Catholics should not be afraid of having a personal relationship with Jesus

Catholics pray before the Eucharist (CNS)

Catholic World News for 30 October carried a sad statistic. According to Archbishop Jose Rodriguez Carballo, the secretary of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, over 3,000 men and women religious leave the consecrated life each year. In his October 29 address the archbishop said that the majority of cases occur at a “relatively young age.” The causes, he commented, include “absence of spiritual life, “loss of a sense of community” and “loss of a sense of belonging to the Church”. Other causes include “affective problems” i.e. personal relationships.

Archbishop Carballo also felt that the modern world, characterised by uncertainty, doubt and insecurity, does not have any place “for sacrifice, nor for renunciation.” He stated that the solution is always a renewed attention to the centrality of the Triune God which in turn “brings with it the gift of oneself to others.” He concluded that there had to be a clear emphasis on the “radical nature of the Gospel” rather than “the number of members or the maintenance of works.”

These figures strike me as a tragedy. The particular cause cited that reverberated with me was “absence of spiritual life.” If this is indeed absent, what is left? Only a group of unhappy people maintaining a creaking institution. Pope Francis has something to say about this: on a new blog started up by a friend, in which she has included recent random quotes from the Holy Father, I was struck by his views on “Faith as an ideology”: the Pope reflected that “The faith passes, so to speak, through a distiller and becomes ideology. And ideology does not beckon people. In ideologies there is not Jesus, in his tenderness, his love, his meekness”. The attitude becomes “rigid, moralistic, ethical but without kindness.” The Pope asked how a Christian can become like this; “Just one thing: this Christian does not pray.”

The absence of a spiritual life means not praying; and without prayer, how can the religious develop a personal relationship with Jesus that makes the sacrifice and renunciation of an ordinary life meaningful and rewarding? The phrase “a personal relationship with Jesus” sounds very evangelical – and thus suspiciously unCatholic. Too bad. I disagree with Michael Voris in his ChurchMilitant presentation of October 17 in which he is rather scathing about the “Protestant” element in the phrase; he thinks it ends up being all about “me and my feelings and emotions” rather than about Jesus.

I don’t doubt there can be a danger of this happening, or that these warm feelings have to undergo at some stage a purgation or dark night of the soul (something Voris is keen to emphasise). But, as our late parish priest once said to me, quoting St Paul, though I didn’t know it at the time: “Milk comes before meat.” In other words, the joy of being a Christian generally comes first – because it gives one the courage for the necessary encounter with the Cross later on.

Voris is absolutely clear that “there is no relationship with Jesus possible outside the Church.” I know what he means and yes, I am also a Catholic. But I also have Christian friends outside the Church who do have a genuine personal relationship with Jesus that is not merely the overflow of happy feelings and has stood the test of much heartbreak and sorrow.

Back to those unhappy religious who decide that the consecrated life is not for them. Perhaps it might have been, but they chose not to take the road less travelled, the road along which, as Pope Francis says, they would discover the tenderness, kindness and love of Jesus and thus follow him trustfully to his Cross – and Resurrection.