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Monday, 26 June 2017

Did Pope Francis really say that a personal relationship with Jesus Christ is dangerous?

YouTube contains a large quantity of videos purporting to be exposés about the Pope, Vatican or Roman Catholic Church. Often these take the form of clips of the Pope saying something, sometimes combined with commentary on why what he said was so shocking and diabolical.

One such video that, in several different versions, has garnered millions of views, pertains to some remarks Pope Francis made during his General Audience at St. Peter's Square on June 25, 2014. Here are the titles of the five most-viewed videos on this topic:
“POPE says Personal Relationship with Jesus VERY DANGEROUS & HARMFUL – Must Share!!” 
“POPE Francis Warns ANY ‘Personal Relationship w/ Jesus is Dangerous’: (NEWS)”  
“ANTI CHRIST! Pope Francis Says ‘Personal Relationship With Jesus Is Dangerous’” 
“Satanic Pope Francis Says Having a Personal Relationship With Jesus Is Dangerous!!!”
“Personal relationship with Jesus is dangerous outside the RCC says pope.”
Now, perhaps responding to such videos is an exercise in futility. Many of those who share them are only interested in making the Pope look as bad as possible, and not in careful, judicious reflection on the Pope's words. Nevertheless, for the sake of those willing to consider the issue with an open mind, I offer the following comments.

In order to correctly interpret speech or text it is always a good idea to place them in context. Most of the videos above include a roughly two-minute clip of Pope Francis speaking in Italian with English subtitles. This clip is an excerpt from a homily that Pope Francis gave on the topic of "belonging to the Church." The Vatican's official transcript of the homily, translated into English, indicates that the subtitles in the videos do appear to accurately represent the Pope's words.

That said, the first four headlines above show that most of the Pope's YouTube critics have blatantly misrepresented the Pope's point. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, the fifth video has far fewer views than the first three with their more provocative titles and use of all capitals, which has been called the Internet version of shouting.) Two of the headlines place the words "Personal Relationship with Jesus is Dangerous" in quotation marks, implying that Pope Francis said them, which he did not. Two of the headlines gratuitously apply an inflammatory label to Pope Francis ("ANTI CHRIST!"; "Satanic"); the latter also childishly superimposes red "devil horns" onto a picture of Pope Francis. More fundamentally, the titles convey the idea that Pope Francis is against having a personal relationship with Jesus, and this is simply false. Here are the key words that the Pope's critics have latched onto:
There are those who believe they can maintain a personal, direct and immediate relationship with Jesus Christ outside the communion and the mediation of the Church. These are dangerous and harmful temptations. These are, as the great Paul VI said, absurd dichotomies.
Placed in the context of Pope Francis's homily on the topic of "belonging to the Church," it is obvious that his emphasis lies on the words "outside the communion and the mediation of the Church." What is dangerous and harmful is not a personal relationship with Jesus Christ but a personal relationship with Jesus Christ outside the Church. Now, unfortunately, I was unable to track down the source and context of Pope Paul VI's statement about "absurd dichotomies." However, it seems clear that Pope Francis is warning against constructing a false dichotomy whereby one can either have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ or one can have the communion and mediation of the Church but not both. By opposing this false dichotomy, Pope Francis affirms the need for both of these things. On the need for a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, consider the following excerpt from a summary of a morning mediation Pope Francis delivered on January 9, 2017:
In this perspective, the Pope suggested, we should ask a “question: is the centre of my life Jesus Christ? What is my relationship with Jesus Christ?”. Francis pointed out that at the start of the celebration, in the oration of the collect prayer, “we asked for the grace to see, the grace to know what we have to do and the grace to have the strength to do it”. But “the first thing we have to do is look to Jesus Christ”. In doing so, “there are three things, let’s say three tasks, to assure ourselves that Jesus is at the centre of our life”. “First of all”, the Pope explained, “recognize Jesus, know him and recognize him. In his time, the Apostle John, at the beginning of his Gospel, says that many did not recognize him: the doctors of the law, the high priests, the scribes, the Sadducees, some Pharisees”. What’s more, “they persecuted him; they killed him”. Thus, “the first approach is to know and recognize Jesus; to seek how Jesus was: does this interest me”? It is, Francis stated, “a question that all of us must ask ourselves: does it interest me to know Jesus or perhaps am I more interested in soap operas or gossip or ambitions or knowing about other people’s lives”? Indeed, to “know Jesus, one must first “be able to recognize him”. And, the Pope added, “to know Jesus, there is prayer, the Holy Spirit, yes, but it is also good practice to “pick up the Gospel every day”. He then asked the congregation: “How many of you pick up the Gospel each day and read a passage? I would tell you to raise your hands: but I won’t do so”, he added, telling them not to worry. It is important, the Pope said, to always take a copy of the Gospel with you, such as “the pocket version, which is small, in order to be carried in a pocket, purse”, so it is “always with me”. It is said, the Pontiff continued, that “Saint Cecilia had the Gospel close to her heart: close, close!”. And in this way, keeping it always close at hand, we can “read a passage of the Gospel every day: it is the only way to know Jesus”, to know “what he did, what he said”.
So Pope Francis is clearly for a personal relationship with Jesus, not against it. What then was Pope Francis's point in saying that it is "dangerous and harmful" to think one can "maintain a personal, direct and immediate relationship with Jesus Christ outside the communion and the mediation of the Church"? I think the basic point Pope Francis is making has been made and could be made in a sermon at any church. Some other excerpts from the homily will bring out his core message:
We are not isolated and we are not Christians on an individual basis, each one on his or her own, no, our Christian identity is to belong! ... No one becomes Christian on his or her own! Is that clear? No one becomes Christian by him- or herself. Christians are not made in a laboratory. A Christian is part of a people who comes from afar. The Christian belongs to a people called the Church and this Church is what makes him or her Christian, on the day of Baptism, and then in the course of catechesis, and so on. But no one, no one becomes Christian on his or her own. If we believe, if we know how to pray, if we acknowledge the Lord and can listen to his Word, if we feel him close to us and recognize him in our brothers and sisters, it is because others, before us, lived the faith and then transmitted it to us.
The point is that no Christian is an island. One cannot live as a Christian in isolation from other Christians. We are indebted to those Christians who went before us and we are in need of those Christians who journey alongside us and they are in need of us. Hence Pope Francis warns against 
the temptation of thinking we can make it without the others, that we can get along without the Church, that we can save ourselves on our own... we cannot be good Christians if we are not together with those who seek to follow the Lord Jesus, as one single people, one single body, and this is the Church.
In any Protestant church this could form the core message of a sermon directed at those who say things like "I love Jesus but I'm not into church." Thus, I think Pope Francis's basic point is one to which every Christian should be able to say "Amen." Furthermore, in saying, "The Christian belongs to a people called the Church and this Church is what makes him or her Christian, on the day of Baptism," Pope Francis states the Catholic belief that one becomes a Christian - and part of the Church - through baptism (1 Cor. 12:13). The Catholic Church recognizes Protestant baptisms as valid, so this statement pertains to all Christians. Protestants, like Catholics, become Christians and part of the Church on the day of baptism. Without the sacrament of baptism, one is neither a Christian nor part of the Church.

