Is it OK to call Jesus “My Personal Lord and Savior?”

Evangelization sends all of us out into the world to meet, engage, care for, and share our faith in Jesus Christ with all. And that can mean questions. Some that come with a lot of baggage and background.

On a few occasions people have asked me if Catholics believe that Jesus is their personal Lord and Savior. Other times faithful Catholics have expressed discomfort or surprise at hearing this phrase used in a Catholic setting.

What then do we make of the phrase, “my personal Lord and savior?” Is it okay to say, “Jesus is my personal Lord and Savior?”

The Thomas Take on “My”

Every year on the Sunday after Easter, we hear the glorious account of the disciple Thomas declaring his faith in Jesus Christ with the acclamation, “My Lord and My God” (John 20:28). So it seems that speaking any of the many titles of Jesus with the descriptor (possessive pronoun, if you want to go all grammar-fan on this) my is appropriate and in continuity with Christian spirituality going back to the first century.

Church Teaching on the “Personal”

“My” and “personal” aren’t the exact same thing. And, Thomas says “my Lord and my God”–he doesn’t mention this whole “personal Lord” business. So, we turn to the passing on of the faith in the Church — Church teaching — as a source for better understanding of when “personal” is used to describe the divine.

The term “personal God” appears in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (i.e. § 35-37). “Personal” is also used to describe true relationship with God. The CCC explains that we are to live from the mystery of faith in a “vital and personal relationship with the living and true God” and speaks of “personal salvation” (§ 2558, 1534).

In 2008, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI preached, “only in this personal relationship with Christ, only in this encounter with the Risen One do we truly become Christians.” Again in 2010, he explained, “Christian faith is not only a matter of believing that certain things are true, but above all a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.”

The Verdict?

Using the words “my” and “personal” to describe God (or other names — Lord, Savior, etc.) is part of Catholic tradition. But, to do full justice to the question, I still need to ask, is it okay to combine them into “my personal Lord” or “my personal Savior”?

I suppose there’s the grammatical angle. And from that perspective, combining my and personal seems a bit redundant (I admit, a totally a non-theological issue). But testing out an internet search engine’s predictive autocomplete suggestions revealed just how common using “my personal…” is in our language! After typing in “my personal,” the search engine gave me the autocomplete suggestions of:

  • My Personal Credit Union
  • My Personal Testimony
  • My Personal Friend
  • My Personal Hero
  • My Personal Experience
  • My Personal Opinion, and
  • My Personal Favorite.

Whoa. “My personal…” was more common that I’d thought. I suppose there’s no reason to toss the phrase out for purely grammatical reasons.

But more importantly, in the end “my personal God/Lord/Savior” does not communicate any beliefs that are outside of orthodox Catholic faith. My personal Lord and Savior affirms what we believe–that “faith is first of all a personal adherence of man [and woman] to God”–it’s a “personal act” (CCC, §150, 166). And affirming this in no way negates the complementary truth that, at the same time:

Faith is not an isolated act. No one can believe alone, just as no one can live alone. You have not given yourself faith as you have not given yourself life. The believer has received faith from others and should hand it on to others. Our love for Jesus and for our neighbor impels us to speak to others about our faith. Each believer is thus a link in the great chain of believers. I cannot believe without being carried by the faith of others, and by my faith I help support others in the faith. (CCC, §166).

So go ahead, name and claim Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior. Make it a “Catholic” thing to do. And if it invites questions — great! Use this as an opportunity to share the depth of what these titles mean to you. Demonstrate that it’s not just a cultural catchphrase or bumper sticker line, but a real experience that guides your life and fundamentally changes how you act and view the world. And share how God graciously extends an invitation to personal relationship with Him to all. You never know how the Holy Spirit might work through an inquisitive (or even slightly awkward) question.\

This post also appeared at NewEvangelizers.Com.

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Apologetics? Evangelization? What if I forget what to say…

Over at NewEvangelizers.com, I write about how creeds, familiar prayers, and even hymns are great memory aids for when we find ourselves in an apologetic or evangelistic settings, and are looking for a way to guide and structure a conversation.

