ADVENT PASTORAL LETTER
How close is my personal relationship with Jesus?
Dear Brothers and Sisters
The year 2014 marks the Diamond Jubilee of the Bunbury Diocese. It is a time to thank God for many blessings.
People have grown in faith; children have been educated, including in the faith; the sick have been cared for and the poor and those in need have been helped. These are but a few examples.
We think too of the blessings of the Bishops, priests, religious brothers and sisters and lay men and women who have contributed to the mission of Christ at all levels of our Diocese. These include in parishes and Catholic schools, organisations and movements.
The increasingly multicultural population of our Diocese is another blessing. The faith expressions and cultures of Catholics from different parts of the world have enriched us.
Yet a jubilee is also a time for reflection. We face many challenges that call us to review our effectiveness as a Diocese with its mission from Christ – which is to proclaim the Gospel to all.
One challenge is that, though the overall religious involvement in parishes across the Diocese has grown in recent years, most Catholics – particularly the parents and young people – are not involved.
Another is the decline in relating skills across our society. Work hours, seven day shopping and computer based relationships are examples of factors that have led to a decline in person to person relationships – especially marriage and family relationships.
Catholic faith is first and foremost a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Relating skills, such as the ability to work at relationships and be faithful to commitments, are needed also for a relationship with God.
Again, while the multicultural dimension of our Diocese has brought enrichment, it has the potential too to lead to divisions. As Catholics come from different experiences of the Church – particularly of parishes – they bring also different expectations, for example, of the proper roles of priests and laity, liturgy and devotions.
A. WHAT VISION OF THE CHURCH?
The Church’s vision for itself was most fully spelt out by the Second Vatican Council. It is in the light of key elements of this vision that we need to reflect on how we are going as a Diocese and its parishes.
The Council opened its teaching by describing the Church as ‘a sign and instrument of communion’. [i] But what does ‘communion’ mean? Perhaps the easiest human example to offer is the deep relationship of a couple celebrating sixty years of marriage.
A human example
Commonly, such a couple know each other so well that each knows what the other thinks without even asking. Indeed, so often when one of an elderly couple with such a deep relationship dies, the other says something like: ‘I feel I have been cut in half’. Neither feels whole without the other.
How the couple expressed their love when first married would be inadequate for expressing the level of their love in later years. Though still not perfect, over the decades gradually their love has been increasingly purified and deepened to the spiritual level, the core of their being.
To arrive at this point, each of the couple has had to keep working at this relationship through times of give and take, highs and lows. They will have experienced easy and difficult times; times that have been good and bad. Their love for each other has deepened as self giving replaced selfishness, fulfillment and deeper self understanding deepened with self giving.
Communion therefore is a ‘relationship’ word. It is a dynamic, not a static word. It refers to a relationship that continues to deepen spiritually within each person in the relationship.
The foundational relationship for belonging to the Church
The foundation of the Church as communion is an ever deepening personal relationship between Jesus Christ and the believer. Though potentially deeper and more intimate than any human relationship, a communion relationship with Jesus Christ has to be worked at over a life time.
There will be good and less good times; easy and difficult times; times when Jesus seems close and times when he seems distant and uncaring. But for the believer who keeps working at his or her personal relationship with Jesus, such times lead to the purification of their love so that his or her communion with Christ deepens.
As a believer’s communion with Christ deepens, he or she grows to think, speak and behave more like him. They become increasingly holy.
This is why the Second Vatican Council taught that every Church member is called to holiness. [ii] The call to communion and the call to holiness, in a sense, are two sides of the same coin.
Christ always draws us into communion
Christian experience from the time of the gospels has been that, as a person begins to relate with Jesus himself, Jesus begins to draw them closer to his other followers. Sometimes people say that they believe in Christ, but not the Church.
However, nowhere in the gospels does anyone deepen their relationship with Jesus to the exclusion of others. In the Christian life, indeed, there can be no one-to-one personal relationships in any exclusion sense: [iii]
Communion with Jesus Christ, by its own dynamic, leads the disciple to unite himself with everything with which Jesus Christ himself is profoundly united: with God his Father … with the Holy Spirit … with the Church … with humanity…
As we respond to Jesus’ desire for personal relationship, he draws us ever closer to his Father and the Spirit – and to the community of his Church. Even if they are unhappy with aspects of the Church, or shocked by scandal, those whose relationship with Christ is deepening find themselves unable to separate themselves from its community and life.