Having said that, not all the aspects of "belonging to the Church" touched on in Pope Francis's homily pertain to Protestants. When Pope Francis speaks of "the Church," he means the Roman Catholic Church, because there is only one body and Catholics believe the Roman Catholic Church is that body. Pope Francis's general audience was addressed to the Catholic faithful, and in stressing the need for "the communion and the mediation of the Church" Pope Francis implicitly reiterates the Roman Catholic Church's claim to be the "one holy, catholic and apostolic" Church founded by Jesus Christ. Protestant Christians do not completely enjoy the communion and mediation of the Church because they do not receive the special gifts that the Lord makes available through the Church - most especially his Body and Blood in the Holy Eucharist. Protestants are, from a Catholic point of view, Christians who are walking with Christ without the fullness of the spiritual gifts that he offers in the Church to enable us to complete that walk successfully. It could be likened (and this is my analogy, not Pope Francis's) to a firefighter entering a burning building without all of his or her equipment. It is indeed dangerous, and this is one reason why we as Catholics are passionate about working toward reconciliation and reunion with Protestants. We want them to enjoy the full benefits of "belonging to the Church."

Since Protestants reject Catholic teaching about the Church and the Eucharist, it makes sense to debate and discuss these issues. In that sense, a legitimate Protestant headline describing Pope Francis's headline might be something like, "Pope Francis says personal relationship with Jesus dangerous outside communion and mediation of Catholic Church." This captures what is controversial about Pope Francis's homily (from a Protestant perspective) without misrepresenting him. The fifth headline quoted above is the only one that does this. The other four headlines are sensationalizing red herrings designed to make Protestants loathe the Pope.

Dialogue is always needed between Catholics and Protestants, but if we are to make progress toward unity in the body of Christ we must eschew the temptation to resort to partisan propaganda - either by creating such propaganda or by sharing it uncritically in our social networks. We must instead discuss the issues that divide us in a fair, honest and loving way. We must also always keep in mind the common ground that we share, and belief in the need for a personal relationship with Jesus Christ is, in fact, part of that common ground.