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Christ at the Centre

Pat Collins C.M.

Recently I attended the golden Jubilee mass of a priest I know. I was very interested by what he had to say in his homily. Having shared some memories, mainly to do with the goodness of his parents and siblings, he went on to talk in the most personal terms about the way in which his relationship with the person of Jesus Christ had grown deeper over the years. He also described the central role that relationship had played in his life, not only in allaying his fears in times of stress but also in giving him a growing sense of Christian freedom. As I listened I was not only surprised, I was also deeply moved. It is so unusual to hear a priest talk in this straightforward and personal way about loving the Lord. Clearly, he had grasped the fact that rather than being primarily about institutions, sacraments, or traditions, Catholicism focuses on a person, the person of Jesus Christ. It so happens that this is the key point in the new evangelisation called for by the Church.

As early as 1992, Bl. John Paul II said to the bishops of Southern Germany, “It is necessary to awaken in believers a full relationship with Christ, mankind’s only Saviour. Only from a personal relationship with Jesus can an effective evangelisation develop.” In par. 66 of The Church in America John Paul wrote, “everyone should keep in mind that the vital core of the new evangelisation must be a clear and unequivocal proclamation of the person of Jesus Christ, that is, the preaching of his name, his teaching, his life, his promises and the Kingdom which he has gained for us by his Paschal Mystery.”

In mid October of 2011 I had the good fortune to hear an address by Pope Benedict XVI. He gave it in Rome to leaders involved in the new evangelisation. At one point he said, “Today’s world needs people who proclaim and testify that it is Christ who teaches the art of living, the way of true happiness, because he himself is the path of life. People must first of all keep their gaze fixed on Jesus, the Son of God. The word of proclamation must always be immersed in an intense relationship with him, in an intense life of prayer.”

Recently I was thrilled when I discovered that Archbishop Martin had echoed what the Popes have been saying. In December when he addressed a meeting on pastoral planning and financial support, he stated, “Everywhere I go . . . I am asking people the same question: “Do you really know Jesus?”

It is a question which surprises people to be asked at Church gatherings. You can see on their faces that they seem to be saying “we would not be here if we did not know Jesus Christ; that is why we come to Church.” At the same time I can see that people are slightly stopped in their tracks and they begin to ask themselves: “what is the Archbishop really saying to me?
Am I clear in my own mind about who Jesus is and what Jesus Christ really means to me in my life?
How do I come to know Jesus Christ?
What do I do to deepen my knowledge of Jesus Christ and my relationship with him?
Do I really know the scriptures?
How does my knowledge of Jesus and my relationship with him become an adult relationship, different to that which I learned at school?
Am I prepared to share something of that adult relationship with Jesus with others, especially those who have drifted away from faith and practice?”

After reading the Archbishop’s words I was reminded of an experience described by John Wesley in his diary. When he was living in the American colonies in 1736 he met a German Christian who asked him, “My brother, “Do you know Jesus Christ?” I paused, and said, “I know he is Saviour of the world.” “True,” he replied; “but do you know he has saved you?” I answered, “I hope he has died to save me.” He only added, “Do you know yourself?” I said, “I do.” But I fear they were vain words.” Later, Wesley described how he passed beyond mind belief to have heartfelt faith in Jesus. It was the result of a religious experience in London. One evening he attended a Christian meeting in Aldergate Street. “Someone read from Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to Romans” he tells us. Then, “About 8:45 p.m. while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”

All of us need to develop the kind of personal relationship with Jesus which Wesley described. I sometimes try to help people to do so by saying to them, “imagine that there is a throne room in your heart. In the centre is the king’s impressive throne. Who sits on that throne, you or Jesus the king? If it is you, has Jesus any place in your life? If you say he has, is he like one of your courtiers or servants? Are you continuously asking him to do things for you? Would you be willing to vacate the throne, so that Jesus might sit there as your king?

Are you willing to serve him, and to do what he wants? To accept Jesus Christ into your life in this way means that you allow him to take centre stage. It involves surrendering your life to him. When you do this, you will come to know him in the personal way Archbishop Martin spoke about.

How do we get to really know Jesus in a personal way? First and foremost a person needs to have a heartfelt desire to know him. As Jesus said in John 6:44 “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.” God the Father draws us toward Jesus his Son by means of a desire to know him which can be prompted by such things as an absence of meaning in life, a sense of failure, a feeling of need due to such things as illness, pain, loss, addiction, crisis etc. Scripture promises that such a desire for God and divine help will be satisfied. In Deut 4:29 we read, “if from there you seek the Lord your God, you will find him if you look for him with all your heart and with all your soul.” When Jesus said in the beatitudes, “blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God,” he had the kind of wholehearted desire mentioned by the author of Deuteronomy in mind. If you desire to know Jesus in a more intimate way you could express your longing by sincerely saying this prayer which was written by St Richard of Chichester in the mid 13th century, “Thanks be to you, our Lord Jesus Christ, for all the benefits which you have given us for all the pains and insults which you have borne for us. Most merciful Redeemer, Friend and Brother may I see you more clearly, love you more dearly, and follow you more nearly day by day. Amen.”

I am utterly convinced that Catholicism in Ireland will not be renewed until more and more of us, priests and lay people alike, become truly Christ centered. Once we know the Lord, we will want to make him known. The fact that so many Catholics fail to do so suggests to me that many of them don’t really know Jesus in a personal way. As Pope Paul VI said in par 24 of Evangelisation in the Modern World, “the person who has been evangelised goes on to evangelise others. Here lies the test of truth, the touchstone of evangelisation: it is unthinkable that a person should accept the Word and give himself to the kingdom without becoming a person who bears witness to it and proclaims it in his turn.” What do we proclaim first and foremost? Doctrines? Rituals? Morality? No we proclaim the person of Jesus Christ, the One who we ourselves have come to know and love in a deeply personal way.