ARE CATHOLICS DISCOVERING
Catholics today are rethinking their personal relationships with the Heavenly Father. Theoretically we tend to reflect on the meaning of relationships in human terms that constitute a common unity such as age, interests, similar backgrounds and education. Because of these similarities we become friends with certain people. The more things we share, the stronger the relationship can develop. In our spiritual union we endeavor to find a connection between ourselves and God in the same way. We are all aware that we go to the Father in times of need, but many have not explored the full extent of what it means to be friends with God on a personal, one on one level. We are created by Him in His Image, sharing something God-like without realizing this association. This is the spiritual joining that we are all born with, our basic link so to speak, whether it is recognized or not. Catholics are beginning to focus on this in a new and unique way. Our Heavenly Father is no longer that unseen entity which makes Him unapproachable except from a worshipful distance. More Catholics are becoming aware that unless we have a working alliance with the Father, we cannot know the joy of fulfillment that God intends us to have. Since the advent of Vatican II, Catholics are participating in all areas of the Church and with new vision are seeking this fundamental liaison with God. CatholicVu is pleased to have Father Gerhart Habison, Associate Pastor at St. Gerard Majella Roman Catholic Church in Los Angeles speak on the issue "Are Catholics Discovering a More Personal Relationship With God?"
Father Gerhart was born in Vienna, Austria. He graduated from the Akademisches Gymnasium High School, and studied at the University of Economics from 1961 through 1965. He then attended the Archdiocese Seminary in the Ninth District of Vienna from 1969 to 1972, and the Institute Catholique in Paris from 1973 to 1975. He was ordained in 1976 and became a member of the Ecumenical Pro Oriente Foundation which was founded in 1960 in Vienna by Cardinal Koeing. In Vienna, Father Gerhart Habison spent a two and three year period in separate parishes as Associate Pastor. He also served as pastor of two parishes north of Vienna before coming to the United States in 1998 where he is the Associate Pastor at St. Gerard Majella Church in Los Angeles, California..
St. Gerard Majella Church
CatholicView: Fr Gerhart, do you feel that Catholics are discovering a more personal relationship with God?
Fr Gerhart: Yes, I think quite a few Catholics do seek this closer and personal relationship with God and actually everybody should do so for a number of reasons. One reason is to grow in the faith. Another reason is to know more about the faith though we can never adequately understand God. However, we can know God after having been given the grace of faith-experience. We should try to seek a closer relationship with God and be able to talk about it, witness, and if necessary defend our faith in discussions with Christians belonging to other denominations or to those who belong to other religions. We all should want to be close to God. He is the fulfillment of our life. The probably most quoted theologian of the 20th century Karl Rahner predicted that the Catholic Church will have to become a Church of mystics or it will disappear. Mystics are Christians with a special closeness to God whom God grants special spiritual insights because of their prayers, love and charity, etc. Look at Teresa of Avila and St. Ignatius. Many of the saints were mystics and theologian Karl Rahner thinks we all will have to develop this in order to achieve true spiritual insights.
CatholicView: What exactly does a personal relationship with God mean?
Fr Gerhart: Let us take the example of a young loving engaged couple: Because they love each other they want to be together as much as possible. Doing that they get to know each other better and better, talking to each other, showing their love to each other in a lot of different situations which they experience together. Now God is a living and personal God with whom we can have a personal relationship. God does not remain silent when we call on Him, He acts in our lives and His faithful see and understand. If I have a personal relationship with God, then I know that God is always close to me. Trusting in God I need never fear, be angry, need never be depressed or without hope because I know God protects and guides me. He may lead me in ways that I do not choose myself, but He will always give me the strength and grace to persevere.
Look at the very pronounced example of the life of St. Francis of Assisi who had a very personal relationship with God or look at Saints of the 20th century like Maximilan Kolbe, the beatified Padre Pio and Mother Teresa. In fact the life of every saint shows us what a personal relationship with God means.
Father Gerhart Habison with Publisher Kathy Bernard
CatholicView: Fr Gerhart, how does a Catholic Christian develop this relationship?
