Christians today know that Christ is Risen, first and foremost because they can experience and draw upon his divine power for their lives. Easter, therefore, is not primarily a celebration of a historical event, like Australia Day. Though certainly an historical event, Christians celebrate Christ’s resurrection at Easter because, through their experiences of him, increasingly, like St Paul, they grow to :
know him and the power of his resurrection.
A major concern for us as a Diocese, however, is the decline in religious practice among Catholics over recent decades. This suggests that many Catholics may ‘know about’ Christ – but they neither ‘know him personally, nor the power of his resurrection’. To change this situation, we need as a Church to get much better at sharing with others our Christian experiences. This is one of the challenges of new evangelisation.
Encounter points for Christian and personal experiences
The renewal of theology over the past decades has been a wonderful gift of God. However, the decline in religious practice over the same period suggests that we may have forgotten the basics required for sharing and nurturing faith. The reforms of catechesis, led by Pope John Paul II, remind us that:
- sharing and nurturing the foundational experiences of Christian faith is the most basic requirement for handing on faith to others2. If we fail to hand on these experiences, we fail to hand on faith itself;
- the purpose of Christian beliefs is two-fold. They help us enter into these foundational experiences of Christian faith ourselves, and they help us to hand on these experiences to others3.
Faith is a gift of God. In God’s plan, faith sparks into life whenever an experience of God and the personal experience of the hearer actually encounter each other.4 These encounter points can only happen at the deepest level within the hearer, so they take time5. Yet without these encounters, a person can ‘know about’ Christ and ‘know about’ the experiences of God he makes possible, but they cannot actually ‘know’ Christ or the power of his resurrection.
Though knowing ‘about’ is a critical element of Christian faith, it is not sufficient on its own. ‘Knowing’ is absolutely essential.
What are Christian and personal experiences?
Experiences of God referred to in this context are those found in the Word of God, Scripture and Tradition. They underlie the beliefs and practices found in the Creed, the Sacraments, the Commandments as Jesus taught them, and the Lord’s Prayer. These beliefs and practices ‘allow us to touch’ the experiences (or ‘realities’) they express6.
‘Personal experiences’ in this context refer particularly to the yearnings and questionings of the human heart . They surface in all kinds of ways.
Deep personal yearnings, such as those for lasting love, inner freedom or goodness, and questions, such as those about personal meaning, life after death and the meaning of suffering, are particularly important. Ultimately they reflect the yearning in each person for Christian salvation.
To hand on Easter faith, we need to work out and help others to see possible encounter points between the Easter experiences of the Risen Christ, and their own personal experiences. But to do this, we must be able first to see these encounter points in our own lives.
The Easter experiences
Easter celebrates the sufferings, death and resurrection of Christ, what we call the Paschal Mystery. This mystery opens us to two basic kinds of experiences of the divine9 .
Freedom from sinfulness
First, by his sufferings and death, Christ frees us from the sinfulness that is at the root of all human weaknesses and failings in our lives. Experiences of this include being freed gradually from selfishness, resentments, temptations, desires for what conflicts with the Commandments, vices and negative attitudes. Selfishness weakens, and love grows stronger; resentments weaken, and forgiveness becomes easier – and so on.
These experiences of the divine spark and deepen faith whenever we relate them to our personal experiences. We may yearn for freedom from some selfishness that hampers our marriage or some other relationship. Or we may yearn for freedom from some temptation, or some bad habit, such as lying, a quick temper or gossiping.
It is for each of us to reflect to see possible personal encounter points in our lives. To the extent that we cannot see these points in our own lives, we will find it hard to help others find these points in their lives. And we will find it hard to hand on Christian faith.
Empowered to become more Christ-like
Second, by his resurrection, Christ opens for us the way to a new life – life in Christ. We can become more like the Christ who commanded10:
Love one another as I have loved you.
These experiences can encounter our personal experiences only when we realise that, as baptised people, we need to do more than overcome weaknesses and failings. We need to become more like Christ, to live the ideals he preached, to lead lives worthy of our Christian callings, to lead lives ‘worthy of the Gospel of Christ’11.
