Friday, May 26, 2017

Is Pope Francis Against a Personal Relationship with Jesus Christ?

Pope Francis has come under fire for his comments which seem to suggest that he is against a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

His phrase, from his May 25, 2014, Weekly General Audience, can sound very antagonistic to Evangelical Christians at first:

Pope Francis described as "dangerous" the temptation to believe that one can have "a personal, direct, immediate relationship with Jesus Christ without communion with and the mediation of the church."

I was alerted to this by a comment on the Facebook page John 17:21 Evangelicals and Catholics, which I moderate. More than any other pope, Francis has earned a strong reputation for working together and praying with Evangelical Christians. I was naturally surprised to hear that he said something so potentially off-putting to that segment of the Christian community.

While I am no expert on what the Pope is thinking or feeling, I feel the need to address this. "Personal relationship with Jesus" is an extremely important phrase to many Evangelical Christians.  In addition, telling Christians that their relationship with Christ must be mediated through the Church no doubt inflames a lot of old wounds from the Protestant Reformation. The Reformers reassured us that we can go to Christ directly and that no human or institution can get in the way.

The pope actually clarified what he meant, but like so many things on the internet, one line gets taken out of context and the explanation gets forgotten. It is good to discuss what he means, though, as there is some great food for thought into how Catholics and Evangelicals think about their faith. I also recommend clicking the pope's address above and hearing in his own words what he's describing.

Like some many things that get lost, a key concept here is "only." The Pope is not suggesting that we cannot or should not have a direct, personal, intimate relationship with Jesus. In fact, his writings tell us how important it is to have that relationship. He urges all people to accept the invitation of Christ into that very relationship. But he is saying that this shouldn't be our only approach to Christian discipleship.

He is saying that we cannot do this alone. Other human beings, their writings and the church have all helped to midwife this relationship for us. Even if you have that direct relationship with Jesus, it is probably another human being who told you that this was possible. You may have read about others having that relationship. Perhaps a preacher invited you in a sermon. It is likely that your parents or a neighbor modeled what this relationship looks like. And then once you have that relationship, it is your duty to witness to this to others. Every believer is part of a community as both receiver and giver of blessings.

The Reformers are right that no human being or institution can get in the way of our own direct contact with God through Jesus Christ. But Francis is reminding us that every single one of us has also benefited from the witness, the words and the actions of fellow believers who helped us in that relationship with Christ. And then we must help others. Bottom line: It does us no good to pretend that individuals are in isolation from others.

We pray "Our Father," not "My Father," as one website pointed out. The Christian life is lived out in community, and it would be wrong to believe we are isolated human beings completely divorced from our relationships with our fellow human beings. A personal relationship is not dangerous or harmful by itself--what is dangerous is believing that our fellow human beings have no role to play in our Christian journey. It's no different than a person claiming they are a "self-made millionaire." That is a slap in the face to everyone who mentored, taught and assisted that person in making those millions.

Here are some of my own favorite words of Pope Francis.  These are from the first major doucment that he wrote after becoming pope, the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium--The Joy of the Gospel:

I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them; I ask all of you to do this unfailingly each day. No one should think that this invitation is not meant for him or her, since “no one is excluded from the joy brought by the Lord”. The Lord does not disappoint those who take this risk; whenever we take a step towards Jesus, we come to realize that he is already there, waiting for us with open arms. Now is the time to say to Jesus: “Lord, I have let myself be deceived; in a thousand ways I have shunned your love, yet here I am once more, to renew my covenant with you. I need you. Save me once again, Lord, take me once more into your redeeming embrace”. How good it feels to come back to him whenever we are lost! Let me say this once more: God never tires of forgiving us; we are the ones who tire of seeking his mercy. Christ, who told us to forgive one another “seventy times seven” (Mt 18:22) has given us his example: he has forgiven us seventy times seven. Time and time again he bears us on his shoulders. No one can strip us of the dignity bestowed upon us by this boundless and unfailing love. With a tenderness which never disappoints, but is always capable of restoring our joy, he makes it possible for us to lift up our heads and to start anew. Let us not flee from the resurrection of Jesus, let us never give up, come what will. May nothing inspire more than his life, which impels us onwards!

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