Fr Gerhart: Of course there are many approaches you can use. Invite God into your life. Get close to God by praying alone, with the family, in prayer groups, praying in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament and by participating in Holy Mass on Sundays and if possible also on weekdays. You will want to frequently receive the sacraments of eucharist and confession. You can also do this by loving the word of God and reading the Bible. You practice charity to the poor in their material and spiritual needs. You get help by finding a priest, a spiritual person who becomes your regular confessor and thus can lead you better in your quest for a deeper spirituality and for "a closer walk with God". And some even look for a spiritual director who will take time to listen and will give spiritual guidance. We know that even the Popes have always had confessors. Pope John Paul II, our present Pope, sees his confessor several times a week, and according to some sources every day.
Another way to grow closer to God is by going to a retreat. St. Ignatius calls it "Spiritual Exercises" . We should not only practice physical excercises to stay healthy but give our souls spiritual excercises. You go to a designated quiet place, usually a convent, abbey or a retreat center, and you have a retreat director who either deals with a small group of retreatants at the same time or he talks with you on a one to one basis. He helps you to find out the plans God has in mind for you using the Bible and then you pray to find out how you can make the plans become true in your life. Obviously our relationship to God must be based on love, catechetical knowledge, devotion and prayer.
After His ascension, our Lord Jesus Christ, at Pentecost (see Acts 2) sent the Paraclete, His Holy Spirit to His apostles and disciples. They were filled with gifts of the Holy Spirit and God wants us as well to know Him. He wants us to have spiritual gifts. He wants to give us what we need to serve Him in His church in an effective way. So if we pray intensely to know God more, God will show us ways in which He wants us to develop a closer relationship with Him. Throughout the ages, prophets predicted that the day would come when God would give His Spirit freely to men. Starting with the prophets in the Old Testament, those who turned to Him received the Holy Spirit were changed. Those receiving the Holy Spirit are new men and women with a new life.
CatholicView: It is said that God created us in his likeness because he wanted to share a relationship with us forever. Is this true and why ?
Fr Gerhart: Yes, I believe that this is true. As humans we have received from God something that you see nowhere else in creation and that is our immortal soul which gives us the ability to know about God and to long for closeness with God, to relate to God, and to have religion. God revealed himself to us in Jesus Christ and in the sending of the Holy Spirit. Jesus asks us to follow Him. Accepting God's plan of salvation we can answer His invitation and we can answer His call..
We also have an answer to this question with Jesus' words that the reality of the kingdom of God is already at hand. This means the relationship with God and the Kingdom of God is something we can experience.
When we answer God's call we remain in His likeness, in His grace; our bodies being a temple of His Holy Spirit. And God offers us this state of grace for eternity.
CatholicView: Father Gerhart, can we maintain and strengthen this alliance through prayer and reading the Bible ?
Fr Gerhart: Touche'! Prayer and reading, actually studying the Bible are certainly two basic approaches to deepen our faith and our relationship with God. Let me make a comparison: we are not born with the ability to swim. If we want to learn how to swim we must practice it. In the same way we have to practice prayer to learn how to pray or we need to regularly read Sacred Scripture to learn to understand the words of the Bible. The word of God is powerful and will help to transform us if, spending time with it, we open our hearts to it.
So to grow in
faith and closeness to God is a lifelong process and yet it can never be enough. But let us always be aware that with God our growth does
not depend on our merits or not even with our abilities or talents. It requires our open heart and is granted to us by
God's grace, especially through the Holy Spirit.
CatholicView: Because God is eternal, infinite, all knowing, and ever present, how can we relate to this from our earthly level?
Fr Gerhart: I want to add to this statement. God's quality of love actually is the key and the reason we can relate to Him. In John Chapter 15 it says, " It is not you who have chosen Me, it is I who has chosen you." And God chose us in love and revealed Himself through His Son Jesus Christ and this revelation was continued by the Holy Spirit.. In the Old Testament it is said we should have no image of God. But then He gave us His Son Jesus Christ. God Himself gave us His image and so we can relate to Him.
Jesus is the way to the Father. By His life, death and resurrection He opened the way for us. And we, in our human limitedness, could not relate to the eternal God our Creator by ourselves. This is only possible through God's grace and His divine revelation and salvation.
