On September 20, 2000, Pope John Paul II was speaking to 40,000 people gathered for his general audience. He said, "Through the Holy Spirit, Christians are brought into a personal relationship with God." Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, speaking to a group of religion teachers and catechists at the Vatican was more explicit. He said, "Catechesis is not so much a matter of transmitting knowledge as it is a question of leading people to a relationship with Jesus." Later as Pope he said:
We can be witnesses only if we know Christ first hand, and not only through othersófrom our own life, from our personal encounter with Christ. Finding him really in our life of faith, we become witnesses and can contribute to the novelty of the world, to eternal life. óPOPE BENEDICT XVI, Vatican City, January 20th, 2010
Pope Francis has also made statements to this effect he wrotet: "I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them; I ask all of you to do this unfailingly each day" (Evangelii Gaudium 3).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church is just as explicit:
Great is the mystery of the faith!" The Church professes this mystery in the Apostlesí Creed and celebrates it in the sacramental liturgy, so that the life of the faithful may be conformed to Christ in the Holy Spirit to the glory of God the Father. This mystery, then, requires that the faithful believe in it, that they celebrate it, and that they live from it in a vital and personal relationship with the living and true God (CCC 2558).
Knowledge, as valuable as it is, is not enough. Christianity is much more than a collection of facts. The loving God who created us desires to be in a relationship with us. When asked which commandment was the greatest, Jesus replied: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind" (Matthew 22:37). Think about it! Do you really believe that you can love anybody that much without knowing them, without having a relationship with them?
In 2 Corinthians 11:2, Paul refers to the Church as "the Bride of Christ." Paul's marriage analogy is a good one, as it illustrates the type of relationship that should exist between God and man. You can read a biography and learn everything that there is to know about a person, and yet still not have a relationship with them. Likewise you can read and understand Scripture and still not have a relationship with God. A true marriage is a covenant. A covenant involves a giving of oneself to the other. Jesus gave Himself totally for us on the cross. We return that love by humbly submitting our lives to Him.
Some who recognize the need for a relationship with God feel that doctrine is a hindrance. They relegate the intellect to a position of insignificance. Ultimately they are guided by their feelings. If they feel strongly about something they attribute it to a prompting of the Holy Spirit. While the Holy Spirit certainly does guide us in a personal way, it is sound doctrine that confirms that the guidance is from the Holy Spirit and not from those who would deceive and manipulate us. Paul rightly warns Titus to "teach what befits sound doctrine" (Titus 2:1). When we attach more importance to our feelings than we do to sound doctrine we can end up with a god of our own making, a god who is subject to our beliefs rather than a God who tells us what we are to believe. In reality we have only two choices: we can say yes to God or we can say no to God. Under no circumstances can we ever tell Him how to be God.
In Psalm 42:1, David expresses his need for God: "As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God." It is perfectly natural for those who have a relationship with God to long for Him. But where does such longing come from? Paul gives us the answer in Philippians 4:13, where he says, "I can do all things in Him [Christ] who strengthens me."That would include everything that is expected of the believer. Not only avoiding sin and being charitable but even the simple act of recognizing and desiring God. All that we do that is right is accomplished by the grace of God working in us. We do nothing good on our own. Indeed Jesus tells us as much in John 15:5: "I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing."
The grace of God is administered by the Holy Spirit and is available to all that ask. Jesus taught us this when He declared:
And I tell you, ask, and it will be given you, seek, and you will find, knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent, or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him! (Luke 11:9-13).
Now it is true that we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit at Baptism. However, like any gift, it is useless if it remains unused. Many claim to embrace the Faith, but it seems to have little or no impact on their lives. Faith demands a response. We must consciously cooperate with the grace received at Baptism for it to be of any value. The more open we are to Godís grace the more He manifests His power in our lives. We hear stories of the great saints and we think that God chose them for a great work. And that is true. But it is also true that He chose us for a great work. Blessed John Henry Newman wrote:
Realize it, my brethren; - everyone who breathes, high and low, educated and ignorant, young and old, man and woman, has a mission, has a work. We are not sent into this world for nothing; we are not born at random; . . . God sees every one of us; He creates every soul, He lodges it in the body, one by one, for a purpose. He needs, He deigns to need, every one of us. He has an end for each of us; we are all equal in His sight, and we are placed in our different ranks and stations, not to get what we can out of them for ourselves, but to labor in them for Him. As Christ has His work, we too have ours; as He rejoiced to do His work, we must rejoice in ours also (Discourses to Mixed Congregations 6:111).
Godís grace not only enables us to answer Godís call in our lives, it strengthens us to overcome whatever trials come our way. We see this in the extreme when we recall the great heroism of the martyrs. Who could face torture and persecution on their own strength?
Knowledge apart from grace can be a dangerous thing. It doesnít have to be but it can be. Particularly when sharing the faith. Knowing the Gospel is one thing. Knowing how to present it is another. It is the Holy Spirit that converts hearts. And thus it should be the Holy Spirit guiding us as we present the Gospel. What is effective with one person may not be with another. Without the aid of the Holy Spirit we can sometimes project an elitist attitude. This can cause people to reject the Gospel.
The Holy Spirit enables us to see things as God sees them. He causes us to feel compassion for those who are in need. Godís grace gives us a thirst for souls, and with that a willingness to work for the salvation of others. In short the Holy Spirit enables us to be everything that God wants us to be.
So whatís the secret? How does one go about establishing a dynamic, personal relationship with God? You can simply pray for it. But the sentiments expressed in your prayer must truly exist in your heart. Some use a short "sinnerís prayer" or a "prayer of commitment." There are a number of versions but they all have some things in common. You should start by admitting that you are a sinner and that you need Godís help. Ask Him to forgive you. Finally you should dedicate your life to Him. If you really mean what you say your life will begin to change. I certainly canít tell you how God will work in your life as He works differently with each person. But if you truly desire Him you will find Him. And when you do you will know "the peace of God that surpasses all understanding" (Philippians 4:7).
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For Further Study
Books - Transformation in Christ by Dietrich von Hildebrand and The Transforming Power of Faith by Pope Benedict XVI and Abandonment to Divine Providence - New Edition by Jean-Pierre de Caussade