This probably points to the potential value and fruits that come forth from liturgical catechesis and preaching from liturgical texts…I wonder, how often those in the pews say or pray things without really grasping the wondrous truths we are proclaiming? I know I did as a kid. I probably prayed the Nicene Creed thousands of times, without even stopping to consider if I believed it…you know, in my heart, mind, and soul…not just in the sense of declaring aloud “I believe” (or at the time, “We believe”).

Your thoughts? What prayers, hymns, or creedal lines have you ever found especially helpful in those moments when you don’t have access to books or online resources?

Recovering a Positive Sense of Apologetics

Apologetics was a word I heard a lot as a college student in evangelical Christian circles. Books by authors such as Lee Strobel and Josh McDowell were essential tools for helping to nurture my faith while attending an overwhelmingly secular college. I’m not exaggerating to say that I turned to them at least monthly to find an answer to some new challenge to Christian faith.

Fast forward ten years to studying in a graduate theology program… Apologetics never really came up in three years of courses. My classmates and I talked about it–about how we wish we were more familiar with how to articulate arguments for the faith in a concise, compelling way–but while our courses prepared us to answer deep theological questions from professors, our advanced studies didn’t necessarily make answering the blunt questions from friends and family any easier.

Over at the Homiletic and Pastoral Review, Glenn B. Siniscalchi shines some much needed (redeeming) light on the topic of apologetics. Quoting Paul Griffiths, he notes: “the term [apologetics] has passed into popular currency, to the extent that it has, as a simple label for argument in the service of a predetermined orthodoxy, arguments concerned not to demonstrate but to convince, and, if conviction should fail, to browbeat into submission.” I think this is precisely why it’s a challenge for institutions of higher education to incorporate apologetics into theological education.

But, Siniscalchi rightly argues that regardless of the connotation of apologetics today, apologetics as a spiritual discipline, as an aspect of faith formation at all levels–from the pew to academia, is worth redeeming.

He writes:

It is strange that apologetics would be so lowly esteemed in so many Christian circles. Apologetics is needed now more than ever. The New Testament writers and early Church Fathers had to be heavily apologetical, for there was no Christian influence in culture yet. In a post-Christian context, it seems reasonable that we should have the same approach.

In Siniscalchi’s words, apologetics and ministry are two different sides of the same evangelical coin. It’s worth the read, check out the whole essay.  

Learning From Deacon Harold Burke-Sivers’ “Why Be Catholic?” — Part 2

A few weeks ago I offered notes from Deacon Harold’s presentation at St. Augustine Parish in South Bend. This is Part 2 of stepping back and thinking about (and hopefully learning!) from his  style and content. (Here’s Part 1).

Thinking About Deacon Burke-Sivers’ Talk/Sermon

Great recognition and application of the stages of evangelization. Deacon Harold made it very clear that it’s important to really engage with where people are at, i.e. while St. Thomas Aquinas might offer a moving (and certainly valuable) justification for the existence of God, St. Thomas Aquinas is not likely to have the same weight or pull on an unbeliever as he might on us. So, we need to start with real basics, without immediately jumping to quotations from our tradition (even if they are from some of the greatest Christian thinkers in history!). In this example, he demonstrated some of the unique considerations of pre-evangelistic and evangelistic preaching. 

Importance of pre-evangelistic and evangelistic preaching. Pre-evangelistic and evangelistic preaching are mentioned in Fulfilled in Your Hearing (1982, USCCB), but don’t receive a full explanation or description. I think Deacon Harold provided a great example of what this might look like in a Catholic context. In Show Me How to Preach Evangelistic Sermons, R. Larry Moyer notes that many “Church leaders who rarely speak to an audience of non-Christians feel very comfortable before their own people but may lack confidence before an audience of unbelievers” (p. 17). This is probably true for us as Catholics as well. Ask many priests, ministers, and catechists if they’d rather prepare a talk on the existence of God to be presented to “seekers” or indifferent agnostics, or a talk on the spirituality of Catholic marriage to be given at a diocesean family life conference –and most would probably choose the later.

By preaching evangelically and apologetically, Deacon Harold was modeling for us how we can start these same conversations (confidently!) with those we may interact with. This reveals the reality that while pre-evangelistic and evangelistic messages are directed at non-believers (by definition), hearing these messages greatly edifies and helps believers as well because we learn through example how to articulate our faith. Deacon Harold’s message was such that an unbeliever could connect to it and engage with his points without being distracted by too much “church” language or terminology–at the same time the predominately Catholic audience could learn apologetics by example. 