Jesus chose His apostles and taught them over three years. He celebrated with them the first Eucharist. The first Holy Mass. And after Jesus' ascension, the Father and the Son sent the Holy Spirit upon the apostles and the disciples with Mary. Inspired by the power of the Holy Spirit they were able to preach, to mission and to found the Church. It is through the sacraments of the Church that every baptized Catholic can relate to God.
But God also chooses some to experience personal visions or to receive the charisms and gifts of the Holy Spirit in a special way, and this gives them a tremendous and unforgettable experience of His Being.
It is being reported that the Christians of the first eight centuries were all charismatic and had this extraordinary living relationship with God so that they sang in tongues after the Gospel. Some say this was the Dark Ages but then again maybe it was not. After that time, the eight century approximately, the Church placed more and more emphasis on the sacraments and the charismatic way was lost. In the 20th century beginning in 1967 the "new Pentecost" as we can call it according to Acts:2 has been experienced again by many Catholics.
St. Gerard Majella Churchs Rectory
CatholicView: Does our friendship with God gain its strength because it is Christ-centered ?
Fr Gerhart: Yes. Indeed, Jesus Christ is the way to the Father. In the Gospel Jesus tells us: No one can come to the Father unless/except through me. Without Jesus we could not understand God at all. But the Holy Spirit whom He sent us is as important! God is a Triune God. It is through Christ, through the Holy Spirit and through friendship with God that we realize that God is our Creator.
CatholicView: The bond between God and ourselves has been compared to that of a closely knit family with the Father as the head of it. Does this seem to exemplify what our relationship to God is?
Fr Gerhart: The
first thing that came to my mind is that comparisons are always falling short of the
reality, especially when it is theology regarding God. Our relationship to God is one of
the creature to the creator. I think
professors of Dogmatic Theology would not favor this approach/explanation. They have different ways of comparison. But I think in the parable of the prodigal son,
the compassionate, loving and forgiving Father symbolizes God. This means Jesus used the image of a family to
teach us God's love. And so, the comparison
in that context obviously worked for Jesus, so it should also work for us. Other thoughts regarding this question came to my
mind. We often talk about the parish
community as a family and
we use the expression that we are "brothers and sisters in Christ". However for the many children who have to grow up
in dysfunctional families, without a father or with an abusive father, this comparison
will not be understood.
CatholicView: Why does our closeness to God sometimes seem to be a faint glimmer of what it should be and how can we correct this?
Fr Gerhart: In the history of God's people before and after Jesus we see a pattern of ups and downs and actually at any time you can see people living in different degrees of closeness to God and there can be many reasons for that phenomenon. So you can be at a distance from God because your parents may have educated you this way or society influenced you. Trials and tribulations, also bad experiences, subjectively speaking, many times within the church are reasons why often people fall away by their own decision. But then, thinking about the intellectual part of it, it was left to the 20th century to officially develop a system of atheism in the former communist countries. This idea actually had its beginnings in the French Revolution and its enmity to the Church and the knowledge of which reached the masses more than a hundred years later. Friedrich Nietzsche, the German philosopher, who died in a mental institution coined the phrase: "God is dead". All these influences can have their effects to make people turn away from God. If we find ourselves in such a situation we can correct our lives by finding out that a life without God leaves us unprotected against sin, disorientation, immorality and without sense. Ultimately people perish by losing their souls to the enemy.
But God is merciful and gives everybody the grace to know him, to turn to him or stay with him. It is actually our own human decision. If we open our hearts to God, He will be close to us. If we close our hearts, we distance ourselves from God. In Psalm Chapter 145 it tells us: The Lord is near to all who call upon him in love and truth. Is not the Eucharist or the communion the sign of an unparalleled closeness to God when we are able to receive His Body ? All we need to do is to practice it.
CatholicView: What do you see as an ideal relationship we Catholic Christians should have with God?
Fr Gerhart: An ideal relationship with God is staying in prayer all the time, but we should not be afraid. Prepare what you can without worrying too much. God will supply what you cannot do. Trust in God. Those who believe and are being baptized will be saved through Gods Grace through the Church. Keep up your beliefs. If you are separated through a mortal sin, dont wait a year, go immediately to confession. Dont lose your faith. Get a strong relationship back through the grace of the sacraments. And live the beatitudes. Be active in love towards your neighbors. Seek the gifts, charisms and fruits of the Holy Spirit. If you receive them you will be powerful and mission oriented.
