Meeting Jesus in Scripture

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This explores the new urgency that the Church has placed on encouraging Catholics to intimately encounter Jesus Christ in the scriptures. During the last half century, many Catholics in the West have left the Church and many more have become “Casual Catholics” due in some large part to a lack of intimacy with Jesus Christ. In this period of crisis, the Church has called for a “New Evangelization”[1], a call for a re-catechesis of the baptized. At the heart of the New Evangelization, is a new urgency for Catholics to build intimacy with Jesus Christ. Without reducing the paramount place of the Sacraments in Catholic life, the Church has significantly increased its emphasis on the importance of all Catholics being drawn into the intimate details of the life of Jesus Christ through the scriptures. Through this renewed effort to seek to personally encounter Jesus in scripture, Catholics may find greater joys in Christ and be inspired to be leaders in the New Evangelization.

The Crisis of Intimacy with Jesus Christ and the Urgent Call for The New Evangelization

Over the long history of the Church, intimacy with Jesus Christ has always been at the core of the Catholic faith. In the Incarnation and the establishment of His Holy Eucharist, Jesus Christ seeks to meet and know each person in an intimate and personal way. The fact that the Gospels were carefully written down shows the deep conviction that the Apostles and Early Fathers had about the importance of passing on the intimate details of the life of Jesus Christ. In medieval times, Thomas a Kempis wrote the spiritual masterpiece, The Imitation of Christ, which focuses on knowing Jesus in an intimate way and seeking to imitate Him. St. Ignatius, after his dramatic encounter with Jesus Christ, established the Society of Jesus, which continues to emphasize the intimate encounter with Jesus Christ through reflecting on His life in Ignatius’ classic, The Spiritual Exercises. In the middle ages, monks and nuns developed the Rosary which reflects on the details of life of Jesus Christ and asks for the Blessed Mother to intercede so that the faithful may draw closer to her Son.[2] From the earliest times of the pilgrims who retraced with great intimacy the experience of Jesus Christ’s passion, the Stations of the Cross still remains a sacred Lenten practice.[3] The renewed emphasis on the Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus[4] is a more recent example of the Church’s constant emphasis that intimacy with the person of Jesus is critical in one’s faith life.

Despite the Church’s constant and clear emphasis on intimacy with Jesus Christ, many Catholics have fallen away during the last 50 years, due in some significant part to a lack of a meaningful personal encounter with Jesus Christ in the Church. One third of people raised as Catholics in the U.S. have left the faith[5], equally split between becoming “Unaffiliated” (atheist, agnostic or non-religious) or becoming Protestant.[6]  The single biggest reason (71%) for leaving the Church among those who have become “Unaffiliated” is that they simply “drifted away”[7], which strongly suggests the lack of a meaningful encounter with Jesus Christ in the Church. Among those raised Catholic who have become Evangelical Protestants (60% of all Protestant converts from Catholicism are Evangelicals)[8], 78% left because their “spiritual needs were not being met.”[9] Recent studies show the great majority (86%) of Evangelicals believe it is “critically/very important” for their church to help them grow in their personal relationship with Jesus Christ[10], suggesting that Catholics who have left the Church have been searching for a more intimate relationship with Jesus Christ.

Within those Catholics who remain in the Church, there are many “Casual Catholics”, Catholics who are casual in their knowledge of the faith, casual in their practice and casual about their relationship with Jesus Christ.[11] A majority of Catholics today do not have “absolute certainty in a personal God”and less then half are “absolutely certain” about life after death. Many don’t realize or believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God. Many don’t believe that the Eucharist is the real body and blood of Christ and don’t believe that one needs to believe in the real presence to be a “good Catholic.” The growth of large numbers of “Casual Catholics” who lack a clear understanding of Jesus Christ and the critical importance of the personal sacrifice of the Eucharist defines the fundamental crisis that the Church faces today.

The confusion about the Church’s teachings lead many “Casual Catholics” to stray from the traditional practices that have drawn generations into closer intimacy with Jesus Christ.[12] Only about a third of Catholics attend Mass at least once a week and most don’t believe that weekly Mass attendance is necessary to be a “good Catholic”, suggesting that most Catholics don’t realize that they really and truly meet Jesus Christ in the Eucharist.   A majority of Catholics seldom or never attend Mass on a day of Holy Obligation, less then half pray on a daily basis and only a small minority participate in Adoration. Only small numbers of Catholics pray the rosary and the majority don’t wear a crucifix. The vast majority Catholics do not read Scripture on a regular basis. With so much casualness in their faith lives, it is not surprising that a large group of Catholics don’t feel that religion is “very important” in their lives. For many Catholics, Jesus Christ is only a casual acquaintance.

