The Word Among Us

June 2024 Issue

Eucharistic Revival Begins with an Encounter

Meeting Jesus Changes Our Lives

By: Bishop Andrew Cozzens

Eucharistic Revival Begins with an Encounter: Meeting Jesus Changes Our Lives by Bishop Andrew Cozzens

In June 2022, the US bishops launched a three-year Eucharistic Revival to “renew the Church by enkindling a living relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ in the Holy Eucharist.” Among the activities planned are a National Eucharistic Pilgrimage as well as a National Eucharistic Congress, to be held next month in Indianapolis.

Bishop Andrew Cozzens of the Diocese of Crookston, Minnesota, who is chairman of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Evangelization and Catechesis, is leading the Revival. In these articles, adapted from a 2023 talk, he speaks about the importance of encountering Jesus in the Eucharist.

An essential element of the Eucharistic Revival, which is also an essential element of our faith, revolves around the word “encounter.” It’s important that each of us have an encounter with Jesus. When we do, we experience a real change in our lives, and it gives us the strength and power to follow the Lord.

I never tire of repeating the words of Pope Benedict XVI, which Pope Francis has also repeated and which take us to the very heart of the gospel: “Being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” (God Is Love, 1). When I encounter Jesus, my whole life opens up in a new way, and suddenly, I have a different way of seeing and I’m headed in a new direction, toward a new horizon.

In fact, we’re called to an encounter with the living God every day; it’s part of what it means to be a Christian. So let’s look at the encounters that Jesus had with people in Scripture. Let’s see what happened to them and how it can happen for us through the Eucharist.

Life-Changing Encounters. First, it’s important to point out that thousands of people met Jesus, but not all of them became his disciples. But for the ones who did, their personal encounter with the Lord radically changed them. Maybe Jesus healed them, maybe he taught them something new, maybe he called them—and through that exchange, their whole life changed.

There are many examples of this in the Scriptures, but let’s look at the very first chapter of John’s Gospel. This is John’s first encounter with Jesus. He and Andrew, who’s the brother of Simon Peter, are religious young people, and they have gone out to the desert to become disciples of John the Baptist. One day Jesus walks by, and John points to him and says, “Behold, the Lamb of God” (John 1:36). So they become very interested in who Jesus is and they begin to follow him. Then Jesus turns around and says, “What are you looking for?” They ask him, “Rabbi . . . , where are you staying?” and he replies, “Come, and you will see” (1:38, 39). They stay with him, and then curiously, John adds, “It was about four in the afternoon” (1:39).

Why that little phrase about the time of day? Because St. John would always remember the moment when his life changed. We don’t know what happened interiorly for them, but we do know that these disciples began to realize that Jesus was different from every other person they had ever met. Jesus spoke to the deepest needs of their hearts; they knew that he was someone they couldn’t live without. Even by that first day, they were willing to stake their whole lives on Jesus—in fact, so much so that the next day, Andrew ran to his brother Peter and said, “We have found the Messiah” (John 1:41). Their encounter with Jesus must have been truly compelling.

The woman at the well is another incredible story of an encounter with Jesus (John 4). He says to her, “If you knew the gift of God and who is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him and he would have given you living water” (4:10). She replies, “Sir, give me this water,” and he tells her to get her husband (4:15, 16). We know, of course, that she doesn’t have one but has had many, and so Jesus immediately exposes her sin (4:17, 18). She’s so transformed by this encounter with the Truth that she runs and tells everybody that Jesus is the Messiah (4:29).

Remember when St. Paul meets the Lord? He has this amazing encounter with the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus, and he’s struck blind (Acts 9:8). Blindness is a symbol of his need for conversion. When he surrenders his life to Jesus, his blindness is healed through the prayer of Ananias (9:17-18).

I Am a Sinner. There are four essential elements or characteristics that mark an encounter with the Lord.

The first is the realization that Jesus is God. This is no ordinary man; this is no ordinary teacher; this is the living God! Think of Simon Peter. After fishing all night, Jesus tells him to “put out into deep water” (Luke 5:4). Peter hesitates, but he lowers the nets and hauls up such a great catch of fish that his boat is ready to sink (5:5-6). He turns to Jesus and says, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man” (5:8). Why does he say that? Because in that moment, he realizes that Jesus is God and that he is unworthy to be there with him.

That’s the second element of an encounter: we realize, “I’m a sinner and I’m unworthy.” Every authentic encounter with Jesus, the living God, leads to this realization and then to repentance. That’s why Peter calls himself a sinful man. That’s why Zacchaeus the tax collector says, “If I have extorted anything from anyone I shall repay it four times” (Luke 19:8). That’s why the woman in the Pharisee Simon’s house washes Jesus’ feet with her tears (7:40-47). This is why Jesus’ first words in the gospel are, “This is the time of fulfillment. . . . Repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). That’s a summary of Jesus’ whole preaching. This repentance is a call to turn from my old sinful way of life and to turn toward Jesus.

I Am Infinitely Loved. The third element of an encounter with the Lord—and it happens at the same moment that I realize that I’m a sinner—is the realization that I’m infinitely loved. How does Jesus respond when Peter says, “Depart from me, Lord”? He says, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men” (Luke 5:8, 10). He is saying, “Stay with me, be with me, join me in my mission.” When Jesus reveals her sin to the woman at the well, she doesn’t feel shame; she feels love because he reveals to her that he’s the Messiah who’s there to forgive her and to restore her dignity. It’s the same with the woman at Simon’s house; she may know she’s a sinner, but she feels infinitely loved as well.

These two elements always come together, and it’s in that coming together that the fourth thing happens: that is, I desire to follow Jesus, and at the same time, I realize that I’m being invited into a new way of life. One of the great examples of this is the story of the woman caught in adultery. In a moment of almost unimaginable shame, she’s brought before Jesus. He says to the crowd, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7), and everyone walks away. Then Jesus looks at her and says, “Has no one condemned you?” She says, “No one, sir.” He replies, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more” (8:10, 11).

In that moment, she sees her sinfulness yet feels infinitely loved. She knows that Jesus is inviting her to repent and begin a new way of life. This is essential because an encounter with Jesus means that I start trying to be a disciple. It doesn’t mean I have to be perfect, but I can’t sit still. These four steps are really at the heart of an encounter with Jesus.

A Matter of the Heart. A lot of people struggle with their faith because they haven’t had this kind of encounter with the Lord. Such an encounter is not just an intellectual assent of the head; it’s also a matter of the heart. To live a fully Christian life, we need both: the conversion of our heads and our hearts, and that’s what a personal encounter brings. It makes me realize how loved I am, and so therefore I want to follow Jesus. Mother Teresa once wrote to her sisters,

Jesus wants me to tell you again . . . how much love he has for each one of you—beyond all you can imagine. I worry some of you still have not really met Jesus—one to one—you and Jesus alone. . . . Do you really know the living Jesus, not from books, but from being with him in your heart? Have you heard the loving words he speaks to you? Ask for the grace. He is longing to give it. (Varanasi Letter, 1993)

Have I Met Jesus? I had just finished an eight-day silent retreat when I went to get my hair cut, and the stylist couldn’t believe that it was possible for someone not to talk for eight days. But I was talking, and I was also listening. I was listening to Jesus, and he was speaking, and the Father was speaking, and sometimes it was the Holy Spirit. Because these are real people, and in prayer we can experience them as real. And when we encounter them, it always changes us.

So it’s really important to ask, just as Mother Teresa invited her sisters to ask, “Have I really met Jesus, one to one? When was the last time I heard him speak in the silence of my heart?” And if you haven’t, ask for this grace, because Jesus is longing to give it to you.