CatholicView: Just as children sometimes do not grow in knowledge, many of us as Christians follow this same pattern. We get bogged down and even though God wants us to grow in maturity, He allows us to remain childlike in our knowledge of Him. Is this sometimes true and how do you feel about this?
Fr Gerhart: From my reasoning, I see two aspects of that. We know that Jesus presented a child as a model for all believers because a child is trusting, more or less without sin, and prepared to believe in good faith what it is being told. Dogmatics call that "fides qua"(thats Latin), the quality, the intensity of our faith. In that way the question can be positively answered.
On the other hand , there is the "fides quae" , the content of our faith where we have to learn what we are supposed to know about our faith. It has to start out with what we proclaim in the creed, and the Triune God. There is of course much more we ought to know about the Church, the sacraments, Christian moral behavior etc. In this respect we should not remain childlike because this would mean not knowing anything. We should make efforts to grow in maturity and knowledge to where we cannot compare ourselves to children. I think then the quality of our faith should do it.
CatholicView: God wants to have a relationship with His people. Otherwise He would not have sent His Son to become the bridge to Him. Would you agree to this?
Fr Gerhart: Absolutely (Definitely). First of all, we are God's creation. The whole Bible, beginning with Adam and Eve shows how God tried to relate to us human beings. So He wants to have a relationship with us. The Old Testament and all the prophets tell us that. Finally Jesus, sent by the Father, gained for us salvation and access to the Father by His life, death, resurrection, ascension and the sending of the Holy Spirit. These are all the steps God took for us in order to have a relationship with us. This is the message that the missionaries of the Church have been preaching and offering to all peoples on earth as the perfect access to God, perfect because it was given to us by God himself.
Jesus is the sign of the ultimate love that God has for us. Our answer to God's love for us should be a life of love to God and neighbor. "See how they love each other" is the well known remark of the historian Tertullian, who himself was not a Christian. He didnt really mean it in an appreciative way; actually he was trying to ridicule it. But those were the words he used. So we should have love for each other and love for God.
CatholicView: Have some of us lost sight of our close alliance to God and become placid in our connection to Him?
Fr Gerhart: You actually can see that distinctly in Europe and to a certain degree also in North America. In Europe, it seems that the people who represent and attend the churches have become tired and old. Having been brought up in the faith for many generations, many today take salvation and all the graces of God for granted, or worse, they even think they do not need them which, spiritually speaking, is a deadly mistake.
Converts from other Christian denominations or from other religions can teach us the zeal, fervor, inspiration and fulfillment of true believers as well as the Catholics in the young churches thoughout the developing Third World Countries. The foremost priority in a persons life should be to follow Jesus Christ for it is connected with our ultimate destiny. So such a person will not endanger the close relationship with God, on the contrary, they will constantly pray and endeavor to improve it.
CatholicView: Is it difficult to re-establish trust once a relationship has been broken?
Fr Gerhart: Among us human beings the answer is yes it is difficult if two people are involved and are not ready to forgive. It is not difficult to re-establish trust if we can forgive each other. If we can do that and hopefully the other party can, then we can re-establish the relationship. If there is no forgiveness the relationship cannot be restored.
Fr. Robert de Grandis says and I quote him to forgive is a divine quality. If we talk about our relationship with God the answer depends completely on us. God is always merciful and forgiving as soon as we repent and turn back to Him. God is always there to forgive us and to pick up the relationship again. It is our part to come back to Him. We then have to forgive ourselves. Every day untold numbers of Catholics find that out in confession, when they receive the sacrament of reconciliation. And every day many return back to God and His Church after years of separation because they realize they need God in their lives and they best can find God in His Church.
CatholicView: Is it true that our relationship to God depends on continual cooperation and closeness through prayer, worship and trust in His Son Jesus?