In response to the grave crisis of faith, there has been a call for a New Evangelization. In Ad Gentes, the Church reiterated that all humans are called by God “ to enter into a personal relationship with Him in Christ.”[13] Early in the papacy of Pope John Paul II, His Holiness recognized the critical situation of “Casual Catholics”, teaching that “entire groups of the baptized have lost a living sense of the faith, or even no longer consider themselves members of the Church, and live a life far removed from Christ and his Gospel. In this case what is needed is a “new evangelization” or a “re-evangelization.”[14] In the response to growing urgency of the crisis, Pope Benedict has recently established a new Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization.[15] The Church has clearly understood that there is a grave crisis and has placed great urgency on reaching out to baptized Catholics that have fallen away from the faith.

The New Urgency for an Intimate Encounter with Jesus Christ

Understanding that Jesus Christ is a person, a person each human being can encounter in a personal way, is at the core of the New Evangelization. The Church has always taught that in the Incarnation, God purposefully reaches out to humanity to make Himself known in His Son Jesus Christ and that humanity might be saved (John 3:16) through knowledge of Jesus Christ. Jesus makes it clear that His followers must know Him intimately and be able to acknowledge Him in their own lives (cf. Matt 10: 32-33). Saint Paul, on finding the tomb of the unknown God in Athens, exhorted that all are called to know the one God in the person of Jesus Christ (cf. Acts 17:23-33). Thomas Aquinas explained that the Word became flesh in a public and personal way because “Christ wished to make His Godhead known through His human nature.”[16] It is in the Incarnation that Jesus “accomplishes His revelation…by words and deeds, by signs and miracles”[17] so that humans could be “capable of responding to him, and of knowing him and of loving him far beyond their own natural capacity.”[18] The Church has always taught that the faithful should draw close to Jesus Christ in an intimate way.

Realizing that, for many Catholics, Jesus Christ is “an unknown god”, the Church has placed a new urgency on calling Catholics into deeper intimacy with Jesus Christ. Pope John Paul II taught forcefully and extensively about the centrality of an intimate encounter with the Person of Jesus Christ. During a three-year period during the 1980’s, Pope John Paul II gave an extensive Christocentric catechesis that included 85 chapters on the Creed’s “I believe in Jesus Christ.”[19] He designated the year 1997 as a year “devoted to reflection on Christ, the Word of God, made man by the power of the Holy Spirit.[20]In speaking to the Bishops of Ireland, John Paul II instructed that the faithful must “keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, who inspires and perfects our faith…(Our effectiveness) is linked with our personal relationship to him…”[21] His Holiness also stressed “that at the heart of catechesis we find, in essence, a Person, the Person of Jesus of Nazareth” and that the faithful are to “seek to understand the meaning of Christ’s actions and words and of the signs” so that people might be “in touch (and) in communion, in intimacy, with Jesus Christ…”[22] Pope John Paul II describes the great power of intimacy with Jesus by pointing to the witness of the martyrs: “The martyrs know that they have found the truth about life in the encounter with Jesus Christ, and nothing and no one could ever take this certainty from them.”[23] John Paul II’s fervent exhortations about the importance of personal intimacy with Jesus Christ and his extensive Christological catechesis clearly underscores the urgency that His Holiness placed on drawing Catholics closer to Christ.

Pope Benedict XVI has also placed great emphasis and urgency on encountering Jesus Christ in a deep and personal way. His Holiness teaches that all Catholics might strengthen their faith through a devotion to Jesus Christ so that, “every day of our lives thus be shaped by a renewed encounter with Christ, the Word of the Father made flesh”.[24] Pope Benedict XVI makes it clear that Christianity is not “the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”[25] His Holiness explains that the faithful must be diligent in their efforts to cultivate a personal friendship with Jesus Christ by making the effort to reach out and get to know Him personally: “Yet how can one love, how can one enter into friendship with someone unknown? …To find love with Christ, to truly find him as the companion of our lives, we must first of all be acquainted with him.”[26] The Pope exhorts the faithful to hold nothing back in the pursuit of the relationship with Jesus Christ for in Him there is great reward. His Holiness calls the faithful to “open wide the doors to Christ…[for] only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide. Only in this friendship is the great potential of human existence truly revealed”.[27] Pope Benedict XVI makes it clear in his official writings and his exhortations that intimate friendship with Jesus Christ is an urgent aspiration for all Catholics today.

