Why Pope Francis is calling Catholics to have a 'personal encounter with Jesus'

Father Raniero's homily was a reflection on Pope Francis' Evangelii Gaudium ('The Joy of the Gospel').Reuters

The preacher to the papal household, Father Raniero Cantalamessa, has encouraged Catholics to discover the joy of the gospel through a personal relationship with Christ – speaking from a letter on evangelism written by Pope Francis.

Cantalamessa made the remarks in his first Lenten meditation which was a reflection on Pope Francis' Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium. The homily was translated by ZENIT news agency.

The Pope wrote the Evangelii Gaudium ('The Joy of the Gospel') in 2013 following the Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelisation. Cantalamessa did a commentary on the text, which is about the church's mission in the modern world, while the pope was away – saying that he would never have dared to do so in his presence.

At the start of the Evangelli Gaudium, Francis writes: "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."

Cantalamessa said Pope Francis' teaching on the importance of every Catholic participating in evangelism is in keeping with the teaching of his predecessors, but where Francis treads new ground is in speaking of this personal relationship.

He explained: "In Catholic language, 'the personal encounter with Jesus' has never been a very familiar concept. Preferred instead of 'personal' encounter was the idea of ecclesial encounter, which occurs, namely, through the sacraments of the Church. To our Catholic ears, the expression had vaguely Protestant resonances.

"Obviously the Pope is not thinking of a personal encounter that substitutes the ecclesial. He only wishes to say that the ecclesial encounter must also be free, willed, and spontaneous, not purely nominal, juridical or habitual."

The connection between personal encounter and rethinking evangelism is that the ultimate purpose of evangelism is not "the transmission of doctrine, but an encounter with a person", Cantalamessa said.

Referring back to the title of the Pope's letter, he added that Christians should speak of the joy of the gospel, but they can only know this for themselves by knowing the person of Jesus.

"The joy of the Gospel is only experienced by establishing an intimate relationship, from person to person, with Jesus of Nazareth," he said.

He later added: "The joy promised by the Gospel is the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:21), and it is not maintained except thanks to a continuous contact with him."

Cantalamessa also observed that before Jesus, to convert meant to "go back", signalling obedience to the law – it was "a primarily ascetic, moral and penitential meaning, and it was done by changing one's conduct of life. Conversion was seen as a condition for salvation; the meaning was: be converted and you will be saved; be converted and salvation will come to you," he said.

But Jesus changed everything. Cantalamessa said: "this meaning changed, not because Jesus enjoyed changing the meaning of the words, but because with him the reality changed. The moral meaning becomes secondary (at least at the beginning of his preaching)... To be converted no longer meant to go back; it meant, rather, to take a leap forward and to enter, through faith, in the kingdom of God who came among men. To be converted is to take the so-called 'decision of the hour,' in [the] face of the realisation of God's promises."

Rather than becoming purely an individualistic experience, Cantalamessa points out that the pope's letter also says that personal encounter should lead to evangelism and good works.

Cantalamessa used an analogy that Francis has used equating relationship with Christ to human breathing. "Through prayer, meditation of the Word of God, the sacraments, mortification, and silence, we inhale the oxygen that is the Holy Spirit; we diffuse the Spirit when we go out towards others in the proclamation of the faith and in works of charity," Cantalamessa said.

He concluded: "The Lenten Season we have just begun is, par excellence, the time of inspiration. At this time, we take deep breaths; we fill the lungs of our soul with the Holy Spirit and thus, without our realizing it, our breath will have the scent of Christ."

Cantalamessa has been the preacher to the papal house since 1980, and offers meditations for the pope and other Vatican officials every Friday in Lent and Advent. He has written a number of books on charismatic Catholic theology.