us to see all of this, not as places with walls and rules, but as gifts through which Jesus really and truly comes to meet us.
To those who question the compatibility of a personal relationship with a hierarchal and ritualisitc Church, we quote one of Cardinal Ratzinger’s most antidotal descriptions of the papacy: the pope is the “advocate of Christian memory.” The Catholic Church is not a pile of bureaucratic intermediation, but a wondrous set of gifts that guide us to Christ. The papacy and the doctrines of the Church are guideposts, they are there to remind us of the Christian path revealed to the apostles and handed down by our forefathers. By reminding us who Christ truly is, they save us from falling off into cheap cultural or relative imitations of Christ. The gifts of the Church present to us the reality of Jesus Christ.
The doctrines of the Church are no more limitations than truth itself is a limitation. Though dogma is a pejorative to many, to Catholics it is a word that should ring with freedom. It is the freedom to embrace the true identity of Jesus Christ, and not spend our lives wondering if our understanding of Christ is simply a personal projection or cultural trend.
Welborn further shares our Holy Father’s words on the encounter with Christ:
The encounter with Jesus Christ requires listening, requires a response in prayer and in putting into practice what he tells us. By get¬ting to know Christ, we come to know God, and it is only by starting from God that we understand man and the world, a world that would otherwise remain a nonsensical question.
Drawing from Pope Benedict XVI’s wisdom, Welborn touches upon two main considerations: first, that there is a knowledge and intimacy that only comes from living like Christ, and secondly, that the Church affords us the confidence to embrace the true Christ, we in turn are able to embrace the world according to the wisdom given to us by Christ. Christ is the Truth, and the clarity that Truth has in the Catholic Church allows for an authentic relationship and clear illumination of how to engage in and with the world.
The beauty of the Catholic Church can stand on its own, but at times it is good to have clarification by contrast. While our Protestant friends do promote a personal relationship with Christ, it is a radically antiseptic and often shallow contractual “gospel” (see Galatians 1 for more on this) that suffers from the rejection of the ecclesial and sacramental gifts passed down to us from Christ himself.
The true Church of Christ should be able to understand, live, and clearly articulate what it means to have a personal relationship with Jesus and Pope Benedict is a sure and wise guide to this reality.
Welborn’s work Come Meet Jesus: An Invitation from Pope Benedict XVI carries on this discussion of embracing the true Jesus Christ in a deep and relevant manner.
Amy Welborn will be appearing on EWTN’s literary show Bookmark this Sunday at 9:30am ET and then again at 11:30pm ET. If you miss these you can catch them again on Monday at 5:30am ET and then Wednesday at 5:30pm ET.
Everything in the Catholic Church is christocentric. Everything points and guides us to Christ. Let us as Catholics find joy and freedom in the doctrines and rituals of the Church. They free us to live and love the real Jesus Christ — especially the gift of the holy Eucharist.
As Catholics, it is our Christ-centered religion that enlivens and purifies our relationship.