Despite the demanding life of a pope, Pope Benedict XVI has had a great urgency to both pursue his own intimate knowledge of Jesus Christ and to share his personal quest for intimacy with Jesus Christ with the faithful. His Holiness’ personal quest to draw closer to Jesus Christ is emphasized by the writing of two major books on the life of Jesus, The Jesus of Nazareth series. In these works, His Holiness states that “I have attempted to develop a way of observing and listening to the Jesus of the Gospels that can indeed lead to personal encounter that, through collective listening with Jesus’ disciples across the ages, can indeed attain sure knowledge of the real historical figure of Jesus.”[28] His Holiness describes his own faith in the compelling Person of Jesus Christ: “I believe that this Jesus – the Jesus of the Gospels – is a historically plausible and convincing figure…” and that the writing of the two books on Jesus is itself His Holiness’s own “personal search ‘for the face of the Lord.’”[29]  His Holiness, by his own spiritual quest to know Jesus and the great effort to publish two major works on the life of Jesus Christ, demonstrates the great urgency and emphasis that he places on a vivid and personal intimacy with Him.

The New Urgency of Encountering Jesus in Scripture

Since Vatican II, the Church has placed a new urgency on the importance of encountering Jesus Christ in the scriptures. In 1986, Pope John Paul II entrusted a commission (chaired by then Cardinal Ratzinger) to develop the Catechism of the Catholic Church and contributed his own extensive catechesis on the “I believe in Jesus Christ” section. The Catechism, which was published in 1992, renewed the emphasis on drawing closer to Jesus Christ through the scriptures and described the purpose of catechesis as “to reveal in the Person of Christ the whole of God’s eternal design reaching fulfillment in that Person. It is to seek to understand the meaning of Christ’s actions and words and of the signs worked by him.”[30] While there are clearly different ways that the faithful can learn of Christ, including through personal encounters with the Sacraments and through oral teaching, the Catechism gives clear direction that each person must pursue encountering Jesus Christ in the scriptures, stating that the Church “forcefully and specifically exhorts all the Christian faithful . . . to learn the surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ, by frequent reading of the divine scriptures. Ignorance of the scriptures is ignorance of Christ.”[31] The publishing of the Catechism in 1992 gave a great new impetus to meeting Jesus Christ in scripture.

In addition to shepherding the development and publishing of the new Catechism, Pope John Paul II gave urgency to the importance of drawing closer to Jesus Christ in scripture through his writing and speaking. His Holiness taught that the Church with “the greatest devotion…reconstructs every detail of His life. It is the words of Jesus Christ, recorded in the Gospels that we must turn to unceasingly.”[32] His Holiness believed that finding Christ in scriptures was critical for “through prayerful contact with the Jesus of the Gospels, we, his servants and apostles, increasingly absorb his serenity and we assume his attitudes. [And through reading the Gospels] each one of us finds deep joy and fulfillment in the truth of our filial relationship.”[33] His Holiness taught that in the scriptures the faithful not only learn about Jesus Christ, but encounter the very Person of Jesus Christ because “the majesty of Christ the Teacher and the unique consistency and persuasiveness of His teaching can only be explained by the fact that His words, His parables and His arguments are never separable from His life and His very being.”[34] Pope John Paul II taught that when the faithful read the details of Christ’s life and read His teaching, Jesus Christ actually is present to each person reading scripture today. Through contemplation of the scriptures, the faithful become more intimate with Christ.

Pope Benedict XVI has also placed a new urgency on calling Catholics to constantly seek to know Jesus Christ through the careful reading of scripture. His Holiness has recently written Verbum Domini, which calls to all people “including those who have fallen away from the Church…[and those] who have left the faith” to return to the scriptures because “our personal and communal relationship with God depends on our growing familiarity with the word of God.”[35] His Holiness stresses that drawing closer to Christ in Scripture must be rigorous for it is “important for us not to reduce ourselves merely to the superficiality of the many who have heard something about him – that he was an important figure, etc. – but to enter into a personal relationship to know him truly. And this demands knowledge of Scripture, especially of the Gospels where the Lord speaks to us.”[36] His Holiness makes it clear that scripture must be diligently studied, but studied with the disposition of one who is embarking on a personal journey with the Lord Jesus Christ Himself:

One can never know Christ only theoretically. With great teaching one can know everything about the Sacred scriptures without ever having met him. Journeying with him is an integral part of knowing him, of entering his sentiments… Catechesis can never be merely the instruction of the mind; it must always also become a practice of communion of life with Christ…only in this way do we learn to understand Scripture…[for the] encounter with Jesus Christ requires listening, requires a response in prayer and in putting into practice what he tells us.[37]

