Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Personal relationship with Christ?

From time to time there is discussion in Catholic blogs about the idea that we are called to an individual relationship with Christ, and so with the life of the Trinity.  This is sometimes flagged as a "Catholicism-lite" when this call made on the part of Catholics is perceived as being a call that is indifferent to doctrinal content; and it has also an affinity to the life of non-ecclesial Christian communities that, despite a Biblical base, do lack real sources of doctrinal belief. There is also a suspicion by Traditionalists of anything that appears evangelical in its origins and impact rather than ecclesial.

In this context, it was interesting to read the "Meditation of the Day" in MAGNIFICAT for this coming Thursday, the feast day of St Dominic. The text was taken from Pope Benedict XVI's General Audience address for 8th August 2012.  One thing that vividly emerges from Pope Benedict's presentation of the prayer of St Dominic is the movement from Liturgical prayer to personal meditation "in which prayer acquires an even more intimate, fervent and soothing dimension":
.... personal meditation, in which prayer acquires an even more intimate, fervent and soothing dimension. After reciting the Liturgy of the Hours and after celebrating Mass, St Dominic prolonged his conversation with God without setting any time limit. Sitting quietly, he would pause in recollection in an inner attitude of listening, while reading a book or gazing at the Crucifix. He experienced these moments of closeness to God so intensely that his reactions of joy or of tears were outwardly visible. In this way, through meditation, he absorbed the reality of the faith. Witnesses recounted that at times he entered a kind of ecstasy with his face transfigured, but that immediately afterwards he would humbly resume his daily work, recharged by the power that comes from on High.

St Dominic, in his life of prayer, expresses quite precisely the appropriate mutual relation between Liturgical prayer and personal devotion, between the ecclesial encounter with Christ and the personal encounter with him. We can perhaps add to this Pope Francis' repeated insistence that it is not possible to come to know Christ without the Church.

The language of "personal relationship with Christ" might well be an unfamiliar language for some Catholics; and it is, I suspect, more to be associated with the newer movements and ecclesial communities than with older Catholic organisations. Whilst a vocation to the priesthood or religious life might have always been seen as a way of living a closer personal relationship with God, that the life of lay persons should be seen in the same way has a certain novelty about it. I would suggest, however, that Catholic life has always included ways for lay people to live this closer personal relationship with God - through sodalities and a whole range of pious associations. According to the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, it is the sacraments of baptism and confirmation that call each and every Christian to a vocation in the Church - and the danger for the Catholic is that this where that vocation comes to a stop (the danger for the pentecostal is that it does not reach this point at all). What the newer ecclesial movements explicitly do is articulate the forms of commitment associated with a life lived according to their charisms as a specification to a particular form of the vocation received in a general way through baptism and confirmation.

So, for example, the Marian consecration according to the teaching of St Louis Marie de Montfort promoted by the Legion of Mary and the Foyers of Charity (it is the concluding act of the "fundamental retreat"). The Catholic Charismatic Renewal also understands the gift of "Baptism in the Holy Spirit" in a relation to the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation, seeing it as an opening out of the grace of those sacraments.  I have posted on this theme here. Fr Cantalamessa wrote of his own experience of Baptism in the Holy Spirit:
For me, baptism in the Spirit was a chance the Lord gave me to ratify and renew my Baptism...

The pastoral implication of all of this is that, if formation programmes in Catholic parishes are limited to the immediate preparation for the sacraments of initiation, then there will be an intrinsic failure to consistently develop the (additional) specification of the grace of those sacraments that constitutes the "living personal relationship with God". The additionality provided by formation to a particular charism in the Church is needed to achieve this - I suspect I am not alone in feeling that those one meets in parish life who have a more-than-average sense of Christian life have almost without exception gained that sense of Christian life from experience of one or other of the new ecclesial movements.

[A development of the them of this post would be to evaluate the Marian character and sense of the evangelical counsels that can be seen in many of the new movements.]

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