'Partakers of the Divine Nature'

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When Archbishop Robert Carlson came to his new assignment in the Diocese of Saginaw, Mich., in 2005, he admitted to feeling a little sorry for himself.

He had loved the 11 years he'd spent in the Diocese of Sioux Falls, S.D. "In the midst of feeling sorry for myself, the Lord placed on my heart this -- He said, 'Every good thing that happened to you in Sioux Falls, I did for you,'" said the archbishop. "'And if you hadn't been generous and left, you might have thought you did it yourself.'"

The example he makes is the difference between knowing about God and truly knowing God. This message is at the heart of a new pastoral letter Archbishop Carlson published this month.

"Partakers of the Divine Nature" serves as a how-to guide for spiritual formation, which is a critical component of developing a personal, intimate relationship with Jesus. The letter comes at the close of the Year of Faith, a time in which Catholics have spent turning toward Christ, encountering Him through the sacraments and rediscovering the faith and the Church.

In 2012, Archbishop Carlson wrote "Go And Announce the Gospel of the Lord," a letter on evangelization that focused on the current state of the Church in the Archdiocese of St. Louis and the continued need for evangelization efforts. After he wrote that letter, the archbishop said he realized he should have written his newest pastoral letter first.

"If we're going to evangelize, then we have to know God in a very deep and personal way," he said. "And while I covered that in the letter on evangelization, this particular pastoral letter is more of a how-to -- how to grow in a relationship with Jesus Christ."

Calling from the Year of Faith

At the beginning of the year of faith in 2012, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI called on the faithful to open the "door of faith," a door initially opened at the time of baptism, and which Catholics are called to open again and again in renewing a relationship with Christ. The Holy Father also said that Catholics are called to reach out to others who don't fully understand what their baptism means.

"We have young people who know all kinds of facts (about their faith)," said Archbishop Carlson. "But unless they develop a personal relationship with Jesus Christ in their teens, in their 20s, they're going to be gone. So it's one thing to have facts. It's something else to have an intimate and personal relationship with Jesus Christ."

In "Partakers of the Divine Nature," Archbishop Carlson described how dynamic Catholics -- meaning those active and alive in their faith -- are not born, but rather built over time. The sacraments are an important part, but cannot suffice alone, in developing the holiness that God desires of all.

"Intentional discipleship involves much more than simply keeping the commandments and sacramentally doing our duty by God and the Church," he wrote. "Simply going through the motions in our Catholic faith is not 'being transformed from glory to glory into His very image' that the Spirit makes possible. God wishes to make us 'partakers of the divine nature.'"

Need for spiritual formation

In his letter, the archbishop called for a "far-reaching" spiritual formation process that includes at its heart prayer and understanding. In this formation, there needs to be "baby steps" for those beginning with spiritual formation, as well as opportunities for continuous growth in already engaged Catholics. No matter what, the process must be undertaken with discipline and determination, much like an exercise routine, he said.

In exercise, "you can't go from nothing to benching 225 pounds without hurting yourself," the archbishop said. "In the spiritual life, it's also true. You can't go from nothing to an hour of adoration. We already know what a dynamic Catholic needs is daily prayer, Scripture, the Eucharist -- at least weekly, hopefully more -- and then some kind of ministry or service."

Prayer over time helps develop a personal and intimate relationship with Jesus. The patterns of prayer and style may change over time, the archbishop noted, which is a normal part of the process of developing a prayer routine. Studying and understanding the faith also helps to grow a deeper appreciation for the teachings of the faith.

"Never has there been a time in the Church when more information about the faith is matched with greater ignorance of it," he wrote. "This must change if we are to be fully Alive in Christ!"

The challenges

In "Partakers of the Divine Nature," the archbishop also touched on some of the challenges that the faithful face when growing in their faith, including post-Vatican II confusion, secularization and poor personal choices driven by a culture of death.

The archbishop said an example of this is the attitude by some after Vatican II that "it really is impossible to sin. God is the God of love -- and that's a very dangerous word. We love pizza. We love to sleep in on Saturday morning. We love a Thanksgiving meal. But the love that we talk about with faith is much different. We don't think that God is going to hold us responsible for anything."

He also warned of the dangers in relativism -- "My truth is for me, your truth is for you. There's no objective truth. And that's a fallacy."

An awakening of hearts

In "The Four Signs of a Dynamic Catholic," author Matthew Kelly described that approximately 7 percent of parishioners in an average parish are considered "dynamic Catholics," meaning those who pray regularly, study their faith and give generously of their time, talent and treasure.

In many parishes, said the archbishop, some Catholics have fallen into a category of disengaged, or "consumer Catholics," meaning they consume what is only of interest or required of them and do nothing more.

"It all goes back to the opening words of the Gospel," he said. "'Reform your lives, the Kingdom of God is at hand.' And we either accept that or we don't. Which means whether you're 7 or 70, God is constantly introducing ways of conversion."

The archbishop recalled a story of Mother Teresa, who was standing by the doorway of her convent one day in India, and observed that one of the sisters who was leaving seemed to be in a bad mood. "She said, 'Don't go out. Go back to the chapel and talk to Jesus, and make sure you have Jesus in your heart before you go.' Spiritually speaking, she was inviting her to an awakening of heart."

"The interesting thing is that in practicing this, we become much better listeners," he said. "And the people out there that we can evangelize are really seekers. They're looking for something. But because we're better listeners, we're more open to them. There's not one formula, or one size fits all. But with an awakening of heart, we can listen ..."

In "Lumen Fidei," Pope Francis said, "Those who have opened their hearts to God's love, heard His voice and received His light, cannot keep this gift to themselves."

"That captures evangelization beautifully," said the archbishop.

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