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Devotion to Jesus Christ—A Vital Question of Our Time | Fr. Benedict Groeschel, C.F.R. | The Introduction to I Am With You Always: A Study of the History and Meaning of Personal Devotion to Jesus Christ for Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant Christians | Ignatius Insight

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The Unique Qualities of Christianity

The study of the various religions of the world reveals that although they have much in common, each is unique. This is especially true of Christianity, which has at least three distinct characteristics. First, it is the religion of the God who suffers and dies, who assumes the full scope of the human condition with all its tragedies. Second, most of Christ's followers believe that Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, is still close to them. They believe that His voice is heard in the Scriptures and that His mysterious presence is experienced in the sacraments. Even the most unsacramental of Protestants acknowledge and respond to the presence of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit in very personal ways. Nothing in the practice of most sacramental Christians denies the personal experience of Christ apart from the sacraments, for example, in personal prayer. Quite the contrary is true. The medieval Catholic writer St. Bernard of Clairvaux speaks of three comings of Christ: at the Incarnation, at the Last Judgment, and His invisible presence among those who believe in Him. [1] Christ's words "Behold, I am with you always, to the close of the age" (Mt 28:20) are embraced wherever Christianity is taken seriously.

The belief in Christ's presence gives rise to Christianity's third unique characteristic: personal devotion to Christ—a response to Him as friend; a deeply felt sense of reverence, gratitude, trust, dedication, repentance for our faults; and ultimately an all-encompassing impulse to love and serve Him. This experience is properly called Christian devotion. One might object that this personal response is not lacking in the other monotheistic religions. That is true. Because the Son of God took on humanity, however, giving God a human face, Christians are capable of a very personal, intimate, and loving devotion to Him. This differs considerably from the relationship of a devout Jew or Muslim with the Lord in which the most profound experience of God is likely to be one of reverence and awe.

This book is about Christian devotion, its meaning and importance and its many varieties of expression. It is interesting to note that throughout its two-thousand-year-long history, devotion to Christ has been amazingly similar across the sadly divided branches of Christianity. This largely unrecognized similarity has been obscured by polemical battles over theology and the interpretation of history. In doing this study over several years, I have found very little explicit recognition of the essential unity of Christian devotion despite obvious similarities. With the coming of ecumenism in the twentieth century, there was some acknowledgment that "we worship the same God and follow the same Jesus Christ", but few realized that the best representatives of the various branches of Christianity loved their Founder in much the same way and expressed their devotion in similar terms, consciously and unconsciously borrowing from one another.

Doing the research for this volume has been a constant source of delight and amazement. In the last half century alone Orthodox iconography, or sacred art, permeated European Protestantism and brought a new flavor to all Europeans seeking to worship Christ. We have seen Protestant Pentecostals influencing Roman Catholic worship, while Catholic charismatics were seen in St. Peter's Basilica, with the Pope accepting their experiences enthusiastically. Spiritual writers of the Catholic tradition, like Thomas à Kempis, Francis de Sales, and Thomas Merton, are being accepted across the spectrum of Christian denominations. As we have said, in all these expressions the central focus is love for and devotion to Jesus Christ.

An Astounding Meeting

I became aware of the universality of Christian devotion when I attended an ecumenical meeting of Christian leaders at the invitation of Cardinal William Keeler of Baltimore. I was astounded to see on the program a lecture on the meaning and propriety of devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which was given by Dr. Ted Campbell, a noted Methodist theologian and historian and now professor at Southern Methodist University, Perkins School of Theology. Dr. Campbell drew fascinating parallels between the Sacred Heart and Protestant devotion to Christ. [2] My head was reeling when he mentioned that Thomas Goodwin, chaplain to Oliver Cromwell, a most un-Catholic person, had preached a three hours' sermon on the subject of the holy Heart of Jesus and His love for sinners. As I listened, I became aware of why I had felt at home when I had preached at Protestant services in the 1960s and 1970s, the heyday of ecumenism. Although a traditional Catholic, I have never felt out of place in either Orthodox churches or in most Christian denominations called Protestant. We all believe that Jesus Christ is somehow with us and that our response to His presence must be love—even though we express that love in different ways. Because of this I began the most interesting and revealing intellectual adventure of my life in writing this book.