The purpose of this Pastoral Letter
Over the coming year, I am inviting every Catholic through four short pastoral letters to reflect with me on how effectively we as a Diocese go about our mission of Christ in our lives and parishes.
The purpose of this first Pastoral Letter is to invite every Catholic to ask him or herself: ‘Is my personal relationship with Jesus Christ deepening?’ No matter how comprehensive our understanding of the Church, or how extensive our involvement, our catholicity lacks firm foundation unless we have a deepening personal relationship with Jesus Christ himself.
B. EVALUATING HOW DEEP IS MY PERSONAL RELATIONSHIP WITH CHRIST
One way that we can evaluate our personal relationship with Jesus Christ is by asking ourselves four basic questions:
- Is there any need I do not bring to Christ?
- Do I seek the means Christ gave for experiencing him?
- Do I seek Christ in those in need?
- Do I keep Christ’s commandments?
1. IS THERE ANY NEED I DO NOT BRING TO CHRIST?
The gospels show Jesus beginning to reveal who he is by working miracles to demonstrate his power. These visible signs revealed how his power can help people in their lives.
The first miracles of Jesus
To cite one example: Jesus’ healing miracles showed that his power is healing. They invite us to bring to him any area in our lives where healing is needed.
Today, for example, our behavior at times may be affected by the scars of childhood hurts. Or we may suffer still the effects of hurtful experiences from our marriages, children, siblings, places of work or other past life situations.
Jesus invites us to turn to him with our hurts, seeking his healing power. Healing can be quick or gradual. If the source of the hurt is deep, Jesus may lead us to discover the source so we can place this before him for healing.
In a similar way, other miracles of Jesus revealed different aspects of the power he offers us for our lives. For example:
- restoring sight to the blind revealed his power to help us see where we are blinded, whether through personal confusion about ourselves, our life’s direction, life questions or with other people in our relationships
- freeing cripples to walk revealed his power to free us from whatever cripples our capacity to love and do good – such as low self esteem, dominating emotions such as anger and strong desires, and habits and vices we find it hard to change.
Illness, blindness and other sufferings were understood by Jesus’ contemporaries to be results of the Fall of our first parents. They were not part of God’s original creation, but signs of Satan’s power and ‘the kingdom of Satan’. [iv] By his miracles, especially his resurrection from the dead, Jesus showed his conquest of the kingdom of Satan.
Jesus’ first miracles, therefore, were signs that his power is greater than Satan’s. Jesus showed this further by other miracles, such as when he
- performed exorcisms, showing he can help us to conquer temptations to sin
- forgave sins, showing that no sin in our lives is greater than his power to forgive
- cast out demons, showing his power to free us from influences stronger than our will power alone such as selfishness and judgementalness, addictions and deeply ingrained habits and emotional patterns.
We deepen our personal relationships with Jesus Christ as we bring all our needs to him. We can assess the quality of our relationship with him, therefore, by asking ‘Is there any personal need I do not bring to Jesus in daily prayer and the Eucharist?’
Jesus offers redemption from sin
The word ‘sin’ has two meanings in the gospels. The first refers to behavior that disobeys God’s laws. The second refers to the power of Satan, which leads people to sin.
Jesus taught that everyone who disobeys God’s laws places him or herself in the control of Satan’s power: [v]
…. everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.
Continuing the slavery metaphor, Jesus taught that he came to ‘redeem’ people from slavery to sin [vi]
… the Son of man came … to give his life as a ransom for many.
Jesus did this by his death on the cross. Ever since, all who have drawn on the power of his death, have gradually found freedom from everything in their lives that is not of God. This includes past sins, as well as all Jesus promised by his first miracles.
To deepen in personal relationship with Christ, we need to be drawing on his redeeming power to overcome every thing in our lives that reflects the power of Satan, rather than of God. We can assess our personal relationship with Jesus, therefore, by asking ourselves: ‘Is there any area in my life where I can see Satan’s influence, and do not pray to Jesus for freedom?’
Salvation by Christ
Sin exists in the world because our first parents chose to disobey God’s command. Their sin destroyed the original human relationship with God.
Jesus came not only to redeem humanity, but to ‘heal’ this relationship. He came to offer ‘salvation’ (from the Latin world for ‘healing’).