Was Deacon Harold preaching or speaking? Does it matter? I asked this question (in a general sense) to a group of about 2o Divinity students, seminarians, ministers, and professors a few weeks ago in a discussion seminar following my talk on Evangelistic Preaching. I think this is an open question for reflection, and received some valuable comments from the group. One seminarian pointed out that using the word preaching is important, because it implies a specific relationship with the Word of God. It signals that the person speaking has allowed the Word to place a claim on them. It signals to the hearers that this is not just information being presented, but a privileged encounter with the Word of God in faith. Sr. Jamie Phelps, O.P., added that sometimes, however, the word preaching is confusing for hearers since it is often not through of in the broad sense that would include non-liturgical preaching or preaching by any baptized believer (in contrast with the uniquely clerical preaching of Eucharistic homilies).  

In principle, I agree with the seminarian, that preaching is a powerful term. We shouldn’t toss it around flippantly, but by recognizing and claiming the power of preaching the Word of God, we are making a statement of faith. We shouldn’t shy away from making that claim when done in proper humility, preparation, and communion with the local church (diocesean bishop).  Yet, it is true that while this is theologically correct–some people might be confused (and possibly put off) by a non-liturgical evangelistic sermon given by a baptized (non-cleric) male in a Catholic parish being called preaching.

Deacon Harold is (obviously 🙂 ) an ordained deacon, but the question of preaching outside of liturgy still exists. As a member of the audience for his talk, it truly felt like I was listening to preaching (great preaching at that!). His talk was rooted in the Word and deeply grounded in prayer. I would be comfortable defending the claim that he did more than just give a talk, he preached (to use the terms of Stephen Wright) a teaching/evangelistic sermon.

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Learning From Deacon Harold Burke-Sivers’ “Why Be Catholic?” — Part 1

Earlier this week I offered notes from Deacon Harold’s presentation at St. Augustine Parish in South Bend. Now we’ll step back and think about (and hopefully learn!) from his  style and content through a few posts.

Thinking About Deacon Burke-Sivers’ Talk/Sermon

Fresh and new — for a Catholic context. This is the first time I’ve heard a talk like this that shows a pathway for apologetics in an unbelieving and relativistic world given in a Catholic parish. That being said, this sort of apologetics talk (up to the point where he specifically made the move to “Why Be Catholic?”) was a routine offering on my secular college campus from Campus Crusade for Christ (now called “cru”) and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. As a college student, I was greatly enriched by exposure to apologetics, as it helped me keep the faith amidst a relativistic, secular culture. Campus Crusade for Christ and InterVarsity made books like Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ readily available after these talks to help us along the way. I think as Catholics in parishes we should be asking if we (and the people around us in the pews) can make the basic (or any) pitch for the existence of God, the reliability of the New Testament, etc. Deacon Burke-Sivers’ content met this basic need, for certain!

Knowing the New Testament, and how we read it. Deacon Burke-Sivers rightly emphasized the historicity, reliability, archaeological case, canon formation, and more as reasons why we can believe New Testament claims. I think the point on knowing the New Testament would have benefitted from the addition of the great teachings of Dei Verbum [Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (1965)] explaining, how we as Catholics read the Scriptures. I’m thinking especially of Article 11’s useful statement, on inerrancy:

“the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation.”

This helps explain why, while we can rightly tout historical aspects of the New Testament, not everything is written from a modern historical-critical perspective, and thus any understanding of inerrancy is in the context of “for the sake of salvation.” As Catholics, we’re not fundamentalists and articulating this is important for our witness and apologetics in a culture where faithful Christians can be negatively stereotyped in such a way. It also helps us maintain our faith without ignoring modern historical-criticism of New Testament texts. In Jesus of Nazareth (2007), Pope Benedict XVI calls the historical-critical method an “indispensable tool,” yet one that must be used properly (pg. xvi). At some points, Deacon Burke-Sivers used a Biblical proof-texting style that, while convincing to fundamentalist readers of Scripture, may not give Catholics the full force to defend the faith in the context of those who adopt a more skeptical or historical-critical view towards Scripture. Dei Verbum‘s teaching provides an essential (and fuller) articulation of how to use Scripture.

