When I was in the seminary, it did not occur to me that I might have a personal relationship with the Lord. My approach to Christ was quite intellectual. I simply believed the truths of the Catholic faith.
It did not occur to me that I should experience Jesus in my life. I took in the belief system of (systematic) theology in my head only rather than immersing myself in its mystery.
Perhaps that was the standard way of relating to God for most seminarians; perhaps it was the male way of doing things -- focusing on thinking rather than feeling.
In the early years of my priesthood (1969 - 1972) I was very interested in the faith development of young people. We tried to have as many teens go through retreat-type experiences as possible. We were tremendously successful. Several years later, one of our team members reflected that we never presented Jesus as a person to the kids. Looking back on it, I saw what he was driving at. It was more an approach focusing on the kids and their psychological needs rather than focusing on Jesus as Lord of our hearts. We got down deep, yes, but Jesus was in the background.
In 1976, all that changed for me. I have told this story before: I was making an Ignatian retreat to discern a new direction for my ministry. I was nervous that I might not be able to do the exercises well.
The first scripture I reflected on was Mark's account of Jesus in the desert. The first try was a dud. The second saw me wrestling playfully with Jesus on the ground. I was so startled by this happening in my imagination that I literally got up from beneath the tree which I was sitting under and ran up the road. I could never conceive of myself to be that close to Jesus as to presume to wrestle with him! This kind of intimacy with Jesus was too much for me. I was devastated by the experience. I had to reach quite a bit to accept it. That moment, on a warm and sunny weekday afternoon in February 1976, has changed my relationship with Jesus -- and my life -- forever. I now have a personal and deep and abiding relationship with my Lord and Savior.
Now, I also believe that the first and foremost task of a parish staff is to draw people more and more into relationship with Jesus.
I wrote a paper once called "Blueprint for Restructuring a Parish" that proposes that a parish staff draw together a core community of people who know and love the Lord to be the heart of their parish's ministry. All lay ministers of the parish, from ministers of the Eucharist to ministers of the sick to religious educators, and, yes, to ushers and bingo workers, would be encouraged to experience themselves as a community of those who are already committed to Jesus. This plan proposes that pastors request lay ministers to join the parish staff at fall and spring days of reflection as well as liturgies for Thanksgiving Day, Advent and Lent penitential services, the Rite of Acceptance of Catechumens, and very specifically, the Sacred Triduum. Thus, in these upbeat celebrations the core community can recognize itself and gather its energy. In all of this is focus on Jesus and the community he gathers around himself. There is potential here for real, even exciting and joyous, celebration of faith -- all centered on Jesus.
Into this core community of persons who not only believe in the Lord but also know him would be brought others who have been faithful, yes, but, like me in the early days of my priesthood, have not encountered Jesus in a personal way. Most especially, it would be this core community who initiates catechumens and candidates for acceptance into the church into a deeper level of faith than may be recognizable in the Sunday assembly alone. The energy of this core community of committed and vibrant believers can make its dynamic and power available to renew more and more of the parish.
As is evident in my own story, it is not easy to open the eyes, ears and hearts of our parishioners to be committed people with their eyes fixed on Jesus. It usually takes an intensive communal experience like Cursillo, Marriage Encounter, Renew or other experiences that bring people into a vibrant, committed faith. (I emphasize the word experience because it involves the whole person -- not just the head.) I believe that this kind of initiation into a deeper faith can -- and ought to -- happen within our parishes themselves.
Thus, the primordial task of the RCIA can be to initiate catechumens and candidates into a personal relationship with Jesus and to provide experience in which they can build an ongoing, lifelong friendship with the Lord and immerse themselves into the mystery of Christ among us.
Similarly, the first priority of parish communities can be the same. Thus, the spiritual growth of a parish community grows in tandem with the quality of each initiation class.
The core community challenges the growth of the catechumens and the catechumens challenge the growth of the parish.
We might ask: what kind of community are we initiating these catechumens into? Hopefully, in exploring their questions, they will find "a community who knows and loves the Lord and experiences his power for transformation!"
All of this depends on the quality of the faith-life of the priest and the staff he gathers around him.
Every priest can ask himself: Am I concerned with enriching and deepening my relationship with the Lord? Is my relationship with him strong and healthy? Am I open to receiving the nourishment Jesus wishes to give me directly for my life and ministry?
Parishes in which the priest does not have a vibrant relationship with the Lord probably will not consider bringing others to Christ or presiding over a Christ-centered community a priority. Theirs may be a strong sociological community but may be a weak theological one. There is value in that, but there is a strong component missing -- the community's relationship with Jesus as Lord and Savior.
In this regard, the priest's and the community's care for the Holy Eucharist may be a test of the Christic-health of the parish. Do we give due reverence and honor to Jesus present in the community as the Body of Christ and in his presence in the bread-and-wine-now-the-Body-and-Blood-of-Christ? And, yes, does our devotion extend to the way we handle the elements after Mass or are we careless with these? Do we prepare and arrange each and every liturgy with as much care and love as we can muster? If we do, chances are our devotion to Jesus is sound; similarly, if we do not care that readings be well-proclaimed, that the singing be full and vibrant, that our preaching be effective, this probably shows inattention to Christ as we are invited to honor him in our midst. Surely the Eucharist is the sacrament of Jesus' presence in our midst.
Thus, the priest's relationship with the Lord is challenged and enriched by the parish community's need to be in relationship with Christ, who now sits at the Father's right hand. There is an inner dynamic here that can be ever growing and deepened with each liturgical year. This is of the nature of parish life in its most profound and spiritual sense. It can be argued that bringing people to Christ is the primordial reason why parish communities exist!
So, brothers, let us celebrate our personal relationships with the Lord. Jesus calls us to intimacy with him as he shares intimacy with the Father and the Holy Spirit. But some of us may be afraid of intimacy with God as we might be afraid of intimacy on only a human level. Personal relationship with the Lord is experienced through allowing the scriptures to come alive, by associating ourselves with those among us who already have a deep and abiding relationship with Christ and by nourishing a healthy life of prayer. ( But our prayer-life may be lacking.) Intimacy also comes through immersing ourselves in a community in which loving relationships are its foundation. In such community intimacy with Jesus is bound to be a fruit.
Intimacy ebbs and flows as the tides of the sea. In every human relationship, sometime we will be close and sometime a bit distant. Like the tides, we can relax and follow the natural rhythm of the relationship.
As I write, I am being challenged to expand and deepen my understanding. My theological editor says he sees the notion of "Personhood" as too limiting. Thus, the risen Jesus is "more than a person." "Personal relationship implies separation, " he says. "We don't relate to the earth; we are part of it. Similarly, we are part of the Body of Christ."
I will think on this. Our relationship with Christ can surely be enriched in loving conversation with friends. Each of us has some share in the mystery of Christ. Thus, I should keep in mind that a "personal relationship" with Christ is only one facet of the mystery, which will never be exhausted or plumbed. Jesus will be for us more than we can ever imagine.
The great Jubilee Year is close at hand. Perhaps the lull in parish activity during the summer can be a time for us to finalize our plans. May we truly honor the Lord as it is the 2000th anniversary of his birth that we celebrate. May this summer be a fruitful time for us, brothers, as we prepare for the new Millennium.