A consistent question I have been asked over the course of my ministry is how important is the use of one’s personal experience in the proclamation of the kerygma and the teaching of Catholic doctrine? This is a critical question because it reveals the intimate relationship between how the person chooses to engage the Word of God and Catholic doctrine in their own personal way. The question then becomes, are these actions properly focused on and reflect the teachings of Jesus Christ? Even more important than personal experience is an authentic expression of genuine love rooted in Jesus Christ as the source of the outward and inward acts of personal experience.
Any human-to-human experience, whether personal or communal, involves some form of human interaction and, hopefully, an acceptance of the human interaction if properly ordered to respect the dignity of the human person. The act of acceptance reflects a person’s intention to respect the dignity of the person and, in effect, recognize the person as a child of God. The practice of acceptance in conjunction with personal experience must derive its identity from the logos the Word of God, the Incarnate Son Jesus Christ, who is the model of how to use personal experience par excellence.
A proper experience of love
The great Doctor of Divine Love, St. Francis De Sales, introduced us to the way of love as part of his personal charism of expressing genuine love through a personal experience of faith rooted in Jesus Christ. The methodology of St. Francis De Sales focused on the soul’s development through a person’s experiences centered on Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word. An essential aspect of St. Francis’ treatise on love was his value of the person's liberty. He believed that any conversion journey must involve the free acceptance of Jesus Christ in the person’s life.
For St. Francis De Sales, loves precedes all human desire. It is the pillar of truth, where a proper disposition of the will to God means addressing an authentic and primordial emphasis on love.
Although our human nature may not be endowed with that original soundness and righteousness which the first man had in his creation, but upon the contrary be exceedingly depraved by sin, yet still the holy inclination to love God above all things stays with us, as also the natural light by which we see his sovereign goodness to be more worthy of love than all things; and it is impossible that one thinking attentively upon God, yea even by natural reasoning only, should not feel a certain movement of love which the secret inclination of our nature excites in the bottom of our hearts, by which at the first apprehension of this chief and sovereign object, the will is taken, and perceives itself stirred up to a complacency in it.
Heart speaks to the Heart
De Sales emphasized the need to practice and strengthen the charism of love. A central point of his great masterpiece, An Introduction to the Devout Life, involved the development of a love for God and, in turn, a love for his fellow man simply and reverently. The Catechism of the Catholic Church expands on the practice of the theological virtue of love (charity) in the following way:
Charity is the theological virtue by which we love God above all things for his own sake, and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God . . . the practice of all the virtue is animated and inspired by charity, which binds everything together in perfect harmony, it is the form of the virtues it articulates and orders them among themselves; it is the source and the goal of their Christian practice.
In the book of Deuteronomy, we are reminded of the Father’s love for His children Israel which serves as a central theme of the Gospels:
It was not because you are the largest of all the nations that the Lord set his heart on you and chose you, for you are really the smallest of all nations. It was because the Lord loved you, and because of this fidelity to the oath he had sworn to your fathers, that he brought you out with his strong hand from the place of slavery and ransomed you from the hand of Pharaoh, King of Egypt.
Any attempt to evangelize must involve the opportunity for the heart to speak to the heart and provide a living witness of how to love one another in the name of Jesus Christ. God deliberately shares His kingdom out of love for us. The virtue of Love serves as God’s primary motivation for nourishing someone’s heart to hear the Gospel. In Jesus’ death on the Cross, we received the ultimate example of God’s love for us through the death of His Son on the cross. He offered his Son Jesus Christ to rescue humanity from the evil of sin and, at the same time, destroy it. The heart speaks to the heart only when there is a sincere attempt to care for the soul of the person you are talking to in love.
Send me, Lord, wherever you please, for when I am sent by you, then I am pretty sure that you will help me —in whatever situation I find myself— to fulfill what you ask.
St. Francis De Sales