In homilies I frequently preach the need for people to form an intimate and personal relationship with Christ. The reason this theme runs through so many of my homilies is because forming a personal relationship with Christ is the very basis for a healthy spiritual life.
All too frequently Catholics speak of their faith in terms of obligations. Catholics, after all, do have many obligations. They have an obligation to attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation; failure to do so is considered grave matter by the Church and could even constitute mortal sin. They have an obligation to refrain from eating meat on Fridays during Lent as well as to offer some form of sacrifice every Friday. They have an obligation to refrain from immoral behaviors, even ones society embraces, and an obligation to engage in good behaviors, even when society rejects these behaviors.
These obligations are certainly required and not optional for any Catholic. However, there is a spiritual danger that arises when Catholics focus on the obligation and ignore the underlying relationship. After all, the Catholic faith is not about “dos and don’ts,” rather it is about a relationship with Christ. When this relationship is lost or all together absent, the Catholic faith can be reduced to a series of rules and regulations that seem disconnected from the essence of the faith.
However, if a Catholic understands that the Catholic faith is about forming a personal and intimate relationship with Christ, and then sharing that relationship with others, suddenly the rules and obligations of the faith come alive. No longer are they sterile laws and policies that seem burdensome to many, but they are ways of entering into a deeper relationship with Christ.
Take for example, the Mass. Many Catholics will speak of the obligation to attend Mass on Sunday. And it is true that Catholics are obligated to attend Mass on Sunday. Yet rarely do we speak of our relationships with others in terms of obligations. Parents, rarely speak of their obligations to their Children. That is to say, when speaking about their children they tend to focus more on the relationship they have with their children and the joy that comes from that relationship. The dominant talking point for most parents is not the obligation they have to provide food, shelter and clothing to their children. While at times these obligations may enter into a conversation, the predominant theme is usually one of the relationship and the joy it brings. The same should be true for Catholics in regards to the Mass. Properly understood, the Mass is an opportunity to be with God. It is an opportunity to hear Him speak to us, to have His word applied to our daily lives, and if one has the proper disposition, to eneter in to communion with God by receiving Him in the Sacrament of the Eucharist. This should be a cause of great joy. Yet all too often, it is presented as obligation rather than opportunity to enter into a profound relationship with God.
Similarly, the obligations to live a moral life can appear burdensome, especially when society does not share the same moral values. But the moral life is not meant to be burdensome. Rather, it is meant to lead us into relationship with God. If we want to form a relationship with God, we need to know what God is like, how He operates, what pleases Him and what displeases Him. The moral life is intended to do just that. The Lord gives us His commands not to burden us, but to help us become more like Him. That is to say, His commands help us to enter in to proper union with Him. This again should be a cause of joy. In fact, in Psalm 147, the psalmist rejoices that God has taught His statutes and laws to Israel, noting that the Lord has not done this for other nations.
In other words, for the psalmist, God’s statutes and laws are joyful. They are joyful because they allow Israel to become more like the Lord. They teach Israel the the Truth. Consequently Israel is no longer enslaved by lies and deception. Whereas Eve was deceived by the serpent and subsequently separated from God, by teaching us His commands, God speaks the truth, and allows us to be united with Him. Thus the moral life is not about “dos and don’ts,” but about seeking union with God.
The same is true of every aspect of the Catholic faith. Catholicism is not a faith that can be reduces to laws and statutes. Rather, it is a faith that is centered on a person, Jesus Christ, and forming the most deep and profound relationship possible with Him. It is about uniting ourselves to God so that we can share eternal life with Him. Without this relationship, it is impossible for a Catholic to have a healthy spiritual life. But if Catholics form that relationship with Christ, the Catholic faith no longer becomes a set of sterile rules, but a great joy that must be shared with all people.