Fr Gerhart: Yes, Certainly. Of course we worship and trust in Jesus Christ because He is our redeemer but also we should have an openness to the Holy Spirit. He sent the Holy Spirit when He was gone. So the third Divine Person, the Holy Spirit, enables us as well to stay close to God. All we can or have to do is to accept Gods Grace that is offered to us; to open ourselves to it. We cannot cooperate with God because there are different levels. We have a covenant, but I dont think we are on equal levels.
In love, through his Son Jesus, God has offered us the new and eternal covenant. If we are wise we never want to forfeit it. If it has happened we can, by way of prayer, worship, faith, trust, knowledge of God's word in the Bible and by practicing personal works of love for our neighbor, remain in a close relationship with God which can never be close enough.
CatholicView: In conclusion, would you like to add any final words to this interview?
Fr Gerhart: Yes. You probably noticed a certain perspective which I favor because of my personal experience and so I want to talk about my religious background and how God has guided me until today. When people say they are converts, I cannot even say that. At one time I was a neophyte. It means newly baptized because my parents did not bring me up in any religion. They had lost their faith before they got to know each other and they just had a civil marriage. Gods Grace was not involved. And whatever their reasons, they had left the church. And they, especially my father, thought it would be their unholy duty to keep me and my two sisters away from the church. My parents were successful to some extent but I found out there were people who believed in God. I couldnt take part in religious education or anything to do with religion. In fact, I never saw a church from the inside. So life without knowing God was not good and without being able to experience His Graces conveyed through the church is a very sad life. That is what I found out. And very early, from the age of twelve, my biggest question was not this and that, sports or sex, it was What is the reason and the meaning of my life? Because I didnt have one. Without God there is no reason or meaning.
The Grace of God reached me through various persons and events and Catholic teachers orchestrated something in me. I was very aware of that. Friends, Catholic friends, not necessarily my schoolmates because they were more or less like myself but others, various works of art, literature, good movies, and gospel music made an impression on me. During my studies of economics when I was out of high school I was touched by the media reports about Pope John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council and finally I decided to read the Bible at age 21. In the newspapers, there was a long story about Pope John and at that moment I said to myself Ill get myself a Bible. Ill buy a Bible and I will read it. Actually I had read a few verses in the Bible before. And so, I read the Bible and was immediately captured and overwhelmed. This was a book with maybe twelve hundred pages which would normally take me a week to read but I knew I couldnt read it that fast. It would take me longer. It took me four months or more. Then the New Testament said Those who believe in Me and have been baptized will be saved. I thought, thats for me. Then I found a priest. The priest was not very inspiring or forthcoming and did little to give the support I needed. So that first attempt was unsuccessful. Half a year later and after one on one catechism sessions with a Capuchine Friar I received baptism on October 6, 1964.
My baptism happened in the evening and my father found out about it and was still trying to sabotage the whole thing but I was of age and I told him just to leave me alone. The next day I woke up and I walked around and everything was full of light and I was filled with inner peace and harmony. I saw the same old buildings but they looked so different and new. I received much more than I had expected. Starting the night after baptism I found light, confidence and serenity. These sensations filled me with inner peace and the joys of eucharist and confession. Later this was reinforced every time I received the sacrament, and I compare my baptismal experience, partially at least, with Acts 2, the coming of the Holy Spirit. At the same time I experienced how utterly deficient and empty my life had been without this close relationship to God. I never wanted to lose that relationship, therefore I continued to be interested in theology and soon also in the priesthood. I knew I couldnt apply immediately because if you are newly baptized you dont qualify as a candidate for the priesthood. And so I waited until the time was right. I was ordained a priest in 1976, in St. Stephen's Cathedral of Vienna, Austria, and was associate pastor for 5 years and then pastor for 17 years before coming to the Archdiocese of Los Angeles in 1998 . Here I thank God for the many opportunities I have as a priest at St. Gerard Majella Church to praise the Lord, to proclaim His gospel and serve His people.
Fr Gerhart Habison
CatholicView: Father Gerhart, I want to thank you for your inspiring and informative interview. I am sure our readers will learn much from your insightful answers and feel richly renewed by your personal testimony. I hope at some future date we will do this again. May God continue to bless you in all things you do in His Name.
CatholicView appreciates hearing from you. To leave a comment about this or any of the articles you find here go to the top left of page for link. God bless.