Devotion—A Vital Question of Our Time

Often the leadership of Christian churches (including my own) appears not to give sufficient recognition to the importance of devotion to Jesus Christ. Strangely, some clergy seem troubled or annoyed by those for whom Christ is the most real person in their lives. Hostility to devotion takes many forms, including cold mechanical clericalism and an intellectualized form of belief that constantly attempts to express the faith in terms acceptable to the contemporary culture. Another source of opposition to devotion is a kind of religiosity that substitutes induced states of consciousness, like recollection and alpha rhythms, for mature prayer. New Age types of religiosity fall short because devotion is a personal relationship. Recollection and meditation can be helpful, but they are no substitute for a real relationship with Christ. Strangely, there is no generally accepted definition of devotion. To some, the word signifies the most meaningful experience of daily life; to others, it suggests sentimentality, an embarrassment. Some of the very people who feel that the colorful devotion of simple souls is distressing may themselves be very devout and experience Christ's presence profoundly. They just fail to recognize the same reality in others who express it differently. A very devout young priest told me that as a result of prejudice from his seminary training, he felt an automatic chill when he heard the word "devotion".

When looking for a descriptive definition of Christian devotion, I turned to the account of the first recorded prayer to the ascended Christ—the words of St. Stephen at his martyrdom (Acts 7:55-60). First, the martyr sees the heavens open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God. As he is being stoned to death, he prays two distinct prayers: one asks that the Lord Jesus receive his spirit, and the other is a request that the Lord will forgive his enemies. These are clearly prayers to Jesus the Lord. Later we will explore the full significance of this type of invocation, especially in the Pauline writings.

After an analysis ofmany devotional prayers and some personal introspection, I think that a good descriptive definition of devotion to Christ will have the following elements.

1. A powerful psychological awareness of the personal presence of Christ, or a very strong desire for that presence.

2. An immediate appeal to Christ about personally significant things in one's life. This makes devotion a "real relationship" and not simply a meditation. The personally significant thing may be an imperative need ("Lord, receive my spirit") or a strong desire ("Lord, that I may see") or a fear ("Lord, save me lest I perish"). It may be a spiritual need ("Increase my faith"), or the need of someone dear to us ("Lord, have pity on my son"). It may be simply a desire to be silent in Christ's presence ("Come aside and rest awhile"). We must relate to Christ not only with our minds but with our hearts.

3. We must be willing to do what He asks. This is interesting in Stephen's case. Not long before, Christ had given the command: "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" (Mt 5:44). To people of that time such an injunction did not make sense. It had to be accepted on faith. With Stephen, we see a follower of Christ fulfilling this command for the first time in the most dramatic circumstances. Stephen does what Jesus asks, although he may not really have understood why he had to love his enemies. I am not sure that we understand it well even now.

4. Stephen did not fail, but we often do. Some of the psalms (Psalm 51, for example) are beautiful prayers of repentance, and we see repentance in the New Testament—that of St. Peter, for instance—following the failure to be loyal to Christ. Repentance is always part of Christian devotion.

5. Devotion must include trust in Christ. Christ often rebukes the disciples for their little faith, in the sense of trust in Him. He also praised the faith of those who did trust in Him. Faith in the Gospel is always immediate, personal, and includes the idea of trust. Trusting himself to Christ in the hour of death, Stephen makes a clear statement of his belief in life after death; "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit" (Acts 7:59).

Not only does Stephen trust, but he petitions: "Receive my spirit." In most cases devotion includes a prayer for God's merciful providence to grant some favor or grace. The centurion asking for the healing of his boy (servant or son) does so with a confidence that impresses even Jesus (Mt 8:5-11).

6. Finally, mature Christian devotion has a kind of simple eschatological element to it, in which the devout person is thinking not necessarily of the end of the ages, but of his own mortality. The devout are sustained by the hope that at the time of death, they will "see" the face of Christ in a new way, that He awaits them.

To summarize this definition, we can define Christian devotion as a powerful awareness of or longing for Christ's presence, accompanied by a trustful surrender to Him of our personal needs. To this is joined a willingness to do His will and a sense of repentance for any previous failure to do so. We must trust Him not only with our present need but also with the salvation of our souls and those we care about. Finally, in some way we must anticipate our meeting with Him at the hour of death.