Jesus did this by rising from the dead and sharing the Holy Spirit first with the Apostles, and then with many others, at Pentecost. As Jesus promised at the Last Supper, he, with God the Father and the Holy Spirit, ‘makes a home’ in all who believe and receive Baptism. [vii]
The living God dwells with all who receive Baptism. They share the ‘eternal life’ Jesus spoke of – and share in God’s divine nature. [viii]
Now people can draw on Christ’s power to live each day as he promised. If ‘redemption’ empowers us to overcome selfishness, grudges, judgementalness and other weaknesses, ‘salvation’ empowers us to love selflessly, to forgive and to be compassionate as Jesus taught we should be.
To deepen our personal relationship with Jesus, therefore, we need to seek the power of his resurrection so we can be empowered to live as he taught especially where we find this difficult. St Paul celebrated that nothing is of greater value than [ix]
… to know Christ and the power of his resurrection.
To assess the quality of our personal relationships with Christ, therefore, we need to ask ourselves: ‘Is there any teaching of Christ I struggle with, and am not seeking help with such difficulties through calling on the power of his resurrection?’
The Paschal Mystery
The Christian term for the experience of Christ’s redemption and salvation is ‘paschal mystery’. Paschal is another word for the Jewish Passover feast when the Jews celebrated their salvation from slavery in Egypt. Christians used it as shorthand for the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection. Mystery refers to deeply personal experiences we can never understand fully because there will always be new insights.
We experience the Paschal Mystery, therefore, every time we seek Christ’s power. Increasingly we are able to love, as selfishness declines; to forgive, as hurts are healed; to be compassionate, as we overcome judgementalness.
Repent and believe the good news
Jesus taught that his miracles were signs that the kingdom of God had come into the world. To draw on his power, we need to [x]
… Repent and believe the good news.
To ‘repent’ means to turn away from everything in our lives that reflects the influence of Satan. To ‘believe in the good news’ means to turn to Jesus as Redeemer and Savior.
God only does good
Jesus taught that our prayers are always answered in ways God knows will not be harmful for us. [xi] Sometimes, therefore, we realise that God has answered our prayer in ways different from what we asked.
St Paul, for example, prayed fervently to be freed of a ‘thorn in the flesh’. [xii] God did not free Paul from this, but gave him power when this affliction was affecting him [xiii]
My grace is enough for You: for my power is most effective in weakness.
At the end of the day, it does not matter when or how God answers our prayer. What is important is that, by placing our needs before Jesus, we are drawn by him into deeper personal communion – with him and with the community of his followers.
2. AM I BEING DRAWN INTO CHRIST’S COMMUNITY?
The mission of Jesus is to the human race. It is not simply to those who followed him in the gospels. To offer his guidance and power to every human generation and culture, Jesus needed to be free of the material limits of his body.
For this reason Jesus began forming what he called his ‘qahal’ or church community. His ‘little flock’ would share in his power: [xiv]
… it has pleased your Father to give you the kingdom.
His first followers
Jesus started calling people to follow him at the beginning of his ministry. First there were Peter, Andrew, James and John. Then there were Philip and Nathanael (or Bartholomew). [xv]
Over time, the followers of Jesus grew in number. Unusually for the time, they included women. [xvi]
The gospels show the number following Jesus was large at times, small at others. Many stopped following him because they found his teachings objectionable. [xvii] Jesus never amended his teachings to please people.
Jesus taught that he would be present in new ways after his death and resurrection. He promised, for example, that he would be present in the community of his followers: [xviii]
Where two or three meet in my name, I am present among them
Jesus also instituted other means for experiencing him. These included ‘listening’ to the scriptures and the seven sacraments.
By word and example, Jesus taught that no one can relate with him as deeplyoutside his ‘qahal’ or church community – any more than could Peter, James or John.
Who is the Church for?
Jesus taught that he came for sinners and for all who see their need for God. He has nothing to offer the self-satisfied: [xix]
It is not the healthy who need the doctor, but the sick. I come to call … sinners
Jesus was criticised for the company he kept – with public sinners and those others thought ‘unclean’. [xx] At times, the behavior of those closest to him was the opposite of his teachings, and they even deserted him in his hour of trial. [xxi]
It is to be expected that the Church, which is made up of sinners, will always fail to live up fully to Jesus’ teachings. Some will fail in scandalous ways.
To assess how close our personal relationships with Jesus are, we need to ask ourselves: ‘Do I recognise myself as a sinner in need of Christ or am I self-satisfied?’
The Apostles’ Creed: the professed faith
The basic teaching of Jesus was that God – the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit – loves every human individual, and calls each into personal relationship with God through Jesus himself. The essence of Jesus’ teachings is proclaimed in the twelve statements which make up the Apostles’ Creed.
