Over the past few weeks I've been following a few controversial blog postings and comment wars with unfortunate Catholic on Catholic attacks. Mostly these have been in the form of staunchly conservative Catholics and Catholics who aren't so staunchly conservative. (I'm not talking about liberal, cafeteria Catholics, just those who have a slightly more relaxed attitude towards the faith while still embracing and upholding it. Basically, good Catholics who are okay with the liturgical changes of Vatican II and aren't horribly scandalized by a guitar being used at mass.)
So this just got me thinking and stirred up some comments/observations I wanted to make. Let me first say that I want to be clear that I do not personally know anyone involved in these debates, nor am I judging or directing this post to anyone in particular. I have known really, really conservative, Latin-mass loving Catholics. I have know some really far left field, Obama-loving, women priest supporting Catholics. I've know plenty of Catholics at various places on the spectrum between those extremes. One thing that strikes me is the number of Catholics of all walks that I've met who really know and love Jesus and the number who only know and love things about him. There is a difference.
There is a danger that we can lose sight of Christ for all the various trappings of Christianity and Catholicism. We can fall in love with rules and rubrics or with causes and services and somewhere along the way miss falling in love with Jesus. At the very core of our faith is a Person, not a program, not a liturgical form, a real, live Person. All that we do, whether it's promoting chant or proper prayer posture or feeding the poor or seeking social justice is ultimately hollow and no different from the world if it doesn't start and end with having a personal relationship with Jesus.
When we walked away from the Catholic Church in 1997, one thing that I was really struggling with was trying to figure out if I was worshiping Jesus, or worshiping Catholicism. Was I in love with my God, or was I in love with the rules, theology, and trappings of the Church that were meant to point me to him? In hindsight, I wished I had worked out that internal struggle while remaining in the Catholic Church. At the same time, God makes straight paths from our crooked lines. I have a much greater appreciation now for how the Church leads me to Jesus, and how that personal relationship with Christ invigorates and enlivens my experience of the Faith.
This danger of setting up our involvement and experience of the Church as an idol over and against a personal encounter with Jesus has not been lost on our recent popes:
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”. - Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium #3
"Christianity is not a new philosophy or new morality. We are Christians only if we encounter Christ... Only in this personal relationship with Christ, only in this encounter with the Risen One do we really become Christians" - Pope Benedict XVI, Vatican City, Sept. 3, 2008
"Many people perceive Christianity as something institutional -- rather than as an encounter with Christ -- which explains why they don't see it as a source of joy." - Pope Benedict XVI, May 2004
“Sometimes even Catholics have lost or never had the chance to experience Christ personally: not Christ as a mere ‘paradigm’ or ‘value’, but as the living Lord, ‘the way, and the truth, and the life’ (Jn 14:6).” - Pope John Paul II, L’Osservatore Romano, March 24, 1993
“It is necessary to awaken again in believers a full relationship with Christ, mankind’s only Savior. Only from a personal relationship with Jesus can an effective evangelization develop.” - Pope John Paul II, speech to bishops of Southern Germany, Dec. 4, 1992