How I used to use this phrase when I was going through my Protestant phase and a young man! "Personal relationship with Jesus." This was a good way to trip up Catholics; "Yes, you profess belief in God, but do you have a personal relationship with Jesus?" Chances are a poorly catechized Catholic would not know what the heck you were talking about. A good Catholic should of course realize that this is a canard; all practicing Catholics have a relationship with Jesus (what do you think happens when we receive Holy Communion anyway?); just because we might not use this language, we ought never to let non-Catholics trip us up and get us thinking that we don't have a relationship with Jesus.
So even though it's been a while since I have head this phrase bandied about, and even though this is a no-brainer to most of you, it is good to revisit this issue occasionally and remind ourselves, and Protestants, that, yes, Catholics do have a "personal relationship with Jesus" and that this friendship with Christ is in fact the source of the spiritual life so recommended to us by all of the contemplatives saints.
There are a great many places we could go to to prove this, but let's look at an excerpt from the famous Imitation of Christ of Thomas A'Kempis. I choose this work because it was written during that awful 15th century, the hundred years before Luther when (allegedly) the corruption of the Church was at its height and Catholic spirituality was (allegedly) both superficial and superstitious. This is a good place to point to if a Protestant alleges that the Church's tradition or spirituality dissuade one from having a personal friendship with Christ our Lord. A' Kempis writes:
On The Intimate Friendship of Jesus (Book 2, Chapter 8)
WHEN Jesus is near, all is well and nothing seems difficult. When He is absent, all is hard. When Jesus does not speak within, all other comfort is empty, but if He says only a word, it brings great consolation. Did not Mary Magdalen rise at once from her weeping when Martha said to her: "The Master is come, and calleth for thee"? Happy is the hour when Jesus calls one from tears to joy of spirit. How dry and hard you are without Jesus! How foolish and vain if you desire anything but Him! Is it not a greater loss than losing the whole world? For what, without Jesus, can the world give you? Life without Him is a relentless hell, but living with Him is a sweet paradise.
If Jesus be with you, no enemy can harm you. He who finds Jesus finds a rare treasure, indeed, a good above every good, whereas he who loses Him loses more than the whole world. The man who lives without Jesus is the poorest of the poor, whereas no one is so rich as the man who lives in His grace. It is a great art to know how to converse with Jesus, and great wisdom to know how to keep Him. Be humble and peaceful, and Jesus will be with you. Be devout and calm, and He will remain with you. You may quickly drive Him away and lose His grace, if you turn back to the outside world. And, if you drive Him away and lose Him, to whom will you go and whom will you then seek as a friend? You cannot live well without a friend, and if Jesus be not your friend above all else, you will be very sad and desolate. Thus, you are acting foolishly if you trust or rejoice in any other. Choose the opposition of the whole world rather than offend Jesus.
Of all those who are dear to you, let Him be your special love. Let all things be loved for the sake of Jesus, but Jesus for His own sake. Jesus Christ must be loved alone with a special love for He alone, of all friends, is good and faithful. For Him and in Him you must love friends and foes alike, and pray to Him that all may know and love Him. Never desire special praise or love, for that belongs to God alone Who has no equal. Never wish that anyone's affection be centered in you, nor let yourself be taken up with the love of anyone, but let Jesus be in you and in every good man. Be pure and free within, unentangled with any creature. You must bring to God a clean and open heart if you wish to attend and see how sweet the Lord is.
Truly you will never attain this happiness unless His grace prepares you and draws you on so that you may forsake all things to be united with Him alone. When the grace of God comes to a man he can do all things, but when it leaves him he becomes poor and weak, abandoned, as it were, to affliction. Yet, in this condition he should not become dejected or despair. On the contrary, he should calmly await the will of God and bear whatever befalls him in praise of Jesus Christ, for after winter comes summer, after night, the day, and after the storm, a great calm.
Of course the Catholic "friendship" with Jesus Christ, though truly a communion of love and a friendship in the truest sense, does not become soured by a base familiarity (or at least it should not). Jesus is truly our friend, saviour, intercessor and companion, but He is also Lord, God, King of Kings; He who will break the nations with a rod or iron (Ps. 2). Thus our friendship with Him must never lose sight of our true stature in relation to Him; we draw near to Him, but with awe, and without giving in to the kind of sappy emotionalism which is found in so much modern worship music, where people sing about Jesus as if He is their boyfriend (this, in part, is one of the issues with modern Catholic liturgical translations - an over-familiarity that does not adequately communicate God's majesty).
"Wherefore, my dearly beloved...with fear and trembling work out your salvation" (Php. 2:12).
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