With this definition of devotion in mind, we begin our journey through twenty centuries of Christian history. There will be divisions, scandals, failures, persecutions, and every other kind of trouble and tragedy that descends on men. The history of Christianity is not a trip to the land of Oz; it is an integral part of the struggle of human existence. Christians fail, sin, and do stupid things; they fight with and kill others. Crimes and atrocities will be committed in Christ's name. On a personal level, those who try to follow Him will go off the path. Some will give up altogether. Through it all, however, there will be a Presence, one so subtle that a fool may ignore it his whole life while claiming to be Christian. This Presence is so powerful that those who pursue and embrace it throughout life may, according to Christ's own promise, do greater works than He did. "Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age" (Mt 28:20).

Our personal response to these words and to that Presence is Christian devotion. It was there when the first Christian martyr surrendered his spirit to Christ. That Presence and that devotion will also be there when the last Christian, at the point of death, prepares for the face-to-face encounter with the risen Lord.


[1] See St. Bernard, Sermon "In Adventu Domini", in The Liturgy of the Hours (New York: Catholic Book Publishing, 1975), I : 169-70.

[2] See Ted A. Campbell, The Religion of the Heart: A Study of European Religious Life in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1991).

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The Religion of Jesus | Blessed Columba Marmion | From Christ, The Ideal of the Priest

Fr. Benedict Groeschel, C.F.R., is popular around the world for his bold and powerful witness to the Gospel. For many years Fr. Groeschel has tirelessly worked with the poor and needy, spoken to tens of thousands of Catholics, and written numerous articles and books.

In May 1987 he founded, with eight other friars, the community of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal. The Community, which follows the Capuchian Tradition, now has over 135 friars and 30 sisters. It is dedicated to preaching reform within the Church and caring for the homeless in the South Bronx and Harlem sections of New York City, as well as in London, Limerick, Honduras and Nicaragua.

Fr. Groeschel is Director for the Office for Spiritual Development for the Archdiocese of New York. In 1974 at the request of Terence Cardinal Cooke, he founded the Trinity Retreat in Larchmont, New York, which provides spiritual direction and retreats for clergy. John Cardinal O'Connor appointed him promoter of the cause of Canonization of the Servant of God, Terence Cardinal Cooke, in 1984.

Fr. Groeschel earned his doctorate in psychology from Columbia University in 1971 and is professor of pastoral psychology at St. Joseph's Seminary of the Archdiocese of New York as well as an adjunct professor at the Institute for Psychological Sciences in Arlington in Virginia. He has taught at Fordham University, Iona College, and Maryknoll Seminary.

He is also chairman of the Good Counsel Homes and the St. Francis House, which provides residence and programs for homeless young mothers and homeless youth. For fourteen years, Fr. Groeschel served as chaplain of the Children’s Village in Dobbs Ferry, New York.

Fr. Groeschel is host of the television talk program Sunday Night Live with Father Benedict Groeschel, which is broadcast on EWTN and has written many books, including - Arise From Darkness: What to Do When Life Doesn't Make Sense, The Reform of Renewal, Rosary: The Chain of Hope, Still Small Voice: A Practical Guide on Reported Revelations, and The Drama of Reform, all published by Ignatius Press.

When Fr. Groeschel was nearly killed in a traffic accident in early 2004, tens of thousands prayed for his life. Miraculously, he lived. IgnatiusInsight.com interviewed him and asked him about his recovery, what he has gone through since the accident, and his book, Praying To Our Lord Jesus Christ: Prayers and Meditations Through the Centuries. His book, The Tears of God, also addresses faith, sorrow, and personal catastrophe.

Fr. Groeschel's books published by Ignatius Press:

I Am With You Always
Tears of God
The Drama of Reform
Arise From Darkness: What to Do When Life Doesn't Make Sense
The Reform of Renewal
Rosary: The Chain of Hope
Still Small Voice: A Practical Guide on Reported Revelations
Praying To Our Lord Jesus Christ: Prayers and Meditations Through the Centuries

Visit the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies, and news in the Church!


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