Possible encounter points between experiences of Christ’s resurrection power, and our personal experiences, become more obvious when we ask ourselves: ‘Where in my life am I not behaving as Jesus would?’ In all our lives there are plenty of gaps between how the Jesus of the Gospels behaved, and how we behave.
Christ expressed heroic love, and called for it in sayings such as ‘turn the other cheek’, ‘forgive seventy times seven’. Whenever people suggest that a teaching of Christ is simply an ideal that cannot be lived really because ‘people are only human’, they reveal that they have yet to experience the power of Christ’s resurrection. They are not seeking the encounter between this divine experience and their own personal experience.
Becoming ‘new persons’
Genuine encounters between experiences of God through the Word, and personal experiences, gradually lead to human personality change12 . For example, a person’s personality changes if they grow more loving or forgiving, and less selfish or resentful.
Through the power of his resurrection, each of us can grow in what St Paul described as the ‘new creation’ or the ‘new person’ our baptisms make possible13. We can find ourselves increasingly empowered in our daily lives to love others like Jesus; to forgive, to do good, to keep the Commandments like him; to grow in Christ-like virtue. We can find strengthening in our illnesses and consolation in our sufferings. We are changed as people.
The many ways the Paschal Mystery can empower our daily lives are celebrated in the sacraments. Each sacrament celebrates some of these ways14 .
Freedom from sinfulness and growing into new ‘Christ-like’ creations are the two aspects of experiences of the Paschal Mystery15. Unless we each know these experiences personally, the Paschal Mystery will be reduced for us to a meaningless or ‘mysterious’ phase.
Encounters with experiences through the Eucharist
The greatest celebration of the Paschal Mystery is the Eucharist. We need to recognise this in the Year of the Eucharist.
Liturgy of the Word
Through the Liturgy of the Word, we can experience Christ guiding our daily lives – how to live like Christ, to find answers to questions, to rise above weaknesses and failings. We need to identify possible encounter points for these experiences and our personal experiences before we can help others renew their faith in this part of the Eucharistic celebration.
The Eucharistic sacrifice
Through the Eucharistic sacrifice, Christ seeks to share with us the power of his resurrection. We accept this to the extent that we offer our lives with him to God the Father. This includes offering in each Eucharist our work, our married and family lives, our daily prayers, our projects, our anxieties and our physical and psychological sufferings. Possible encounter points between Christ’s power and our personal experiences include wherever we need to become ‘more Christ-like’ in these areas of our lives.
This is the power that keeps developing us as ‘new creations’ and ‘new persons’ in Christ. Then there are the specific experiences Christ offers all who receive him in Holy Communion, which we cannot go into here16.
Of course, we need to prepare ourselves before celebrations of the Mass if our hearts are to be open to these experiences. This includes praying for help where we see in our lives the need for Christ’s guidance and empowerment.
Have we lost the art of Eucharist catechesis?
It is ironic that theological and liturgical libraries have been written about the Eucharist over recent decades – yet less and less people are participating in the Mass. The basic experiences Christ offers in the Eucharist, and the preparation needed to enter into them, seem to have become lost in the explosion of ideas ‘about’ the Eucharist.
We seem to have lost the art of promoting the ‘encounter’ between these experiences and the personal experiences of those who have given up religious practice.
People’s faith in the Eucharist will be restored only if we share with them our experiences of the Eucharist – and of how we ourselves seek the encounter between these experiences and our personal experiences.
Let us hand on our Easter faith
Let us all, as new evangelisers, seek opportunities this Easter to share our Easter faith with other parishioners, family members, friends and others who have given up their religious practice. In homilies, conversations over cups of tea, family discussions and when answering children’s questions, let us aim always to help others discover ‘encounter points’ between the Easter experiences of God and their personal experiences.
Without this basic catechesis, the current decline in religious practice will continue. Let us this Easter inspire us to renew our efforts to fulfil our mission today as new evangelisers of the Gospel!
Bishop Gerard J Holohan
18 March 2005