The headline was eye-grabbing. The Pope said a personal relationship with Jesus was dangerous. Certainly this is the sign we need to show us he is the anti-Christ…or at least the false prophet.
It is sad, really. This gossip and bilge offered as journalism. The so-called Christian media is as guilty of slander and gossip as the liberal media these days. It’s like they listen long enough to get the half sentence they need to destroy their political enemy and run it as an inflammatory headline. Never-mind the context. And certainly never give the benefit of the doubt or bother to look deeper or try harder to understand what the person actually said or meant. One sentence is damning…so it is all we need. We’ll put what little context we offer way at the bottom of the article.
And so a charismatic political Facebook page is in an uproar and getting shares over this statement Pope Francis made two years ago:
“There is no “do-it-yourself” in the church, no “freelancers.” How many times did we hear Pope Benedict Describe the church as a “we” church? Sometime you may hear someone say, “I believe in God, In Jesus, but the church… I don’t care.” How many times have we heard this? This is wrong. There are those who believe you can have a personal, direct and immediate relationship with Jesus Christ outside the communion and mediation of the church. These temptations are dangerous and harmful. They are, in the words of the great Pope Paul VI, “absurd dichotomies.” It’s true that journeying together is challenging, and sometimes it can be tiring: it may be that some brother or sister (in the church) makes us face a problem, or scandalizes us. But the Lord entrusted his message of salvation to humans, all of us, as witnesses; and in our brothers and sisters, with their gifts and limits, who come to us and make themselves known. This means belonging to the church…”
That is really a rich statement that could open doors for a lot of healthy discussion on much needed ecclesiology in the Evangelical church. But no, we simply run the out-take, “Pope says personal relationship with Jesus is dangerous and harmful.” Our political discomfort with the pope leads us into the least generous and most disingenuous treatment of his statement. (Which is sadly par for the course.)
I wish I could delve fully into the eccesiological discussion here, but for the present I think putting the pope’s comments in context and letting those efforts open a discussion on discernment is more important.
So, what of context:
First, in the fuller statement above it is clear that he is discussing the importance of being part of the body of Christ. He is stating succinctly a truth. You, individual Christian, are not the body or bride of Christ. You are a part of a larger body…a body that is sometimes difficult to live in fellowship and union with…but a body from which separation is almost assuredly spiritual death. John said rather plainly that we cannot say we love God if we do not love our brother. This life is Christ is not about simply “me and Jesus.” That radically individualized view of the Christian walk is “absurd.”
As for the personal relationship part, Pope Francis, for however it got translated or interpreted in the above statement, is not against the concept of a personal relationship with Jesus. One of his major documents published since he became Pope, Evangelii Gaudium, he states:
The primary reason for evangelizing is the love of Jesus, which we have received, the experience of salvation which urges us to ever greater love of him. What kind of love would not feel the need to speak of the beloved, to point him out, to make him known? If we do not feel an intense desire to share this love, we need to pray insistently that he will once more touch our hearts. We need to implore his grace daily, asking him to open our cold hearts and shake up our lukewarm and superficial existence. 
Elsewhere in that document to say:
“The joy of the Gospel is only experienced by establishing an intimate relationship, from person to person, with Jesus of Nazareth.”
“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. No one should think that this invitation is not for him or her.”
Evangelii Gaudium was released in 2013 (prior to the 2014 statement creating the buzz above) and it isn’t as if his views have changed.
Consider the sermon from May 2015 when he said:
“He always looks at us with love. He asks us something, he forgives us and he gives us a mission,” and instructs people to pray, “Lord, you are here among us. Fix your gaze on me.”
These are profoundly intimate approaches to the Lord.
Or take this sermon from March of this year on Joy:
“Joy and amazement:” that’s what the Christian feels when faced with God’s revelation and love, and “the emotions stirred by the Holy Spirit,”
He spoke of being regenerated by Christ in such a way that Christ, “graces us with amazement in his presence, in the presence of the many spiritual treasures he has given us;”
The core idea of the sermon…and another central message for Francis…is summarized nicely here:
“The Christian identity card is joy, the Gospel’s joy, the joy of having been chosen by Jesus, saved by Jesus, regenerated by Jesus; the joy of that hope that Jesus is waiting for us, the joy that – even with the crosses and sufferings we bear in this life – is expressed in another way, which is peace in the certainty that Jesus accompanies us, is with us.”
“the Christian knows that God remembers him, that God loves him, that God accompanies him, that God is waiting for him. And this is joy.”
These words reveal deeply personal and relational understanding that is central to everything Francis says.
But we are too busy trying to destroy a perceived enemy to bother to listen and discern…or even read past the headline. (It is perhaps a case of the all too frequent Evangelical and Charismatic tendency of having our politics interpret our faith instead of the other way around…but that is for another entry.)
Discernment, it seems, is not a spiritual gift that the charismatic community promotes much. Indeed, it is neglected, quite probably to our own demise. So, I offer the above exercise in trying to practice discernment as an introduction to just what that gift might entail. It starts with a healthy consideration for the words of James:
“Be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry.” (1:19)
“But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.” (3:17-18)
If we start there, we are on the road to learning and growing in the gift of discernment.