Each sacrament relates to a number of Jesus’ teachings. As we cannot have deepening relationships with other people if we do not believe them, we cannot have a deepening relationship with Jesus if we do not believe and strive to live the teachings of the Apostles’ Creed.
Listening to the scriptures
The gospels relate many examples of people seeking Jesus for advice and guidance. Jesus continues to respond to those seeking these things today. One of the most important means Jesus gave for seeking his guidance today is the scriptures.
Jesus taught how to open our selves to his guidance through the scriptures. It is by ‘listening’ – that is by trying to comprehend the meaning of the chosen passage and then asking questions such as: ‘How does this teaching of Jesus relate to my daily life?’
By ‘listening’ to the scriptures, we then open ourselves to Jesus’ guidance and answers to our personal questions. Insights may come while we are listening, or later, as we pray, or unexpectedly in daily life situations.
We need to ‘listen’ over time to every teaching of Jesus to grow closer to him. To him, his whole teaching is important. The gospels cannot be reduced to a few slogans such as ‘love your neighbour’.
There are many ways of ‘listening’ to Jesus’ teachings. Key ones are celebrations of the Liturgy of the Word, lectio divina (or ‘divine reading’) and daily personal reflective reading of gospel passages for five to ten minutes.
We need to ask ourselves ‘How well do I know the gospels? For example, can I recall the message of his different parables?’
To assess how close my personal relationship with Jesus is, I need to reflect on: ‘How often do I seek to “listen” to Jesus’ teachings in the New Testament’.
The seven sacraments
Jesus instituted the seven sacraments as the principal means for his followers to draw on his power. Different sacraments relate to different life situations.
Through each sacrament, Jesus offers spiritual gifts. For example, through the Eucharist, including the sacrifice of the Mass, he offers the power of his redemption and increasing freedom from sin and whatever in their lives is not of God.
Believers draw on this power as they pray in the Eucharist for areas of their lives where they need freedom – struggles, temptations, hurts and low self esteem. This is what the Second Vatican Council referred to as ‘internal participation’. [xxii] Without internal participation, liturgies are unrelated to believers’ lives.
Other sacraments relate to forgiveness; to the challenges of marriage and family life; to guidance and strengthening in the face of difficulties; to serious illness and old age. Jesus offers too many gifts through each sacrament to discuss them further here.
To assess how close our personal relationships with Jesus are, we need to ask ourselves: ‘How full is my internal participation in celebrations of the sacraments?’
The gospel of Mark relates how, from the crowd of his followers, Jesus called twelve. [xxiii] These were to serve in the office of Apostle. This office was passed on to others by the Apostles through the Sacrament of Holy Orders. Those who have inherited this office today are called Bishops.
From their number, Jesus called Peter to serve as their head. [xxiv] He was to be the universal pastor of his flock. [xxv] The successor of St Peter today is the Pope.
Jesus gave Peter and the Apostles spiritual responsibilities and authority. [xxvi] Basically,’Christ entrusted to the Twelve the task of teaching, leading and sanctifying’ in his name. [xxvii] This task has been inherited today by the Pope and Bishops. As they continue the task of Peter and the Apostles, Jesus himself serves his Church through them.
To assess our personal relationship with Christ, we need to ask ourselves: ‘Do I accept the spiritual responsibilities and authority the Pope and Bishops have from Christ?’
Full incorporation into the Church
The Second Vatican Council taught that, to be fully incorporated (or drawn) into the Church, believers
need to [xxviii]
… accept her entire system and all the means of salvation given her, and that through union with her visible structure they are joined to Christ, who rules her through the Supreme Pontiff and the bishops. This joining is effected by the bonds of professed faith, of the sacraments of ecclesiastical government and communion.
Christ always draws those who relate with him personally into his Church community. Where believers have yet to be fully drawn into the Church, their personal relationship with Jesus needs to mature.
3. DO I SEEK CHRIST IN THOSE IN NEED?
The Gospel of Luke relates the story of Zacchaeus, a dishonest tax collector, seeking and experiencing Jesus. One of the ways his experience changed him was to move him to give half of his wealth to the poor. [xxix]
A sign of a deepening personal relationship with Jesus is growing concern for all who are in need. He taught that when we help those in need, we help him. [xxx] This means that we can meet Jesus in our streets and neighbourhoods as often as we like.