In summary, the Church has called, with increasing urgency, for the faithful to seek to personally encounter Jesus Christ through scripture. The falling away of Catholics in the West, and the growth of great numbers of “Casual Catholics” traces, at least in significant part, to a lack of intimacy with Jesus Christ and the call for a New Evangelization is an urgent call for a re-catechizing of Catholics. At the heart of the New Evangelization is a new urgency to encounter Jesus Christ in an intimate way and both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have placed great emphasis on a personal encounter with Jesus Christ. To grow in intimacy with Jesus Christ, both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, through their writings and exhortations, have placed great emphasis on seeking Christ in the scriptures. In this time of the crisis of the faithful and the call to the New Evangelization, the ancient words of St. Jerome echo with new urgency: “Ignorance of the scriptures is ignorance of Christ.”[38]

 

[1] John Paul II, Redemptoris missio (1990), §33, http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_07121990_redemptoris-missio_en.html.

[2] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2d edition, (Washington: United States Catholic Conference, 1997), 2678. Henceforth CCC.

[3] CCC 1674.

[4] Pius XII, Hauritetis Aquas (1956), http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/pius_xii/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-xii_enc_15051956_haurietis-aquas_en.html.

[5] Luis Lugo et al., “Faith in Flux.” The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life (April 2009), 21.

[6] Ibid., 1.

[7] Ibid., 24.

[8] Ibid., 21.

[9]Ibid., 24.

[10] Greg Hawkins and Cally Parkinson, Follow Me (Barrington: Willowcreek Association, 2008), 38.

[11] See Appendix 1 for detailed statistics and sources.

[12] See Appendix 1 for detailed statistics and sources.

[13] Vatican Council II, Decree on Missionary Activity of the Church, Ad Gentes Divinitus (1965), §13, http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_decree_19651207_ad-gentes_en.html.

[14]John Paul II, Redemptoris Missio (1990), §33.

[15] Benedict XVI, Ubicmque Et Semper (2011), http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/apost_letters/documents/hf_ben-xvi_apl_20100921_ubicumque-et-semper_en.html.

 

[16] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae III, q. 4, a. 1.

[17]Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi (1975), §12, http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/paul_vi/apost_exhortations/documents/hf_p-vi_exh_19751208_evangelii-nuntiandi_en.html.

[18] CCC 52.

[19]Angelo Amato, John Paul II’s Christological Catechesis (1998), http://www.vatican.va/jubilee_2000/magazine/documents/ju_mag_01101998_p-08_en.html (accessed April 15, 2011).

[20] John Paul II, From the message for the 31st World Communication Day (January 25th, 1997), http://www.vatican.va/jubilee_2000/magazine/documents/ju_mag_01031997_p-49_en.html.

[21] John Paul II, Address of the Holy Father John Paul II to the Bishops of Ireland, (September 30,1979), §4, http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/speeches/1979/september/documents/hf_jp-ii_spe_19790930_irlanda-knock-vescovi_en.html.

[22]John Paul II, Catechesi Tradendae (1979), §5, http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/apost_exhortations/documents/hf_jp-ii_exh_16101979_catechesi-tradendae_en.html.

[23]John Paul II, Fides et Ratio (1998), §32, http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_15101998_fides-et-ratio_en.html.

[24] Benedict XVI, Verbum Domini (2010), §124, http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/apost_exhortations/documents/hf_ben-xvi_exh_20100930_verbum-domini_en.html.

[25] Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas est (2005), §32,http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/encyclicals/documents/hf_ben-xvi_enc_20051225_deus-caritas-est_en.html.

[26] Benedict XVI, Meeting with the Young People of Genoa (May 18, 2008), http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/speeches/2008/may/documents/hf_ben-xvi_spe_20080518_genova-giovani_en.html.

[27] Benedict XVI, Verbum Domini, §104.

[28]Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration (New York: Doubleday, 2007), xvii.

[29]Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2011), xxii-xxiii.

[30] CCC 426.

[31] CCC 133.

[32] John Paul II, Redemptor Hominus (1979), §7, http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_04031979_redemptor-hominis_en.html.

[33] John Paul II, Address to the Bishops of Ireland,§4.

[34] John Paul II, Catechesi Tradendae, §9.

[35] Benedict XVI, Verbum Domini, §124.

[36] Benedict XVI, Meeting with the Young People of Genoa.

[37] Benedict XVI, Address to the Members of the Roman Curia (December 21, 2007), http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/speeches/2007/december/documents/hf_ben-xvi_spe_20071221_curia-romana_en.html.

[38] St. Jerome, Commentariorum in Isaiam libri xviii prol.: PL 24, 17b.