Absolutely everything we do and believe as Catholics has Jesus as its source, goal, and inspiration. Jesus did not only come to proclaim the Kingdom of God, Jesus IS the Kingdom! He is the Alpha and the Omega, our starting point and the goal of all Christian activity. And it is in coming to know him as he truly is - the Son of God and son of man, God in the flesh - that we can hear his call to follow him, to become his disciples.
For many Catholics, it is important to retrace our steps in this area for Jesus has largely been treated as one among many topics. Perhaps many Catholic believe in Jesus only because they accept the Church's teaching about him, when a genuine faith does just the opposite, it trusts the Church ONLY because it embraces and believes in Jesus! But Jesus is "THE way, THE truth, and THE life," and if we are not building on the foundation of a personal relationship with and commitment to Jesus, we will be building on sand.
In the Synod on the New Evangelization presently underway in Rome, Archbishop Costelloe of Australia sums up the significance of this foundational stage of evangelization thus: "The goal of all evangelization is to foster an encounter between the person and Christ. The time has come for us as bishops to place Christ at the heart of our preaching and teaching, and encourage our priests and deacons to do the same. We must help people to be captured by the fascination which the Jesus of the gospels exerts on hearts and minds. The greatest challenge facing the Church today is to return the Church to Christ and to return Christ to the Church - not to become other than we are but to become more fully who and what we are."
HOW TO RECOGNIZE SOMEONE IN THIS STAGE
In most romantic languages there are at least two different words for our one word "know" in English. For instance, in Spanish we find saber and conocer. The first of these, saber, deals with facts and information, while conocer indicates a personal familiarity. I know (saber) who the CEO of Microsoft is, but I do not know (conocer) Bill Gates personally.
For someone to be firmly grounded in their Christian life, both kinds of knowing are important. On the one hand, we want to determine if they have a correct understanding of who Jesus is, that he is the Son of God come in the flesh, that he is fully God and fully man, that he was a real person and not a mythical figure, that he worked genuine miracles while he walked the earth, that he truly died and truly rose to life, and that he is not simply a figure from history but is ALIVE today. If someone lacks this fundamental understanding of who Christ is and his indispensable role in salvation, attempting to move on would be like trying to learn calculus without understanding arithmetic!
But it is also true that someone could have all the right answers about who Jesus is and not have a personal familiarity with him. Having a relationship with Jesus really just means having history with him. Are they able to speak of times when they have met Christ? Do they speak to him in prayer and hear him speaking to them? When they approach Communion, do they see themselves as receiving something or someone? Do they see their own stories on the pages of scripture?
HOW TO MINISTER TO THEM
Jesus' final words in the Gospel of Matthew are, "Behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age" (Matthew 28:20). Our faith teaches that there are many ways that Jesus makes himself present to us, many ways by which we come to know him. Here are a few to consider when preparing a small group in this area.
Knowing Jesus in Scripture: Very simply, do they know the life and works of Jesus? Having a familiarity with the stories of Jesus is the best starting point, especially those episodes involving Jesus encountering individuals - the woman at the well, the man born blind, Matthew the tax collector, Peter while he's fishing, the woman caught in adultery, the raising of Lazarus. The parables of Jesus are memorable and powerful - the prodigal son, the good shepherd, the seed and the sower, the mustard seed.
Knowing Jesus through the Creed: This is the Church's fundamental statement about who Jesus is. Here we're aiming for the basic facts: Jesus is "God from God, Light from Light, True Go from True God" who became true man, was truly born from Mary, who lived, suffered, died, and rose from the dead. Drawing out the significance of Jesus's death and resurrection will be a major focus of the next stage, "Faith and Conversion."
Knowing Jesus through Prayer: This is where the rubber meets the road, but it's also where we have the least control. Here our goal is to encourage them to seek Christ in prayer, by talking to him and listening to him. A great small group exercise is to teach them some of the how-to's of prayer and then give them a chance to put it into practice right away. For instance, teach them Lectio Divina and then practice it together as a group. It is also helpful if they are comfortable reporting back to you on their prayer; we then become co-discerners of the voice of God in their life and can help them sort through the many voices speaking to us to identify, "There! That's Jesus!"
WHERE THIS IS HEADED
As someone gets to know Jesus, especially in the personal sense through prayer, the call of Jesus invites them to a commitment of faith. We see this in the many encounters with Jesus portrayed in the Gospels - they culminate in a call, a command, an invitation: repent, believe, follow me! Once someone has met Jesus, they will be confronted with the same invitation.