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Column: friendship with christ incomplete without love for his church

Archbishop Naumann

I received many comments about the last two columns. Many expressed gratitude for the sharing of my own crisis of faith 44 years ago and my subsequent experience of Our Lord revealing his love for me in a new and very personal way. 

by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann

On the other hand, some expressed an honest concern that all this talk abouta personal relationship with Jesus sounds very Protestant. In one sense, they are right. Catholics share with Protestants the conviction that Jesus came into the world to reveal God’s love, not just for all humanity as a whole, but for each of us individually.

It saddens me to think that some Catholics might find the idea of having a personal relationship or friendship with Jesus as something strange or foreign. Perhaps it is the phrasing used to express this fundamental element of our Catholic faith that is confusing to people?

Pope Emeritus Benedict in the introduction to his very first encyclical, “Deus Caritas Est” (“God Is Love”), stated: “Being Christian 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 new direction.” This became one of the great themes of the teaching of Pope Benedict. Catholicism at its
core is not about believing a set of doctrines, nor is it fundamentally about an ethical way of life; rather, the essence of Catholicism is an encounter with the person of Jesus Christ.

Blessed John Paul II in articulating his vision for the new millennium said
that he was not proposing a new program or additional activities. The church and the world did not need a program, but it needed a person — the person of Jesus Christ.

Recently, one of the cable networks telecast a special commemorating Billy Graham’s 95th birthday. Billy Graham used the occasion once more to present the basic truth of God’s love and mercy revealed in his son, Jesus Christ. In essence, Billy Graham’s message invites people to encounter Jesus Christ and to invite Jesus into their heart.

The difference between Catholics and Protestants is not whether or not Christians are called to have a personal friendship with Jesus. On this belief we can and should celebrate our unity with Protestant Christians.

Some may ask: Then, what is the difference between Catholics and Protestants? Does it really matter if we are Catholic or Methodist or Lutheran or Presbyterian? This is an important question. The differences between Protestants and Catholics are not over having or not having a personal relationship with Jesus, but what happens as a result of that relationship.

Our encounter with Jesus propels us on a determined pursuit of truth as revealed by Our Lord. Part of that truth is that essential to our Lord’s plan for salvation for all humanity was instituting a church, a church that he promised to be with and guide until the end of time.

Moreover, Jesus gave authority to Peter and the other apostles “to bind and loose” — a teaching authority that the community of disciples can trust and rely upon. This teaching (magisterial) authority has been passed on to the successors of Peter and the apostles — the pope and bishops.

Protestants believe all authority rests in the Bible. As Catholics, we agree with our Protestant brothers and sisters that the Bible is the revealed word of God. Yet, it is impossible to separate the Bible from the teaching authority of the church. Jesus did not hand his disciples a copy of the New Testament. The New Testament was composed after the ascension of Jesus. It was the pope and bishops who determined which of the early Christian writings were authentic and which were not. There is no Bible without the church. There is no reason to believe in the authority of the Bible if you do not believe in the authority of those who determined the content of the New Testament.

Two weeks ago, Jeff Cavins came to the archdiocese to present a seminar on the Bible. He has authored a popular Catholic Bible study — “The Great Adventure: A Journey through the Bible.” He came to Kansas, in part because so many of our parishes are using his Bible study. The night before the seminar, Jeff gave a lecture that described his own spiritual journey. While he had been raised in a devout Catholic family, he was not particularly well-formed in his Catholic faith.

As a young man, Jeff had a powerful encounter with the person of Jesus Christ through his association with some devout Protestant charismatics, one of whom would eventually become his wife. Jeff was so moved by the experience that he went to a Bible college and was eventually ordained a Protestant minister. Then, as now, Jeff was a gifted preacher and teacher. His ministry flourished. Yet, the more he studied the life of the early church as described in the Acts of the Apostles and the writings of the Fathers of the church, the more he realized that there were important elements missing from what constituted the early church and his experience of his own Protestant congregation.

The Eucharist was at the heart of the worship of the early church. The early church had bishops who exercised a clear teaching authority and who recognized the primacy of the bishop of Rome as the successor of Peter. The early church had a true devotion to Mary. Jeff came to the difficult realization that you cannot really follow Jesus and not love his bride, the church, and his mother, Mary. The more he examined the early church, the more he realized to his chagrin that it looked like the Catholic Church, the one he had abandoned. In the end, Jeff was drawn back to the Catholic Church.

As Catholics, it is imperative that we have both a strong personal friendship with Jesus and a strong love for his bride, the church he founded. Our relationship with Jesus is personal, but it is not isolating. It brings us into communion with the community of disciples, which is the church.

The magisterial authority within the church protects the church from fragmentation and protects individual believers from self-deception, which is always a danger if we are our own sole authority. What a blessing to be Catholic — to have deep friendship with Jesus, nurtured by both the Eucharist and the word of God, and to have the blessed assurance of the teaching authority of his church.


About the author

Archbishop Joseph Naumann

Joseph F. Naumann is the archbishop for the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.

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