Part 2 — Stages of Evangelization & Was it Preaching or Speaking?

Deacon Harold Burke-Sivers, Catholic Evangelist and Speaker, on “Why Be Catholic?”

deacon

On February 10th, Deacon Harold Burke-Sivers, Catholic evangelist and speaker, shared a message entitled “Why Be Catholic?” at St. Augstine’s Parish in South Bend, Indiana. With a title like that it sounded like this might be “evangelistic preaching” in a Catholic context! Here’s a summary of his talk… 

Notes:

Starting Premise: If we want to talk about “why be Catholic?” we can’t actually start out with that question–we have to go back to why believe in God at all?

How to approach this? Not by jumping right to a great answer from St. Thomas Aquinas (remember, we’re talking about people who aren’t sure why to believe that God even exists or is possible!). We must address two concerns: a) Is it reasonable to believe in God? and b) Is it even possible that “God” exists?

What comes next after these concerns? In today’s culture it’s the question, ok…if God does exist and it’s not unreasonable to believe in God, how can there be any one particular way to God?  We’re almost all culturally conditioned to assume that truth is relative. But, most people don’t actually believe that all truth is relative. The statement itself (“all truth is relative”) is attempting to make a non-relative truth claim. So, it is okay to wonder if there is a “right” way to God.

So, how to investigate or find this way? It’s logical to start with Christianity because Jesus, unlike other spiritual figures (i.e. Buddha, etc.), claimed to be God. Christianity should be the easiest to disprove, since it sets the loftiest starting point. Christianity absolutely rests on the claim that Jesus Christ is risen and living. This is what must be investigated. How can we as Catholics proclaim this? We need to know why the New Testament is reliable (i.e. history, archaeology, formation of canon, etc.).

At this point, now we’re ready to give witness in answering the question, “Why be Catholic?” We can: 

  • Speak to the logic of Jesus coming to found a unified Church (this isn’t arrogance on our part as Catholics, we see in the New Testament that God desires unity, not division)
  • Emphasize that personal sin and human weakness is not greater than the truth of the Catholic faith
  • Know the New Testament. It doesn’t claim to contain everything necessary for the faith. Jesus and the Apostles left exactly zero books, our written documents came from oral traditions. This is why Sacred Tradition is so important.

In conclusion, it’s not arrogant to say that the Catholic Church has the fullness of truth. But, like the Apostle Paul, we should never boast in this. The Cross of Christ is our only glory. But, none of this matters–not the fullness of truth, not our knowledge, etc.–unless we do what we assent to at the end of Mass, “Go and announce the Gospel of the Lord” (Mark 16:15). 

Following up: Thoughts on what this type of talk might point towards for Catholic evangelization, faith formation, parish life, and preaching… 

2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time @ St. Fabian Parish (Farmington Hills, MI)

Last week I visited St. Fabian Parish in Farmington Hills, MI (part of the Archdiocese of Detroit) for 9:15 am Sunday Mass, coincidentally, on the optional memorial of St. Fabian, Pope and Martyr.

First Impressions
With over 2000 families, St. Fabian is a big parish (average parish size in the U.S. is 1100-1200 families)–and the facilities certainly speak to this. School recreation fields, a large parking lot, and school/parish building attached to the sanctuary make the parish easy to find. With the much needed large parking area, it would be nice to have at least some designated visitor parking spots with a sign pointing towards the entry to the sanctuary. Reserving just a few visitor spots sends the clear message, yes–you are welcome here and we’re ready to receive you!

Entering the narthex was a very positive experience. The ushers were professional, easily identified with crisp looking name tags, and hospitable–making immediate eye-contact and offering a smile and “hello.” Positive energy before a morning service at any church is a great thing! If the ushers are happy to be present and serving the community, shouldn’t I be pleased to be here as well?

Preparing for Mass in the Pews
The sanctuary at St. Fabian is designed in a slightly circular fashion, resulting in generally good visibility. My husband commented on how the natural lighting made what could have been a darker/dim space (due to low ceilings) feel open and comfortable for prayer and worship.

