What Can Catholics Learn From Evangelicals?
Part Three: More on Recovering From Ecclesiastical Amnesia
Last time we looked at two principals that Evangelicals often believe and practice: the primacy of grace in the process of salvation, and the privileged expression of divine revelation in Holy Scripture. I noted that these are things that are actually part of our Catholic heritage as well, and that we Catholics would do well to recover them. This time we look at two more Evangelical principles that Catholics need to rediscover.
3) The Fullness of a “Personal” Relationship with Jesus Christ. It all depends, of course, on what that phrase, “a personal relationship with Jesus Christ,” really means. Catholic Tradition certainly does not endorse the common Evangelical desire for a “personal” relationship with Jesus Christ, if that is meant to exclude the need to listen to our Lord’s teaching voice, speaking to us through His Vicar on earth in the See of St. Peter, and the authentic magisterium. Nor does our Tradition see any contradiction between a “personal” relationship with Jesus Christ, and a “sacramental” relationship with Him; indeed, we would find, precisely in the Blessed Sacrament, a unique and supremely intimate manner of loving union with Jesus our Saviour. In short, for our Tradition, to know Jesus “personally” includes knowing Him through the magisterial and sacramental aspects of the Church, the Body of Christ.
Nevertheless, the fullness of a personal, loving union with Jesus Christ also cannot be reduced just to the acceptance by the intellect of Church teachings, coupled with frequent reception of the sacraments. Believing the “right” doctrines, and obeying the commandments of God and the precepts of the Church — excellent as all these acts of the intellect and will may be -- are simply not enough. The full range of our new life in Christ must go right to the well-springs of the heart; it must include personal, spontaneous prayer as a daily means of grace, as well as an expectant willingness to be led by our Saviour into a fervent, affective relationship with Himself: in other words, a “heart-to-heart” relationship. In the Catholic Tradition, all this can be found summed up and expressed in a variety of ways, for example, in devotion to the “Heart” of Jesus. And no one can read the life of St. Francis of Assisi, or St. Therese of Lisieux, the Little Flower (perhaps the two most popular saints in the whole Catholic world), without seeing these dimensions of the spiritual life on full display.
Nevertheless, it is often the case that our Evangelical brothers and sisters today are more open to these “dynamic,” informal, and affective dimensions of our relationship with Christ than we Catholics generally are. Just worship in a Baptist Church on Sunday and compare how they sing the same popular hymns at worship that we Catholics do — from the heart! — then you will hear an example of what I mean! We can learn from Evangelicals in this respect. Thanks for keeping these vital aspects of the spiritual life “front and center” so that we Catholics can, with humility and gratitude, continue to recover them.
4) A Passion for Evangelism. For the Catholic Tradition true evangelization — the spreading of the Gospel, the “good news” of God’s love for us through Jesus Christ — includes more than just trying to bring sinners (via evangelistic preaching) to repentance and personal faith. It must also include an invitation to receive the sacramental means of His grace and spiritual healing (for example, through Baptism, Reconciliation, and Holy Eucharist), as well as the manifestation of the love of Jesus Christ through deeds of love (feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, etc.), and not just evangelizing through words. However, if the Catholic Tradition historically tends to have a “well-rounded” approach to evangelism, all too often it has been confined in practice to the work of the missionary orders of priests and brothers (the Jesuits, Franciscans, and Dominicans, for example). Our Protestant Evangelical brothers and sisters long ago rediscovered the New Testament and early Church principle that every member of the Christian community is called to be an evangelist, in ways great or small. All of us are called to follow Christ’s Great Commission: “Go and make disciples of all nations” (Mt. 28:19), under the leadership of the apostles.
Surely, part of being a true disciple of Jesus Christ is having this sincere, burning desire to bring the joy of the knowledge and love of Jesus Christ to others; indeed, how could our Lord’s disciples NOT want to share this most precious gift with everyone in need ? It would be like discovering the best possible cure for a deadly disease, and then being too shy or embarrassed to tell anyone about it! And yet, all too often Catholicism has neglected to nurture and promote this aspect of lay discipleship, seeing evangelism instead as a task largely reserved for the clergy, and those in religious orders.
Without denying the vital role that clergy and religious need to play in this regard, Pope John Paul II taught in the papal documents “Redemptoris Missio” and “Christifideles Laici” that the empowering and sending forth of the laity into the world to sanctify it by word and deed is an integral part of the “New Evangelization.” I believe Catholics can learn more effective means of witnessing to Christ in the world, and gain a more heartfelt zeal for bringing lost souls to the love of Jesus Christ, through frequent contact with Evangelicals — and by sharing with them (to some extent, as conscience permits) in missionary endeavors, as our brothers and sisters in Christ. Working together on such evangelistic projects as the Alpha Program, I think, are a great place to start. The Fellowship of Catholics and Evangelical is eagerly exploring just what can be done to unite Catholics and Evangelicals in a common mission.
Now at this point in this series of articles, Catholic readers may be getting a bit nervous, and the Evangelicals a bit incredulous. After all, how can Catholics really have anything substantial to learn from their Evangelical brothers and sisters? I mean, it’s all very well to say “thank you” to the Evangelicals for reminding us to “keep the main thing the main thing,” lest we get too distracted from that by secondary aspects of our faith. And it’s all fine to say thank you for helping us overcome our “amnesia” by highlighting for us, and by living out before our eyes, aspects of our own heritage that we may have forgotten or simply failed to live. But let’s face it: the Catholic Church claims to be the ONE TRUE CHURCH, the Body of Christ founded by Jesus Himself, containing (in various forms of expression) the FULLNESS of revealed truth and ALL of the covenanted means of grace, and guided by an INFALLIBLE teaching authority. How can a Church body which claims such fullness, and such infallible teaching, have anything substantial to learn from any other community of faith?
Hold that question. I will do my best to answer it next time.
Robert Stackpole, STD
© The Fellowship of Catholics and Evangelicals, 2016