The Holy Father too calls for an “encounter with Christ” for the conversion of one’s soul
Like most Evangelicals of his generation, Graham was famous for inviting people to turn from their sins and have a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” Time and again Pope Francis uses similar language. Echoing his two predecessors, Francis invites his hearers to the “encounter with Christ.” For both Billy Graham and Pope Francis, Jesus Christ is not a dead martyr, but a living Master, and like every good evangelist, Pope Francis explains the key that unlocks a dynamic encounter with Christ the Lord.
In one of his informal homilies this week the Pope spoke about “the astonishment of the encounter with Christ.” He points out that the sharp reality of the encounter with Christ opens up a new dimension of reality for the person. How does this astonishing encounter take place? The Pope says it is in the moment when we acknowledge that we are sinners. In the gospel story for the day Peter and his friends had been fishing all night without catching anything. In the fresh light of morning Jesus commands them to try again on the other side of the boat and they pull in a huge catch. The miracle causes Peter to acknowledge first that he is a sinner and secondly that Jesus Christ is Lord.
Pope Francis recognizes the “two fold action” required for the encounter of faith. The first step is to say, “I am a sinner.” The second step is to acknowledge that Jesus is “the Son of the Living God.”
Too often people associate the word “sin” and “sinner” with doom and gloom, darkness, guilt and low self esteem. However, admitting that one is a sinner is not a step into dark bondage, but a step into the light of liberation because to say, “I am a sinner” is simply to admit that I don’t have all the answers. To acknowledge that one is a sinner is to admit that one is limited. One has something to learn. One is open to instruction. One is incomplete and therefore teachable. To say, “I am a sinner” is therefore a moment of reality and self-understanding. To say “I am a sinner” is one of life’s great “Aha!” moments.
To really say, “I am a sinner” is more than simply admitting that we’ve done something wrong. Admitting to particular sins is different from saying, “I am a sinner.” The admission that we are sinners is a profound realization about our human condition—not just an admission of wrongdoing. This “Aha!” moment means we come to ourself and see ourselves as we really are without any of our self-delusions or false facades.
At that moment, like Peter in the gospel we are suddenly able to see Jesus Christ for who he really is. Once our eyes have been opened to ourselves they are also opened to the reality of Jesus Christ, and we cannot have what Pope Francis calls the “astonishing encounter with Christ” without first having our eyes opened through the admission of our own condition. Then we see Jesus Christ in what can only be described as a burst of inner illumination or enlightenment. Our vision really is transformed. Christ is transfigured before our eyes. Before we thought he was a good teacher, a good man, a kind healer, a gentle guru or a noble martyr. Now we see him and know him to be the Son of God.
This conversion is a supernatural transformation. It is not something that can be created by human techniques of spirituality. It is not accomplished through theological lessons or religious teaching. Instead it is a gift from God himself. This life changing gift is at the very heart of the Christian faith, and it is a conversion that both Billy Graham and Pope Francis invite their hearers to experience.
The mark of a true evangelist is that he takes this message out to the people. In his homily Pope Francis remarked on Jesus’ ability to connect with the people. Jesus “encountered the people, He sought the people.” What our troubled world needs now more than anything is a new wave of evangelism—in which messengers like Pope Francis reach out to those who are lost in the wilderness of this world with the liberating message of the “astonishing encounter with Christ.”
When that conversion takes place it is not only individuals who are converted, but families, parishes, schools, communities, nations and the whole world.
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