St. Fabian’s made excellent use of a pre-Mass commentator. Before the start of Mass, a commentator rose to greet the congregation, announce the names of the presiding priest, lector, and possibly (I can’t quite remember) extraordinary ministers of holy communion (EMHC).  I rarely experience this before Mass, and to be honest, it felt warm. I didn’t know the lector, but I knew her name–instantly the parish seemed just a little bit smaller  to me as a visitor. The commentator reminded us that given the flu season, it’s okay to not shake hands during the Kiss of Peace or drink from the cup. She concluded by encouraging us to turn and welcome each other before Mass began.

St. Fabian’s used the commentator well, however this could have been even more visitor-friendly by adding information of specific relevance to those who might not be regular Mass-attenders. For example, since there were no cards or guides to the Order of Mass in the pews, it would have been nice to be informed that one could pray along with the printed words by “turning to pg. x in the hymnal” (this parish had newer hardcover hymnals with the Roman Missal, Third Edition updates). This way the prayers of the Mass would not seem like an awkward blur to me, if I’d never experienced liturgical worship before, or was returning to Mass after a long-period of absence. We need to do all we can to help those who are unfamiliar participate as fully and reverently as possible in Mass. 

Mass
Two points of this celebration of Mass gave me pause to consider potential impacts for evangelization. First, the homily. The priest’s homily focused on the day’s Gospel reading featuring the first sign at the wedding of Cana. The preacher wove apologetics into his homily, stating to the congregation (and demonstrating through his interpretation of the Scripture) that our Catholic faith does not include worshipping Mary, but instead turning to her as model of one who points to Jesus, and encourages others to “do whatever he tells you.” Although a Eucharistic homily is not primarily apologetic in nature, given the call to re-evangelize those who may have been baptized but not formed into mature believers, the priest’s preaching was appropriate and easy to comprehend–I could envision parishioners being able to use this teaching to share their Catholic faith with others who might skeptically question, “but don’t you worship Mary?!?”

A second moment that stood out was the dismissal of candidates and catechumen participating in the RCIA (unfortunately the distinction between candidates and catechumen was blurred–not helpful for a visitor who may already be baptized and ready to be received into full communion sooner). This seemed like a missed opportunity to be visitor-friendly and extend an offering to any seekers/inquirers present in the pews. The priest led the congregation in offering a blessing, then dismissed the small group. While he did mention that this dismissal was in preparation for the day they “join us at the table,” this would have been a ready-made moment to invite anyone present to join the group and inquire further, or at least ask the question, “might God be calling you to baptism? or to join in full communion in sharing His Body and Blood?”.

What’s Next?
St. Fabian’s used the commentator again to give the announcements at the end of Mass. Having one person designated in this role created a nicely planned feel. As visitor I knew that when this woman spoke, I was going to receive information (rather than prayer, Scripture, song, etc. during Mass). One of her announcements involved promoting the parish’s upcoming 3-4 day mission with faith formation for all ages and encouraging people to invite friends/family. Always good to see a parish reminding its people to go out and be evangelizers! However, still no clues for me as a visitor. If I’d experienced an encounter with Christ anew in this celebration–what was I to do? Where could I find more information about other events? Did anyone want to talk to me? The fact that St. Fabian’s uses a commentator creates an appropriate space for a simple gesture of outreach, for example, “We would like to thank any visitors in attendance this morning. Please feel free to stop by our information booth in the narthex to pick up a visitor packet and meet some members of our parish” (or something similar).

Find out more about this parish: http://www.stfabian.org/

Background on the “Mystery Visitor” Series —  As a Catholic who has moved around quite a bit in the U.S. and travelled often in the past for business, I’ve seen the incredible amount of variety present in churches throughout this country. Although I don’t travel as much anymore, when I do visit churches I try to place myself (as best as able) in the role of a true visitor–a seeker, maybe someone returning to the Catholic Church, or someone looking for a congregation for the first time. I focus mostly on Catholic parishes, but will also include other Christian churches I happen to visit through travels, family, and friends in this series. The purpose of “Mystery Visitor” write-ups is intended to be entirely constructive–trying to see what our “ordinary” routines might look like to an outsider and pondering how first impressions of a parish can be more “evangelization-friendly.” Although Mass is not primarily intended to be a specific event of the initial proclamation of “evangelization,” it is a cultural reality that many visitors and seekers will first come to a worship service to “feel out” a new community. Because of this practical reality, I consider evangelization within the context of worship to be a necessary area of reflection.