In every town in our Diocese, there are people in need. They may live alone and feel isolated; be refugees or migrants; suffer illness or struggle as single parents. They may have few material possessions or be suffering a crisis such as a marriage breakdown, grief at the death of a loved one or find they can no longer stay on their farm.
The believer deepening in personal relationship with Christ will feel moved by him to reach out and help others in need A lonely neighbour may need an occasional conversation: a frail elderly person may need a lift to the shops – or have their shopping done for them. Some may need lawns mowed, gardens tidied or a meal provided if in crisis. In an age of cars, it is easy to become insulated against neighbours in need.
To assess our personal relationship with Jesus, therefore, we need to ask: ‘How often do I seek to meet Jesus in those in my neighbourhood in need?’
4. DO I KEEP CHRIST’S COMMANDMENTS?
Many today base their assessment of their relationships with Christ on personal feelings. Yet Jesus made clear that we should look to our actions. [xxxi]
If you love me you will keep my commandments.
Many of Jesus’ commandments are too difficult to live on our own. We need his power. St John taught that, for those who draw on Christ’s power [xxxii]
None of his commandments are burdensome.
We can assess how closely we are relating with Jesus by asking: ‘How well am I living the commandments of Jesus?’ Those who love Christ will be sure to learn his commandments.
Pray to Mary
The closest Church member to Jesus is Mary, his mother. No one knows better than her how to deepen in relationship with her Son. In my own experience, praying to Mary for help to deepen my personal relationship with Christ always bears fruit.
Perhaps the most powerful Marian prayer is the rosary. The blessings the rosary brings far outweigh the effort to pray it each day.
Where believers find themselves drifting away, or separating themselves from the Church community, the underlying question is: ‘How deeply do they relate with Christ?’
Being made up of sinners and people who recognise their need for God, human failings and weaknesses can give rise to disillusionment in the Church. Those who bring their disillusionment to Christ will find their faith in his power growing. It is he who draws believers into the communion of the Church’s life and worship as he continues to give himself and his power to all who seek him through his ‘qahal’.
Many people today have an intellectual faith in Catholic beliefs, but are not deepening in personal relationship with Christ. Today too, we see many questioning and ridiculing religious beliefs in the media. They raise apparently unanswerable questions.
They seem not to realise that a Christian’s faith ultimately must be based upon ‘knowing’ Jesus Christ himself. For those who know him – and not just ‘know about’ him – faith is not weakened by questions from those who do not believe.
I invite every Catholic in our Diocese to reflect upon his or her personal relationship with Jesus. My reflection upon our Diocese must begin here.
As part of our Diamond Jubilee reflection, there will be three other pastoral letters on how Jesus draws us into the communion of his Church:
- the Lenten letter will focus on how he draws believers into the parish community
- the Easter letter will focus on how those who relate with Jesus are called to the apostolate of the laity or the ordained ministry
- the Pentecost letter will focus on the practice of proclaiming the Gospel today.
As we reflect on our personal relationship with Jesus this Advent, may this grow so that our Christmas celebration draws us even closer to Christ
Bishop Gerard Holohan
[i] [Constitution on the Church 1]
[ii] [Constitution on the Church 39]
[iii] [General Directory for Catechesis 81]
[iv] [Luke 11:18]
[v] [John 8:34]
[vi] [Matthew 20:28]
[vii] [cf John 14:17, 23]
[viii] [cf John 14:17, 23]
[ix] [Philippians 3:10]
[x] [Mark 1:15]
[xi] [Matthew 7:7-11].
[xii] [Mark 1:15]
[xiii] [2 Corinthians 12:9]
[xiv] [John 12:32]:
[xv] [Mark 1:16-19 and John 1: 43-51]
[xvi] [eg Luke 23:49]
[xvii] [John 6:66; Mark 9:22]
[xviii] [Matthew 18:20]
[xix] [Mark 2:17]
[xx] [eg Luke 5:30; 7:36-50]
[xxi] [eg Mark 9:30-37; 10:35-40; 14:50 etc]
[xxii] [Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy 19]
[xxiii] [Mark 3:13-14]
[xxiv] [Matthew 16:18-19].
[xxv] [John 21:15-17]
[xxvi] [Matthew 16:18-19; 18:18]
[xxvii] [Decree on Ecumenism 2]
[xxviii] [Dogmatic Constitution on the Church 14]
[xxix] [Luke 19:8]
[xxx] [Matthew 25: 40, 45]
[xxxi] [John 14:15]
[xxxii] [1 John 5:3]