Dr. Jay Boyd recently raised some concerns about what it means for Catholics to adopt this language in his article, "The Problem with a Personal Relationship with Jesus" (Homiletic and Pastoral Review, July 10, 2014).
Now Dr. Carole Brown has written a complementary piece entitled "The Problem with 'Not' Having a Personal Relationship with Jesus" (Homiletic and Pastoral Review, August 11, 2014).
The issue as discussed in these two pieces is detailed and complex, involving the question of personalist philosophy as it has become enshrined in magisterial documents since the pontificate of St. John Paul II, in particular.
But the issue can, I think, be put rather simply. What should a "personal relationship with Jesus" NOT mean for a Catholic? It should not mean a subjective relationship experienced as subsisting in isolation apart from the Church, her sacrament, and teaching.
What MAY a "personal relationship with Jesus" mean for a Catholic? Many things. (1) It can mean a subjectively experienced relationship that is more than sacramental, as for example when one makes a spiritual communion with Christ (without cutting ourselves off from the sacramental life of the Church). This is something incumbent upon all Catholics to cultivate as part of their response to St. Paul's injunction to "pray without ceasing" (1 Thes. 5:17). (2) It can also mean a sacramental relationship with Jesus, particularly when receiving the Eucharist. The Church stresses the objective component in this relationship, the fact that one receives Jesus whether one has any subjective experience of this or not. Another dimension of this is the relationship of being incorporated into the mystical Body of Christ via baptism, even while one is yet an infant and oblivious of what is happening. This is nonetheless a "personal relationship with Jesus." Still another dimension of this is the relationship of Old Testament "saints" to Jesus, not through any awareness of the historical Jesus, but through the "sacraments" of the Old Covenant, by which they were also incorporated into the mystical Body of Christ. (Yes, their salvation was through no other than Christ and a "personal relationship with Him," though mediated Levitical sacrifices anticipating the sacrifice of Christ.)
When all is said and done, however, the important thing for those of us who are adults is our response to the truth of God's revelation in Christ and through the Church. This is why the claims of the Gospel obtain also for the contemporary Jew. We are all called to communion with Christ through the Church and her Gospel. And those of us who are Catholic are called by our Lord through His Church to a conscious (and conscientious) response to a life of conversion and amendment of life -- in short, discipleship. This means that we cannot remain sacramentalized infants, much less sacramentalized pagans. We need to respond in faith, aware of all the levels and dimensions of our personal relationship with Jesus that we've received through our baptism and incorporation into His mystical Body.
We're not saved by information about Jesus that we know. Even infants and the Children of Israel in the Old Testament with no knowledge of Jesus are not excluded from the redemptive work of Christ. But for those of us living today who are beyond our minor years, knowing information about Jesus can play a decisive role in our acquisition of a personal relationship with Jesus of which we are consciously aware, a role, in fact, in our salvation.
[Hat tip to JM]