I was brought up as an evangelical Christian to be constantly aware of the need to develop a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” It wasn’t until I became a Catholic that I learned the true potential of such an idea.
In the evangelical world, the “personal relationship with Jesus Christ” was as ephemeral as a butterfly. It was difficult to catch and more difficult to keep alive. Usually, the personal encounter with Christ was expected to begin when a person “got saved” or “accepted Jesus into his heart as his personal Lord and Savior.”
While such personal experiences are valuable, I found that they were difficult to pin down. This is because the personal experience encouraged by evangelicals is subjective and very often highly emotional. A typical way that an evangelical might “get saved” is to hear the Gospel preached at church or at a “revival” or an evangelistic crusade. Having heard the Gospel and felt the need to accept Christ, the person walks down the aisle and prays with another Christian — repenting of sins and praying to “accept Jesus Christ.”
The problem is that many of these events are highly managed. The preachers have a formula for inducing feelings of guilt and shame. These feelings are often combined with warnings about hell and the promise of heaven. Before the preaching, there is emotional hymn singing that helps the person suspend doubts and get into a “group mentality.” The sermons are long and very persuasive, and they are followed with more music designed to tug at a person’s emotions. It is very likely, therefore, that emotionally vulnerable people will indeed feel sorry for their sins and go forward to tearfully accept Jesus.
They are told that they are now “saved,” bound for heaven, and nothing they can do could ever destroy the decision they have made. Is this sufficient for them to enter eternal life when they die?
No doubt such decisions are helpful and are often a good first step toward a Christian commitment. I have known many people who point to such experiences as the true moment of their conversions to Christ. Therefore, I would not want to denigrate such religious experiences.
However, it is necessary to be honestly critical. The emotional conversion experience might be genuine, but, then again, it might simply be an artificially manufactured emotional moment induced by a well-meaning preacher in the lives of emotionally vulnerable listeners. It might be a genuine conversion experience, or it might be no more than a momentary emotional rush. Catholics who are not properly formed may also have a religious experience that is ephemeral.
This is why the Catholic Church teaches that there are five objective means through which we can have an encounter with Christ. These five ways are found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church and are supported by sacred Scripture.
Paragraph 1373 of the Catechism states, “Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised from the dead, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us,” is present in many ways to his Church: in his word; in his Church’s prayer, “where two or three are gathered in my name”; in the poor, the sick and the imprisoned; in the person of the minister; and in the sacraments, of which he is the author, and in the sacrifice of the Mass. But “he is present ... most especially in the Eucharistic species.”
The Catholic encounter with Christ is, therefore, not a vague, personal, emotional experience. It is a concrete, real and objective experience. The experience is objective because it is rooted in the historical events of the Gospel and the sacred history of the Church and her saints. It is an experience that can be guaranteed no matter what our emotions might tell us.
As St. Jerome said, “Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.” Therefore, we encounter Christ in the sacred Scriptures. Reading the Scripture lessons of the day before we go to Mass, studying the Bible and reading the Bible on our own will bring us face-to-face with Jesus. Before we read the lessons, we should ask the Holy Spirit to enable this encounter, and we should ensure that we are reading the Scriptures in the context of the fullness of Catholic teaching.
Next, we encounter Christ in the assembly of the faithful. “Where two or three are gathered,” Jesus says, “there I am in their midst” (Matthew 18:20). The Church is not only where we meet our Catholic friends and family. It is where we meet Christ the Lord.
The Church as the Body of Christ and the Body of Believers is a historical and current reality. It is not something we made up or something we wish existed. Whether we feel emotional about it or not, Christ is present there to meet us. The fact that the Church is often frail, wounded and flawed in her humanity is one of the marks of her authenticity. Someone has said, “If the Church was completely perfect all the time, wouldn’t you be suspicious that it was not real?”
The third way we encounter Christ is in the person of the poor, the imprisoned, the sick and dying (Matthew 25). Whenever we are involved in working with the poor, visiting people in hospice care or in the hospital, or being involved in prison work and other charitable endeavors, we have a direct encounter with Christ. Saints like Mother Teresa of Calcutta and Vincent de Paul affirm these truths. When we work with the needy, we have a chance to see Jesus in them, and this encounter with Christ is real, powerful and concrete. Do you want to encounter Christ? Work with the poor.
The fourth way we encounter Christ is in the person of the priest. I have experienced this mystery at a profound level. This is not simply that we see Jesus when the priest is celebrating Mass. We also meet Christ in a profound way as we get to know and love our priests. Jesus is hidden there not only in their gifts of love, mercy and administration of the sacraments. Jesus is also hidden there in their human frailties and weakness. If we have eyes to see, then we will love and treasure our priests, because even in their humanity they are revealing Jesus to us.
Finally, we encounter Christ in the sacraments of the Church. The seven sacraments are not mere religious rituals. They are the objective, physical and historical means through which Jesus comes to meet us. The Eucharist is the “source and summit” of our faith, and it is through these sacramental signs that our covenant with Christ is solemnly sealed.
These five ways are real encounters with Christ, which do not depend on the fickleness of our emotions. Nevertheless, when we approach these five ways with hearts full of devotion, humility and love, these encounters will also be deeply emotional. As we read the Scriptures, pray with Christ’s Church, minister to those in need, learn to love our priests and treasure the sacraments, with our hearts open to the mysteries of God’s love, we encounter in a real, powerful and personal way Jesus Christ the Lord.
Father Dwight Longenecker is a priest of the Diocese of Charleston, South Carolina.