Disciples can experience conversion many times

By | January 18, 2013

That may be true, but you will become a convert again and again and again.

“No,” you’ll say, “a convert is baptized once and, forever, after that can say that they are a Christian.”

You’re right. There is only one baptism. And we are always Christians — unless we purposely leave the faith, but if you’re reading this that probably isn’t the case right now.

However, we are always called to be converts. According to the U.S. bishops in their document on new evangelization — “Disciples Called to Witness,” released in April 2012 — we are called to conversion all through our lives: “The new evangelization does not seek to invite people to experience only one moment of conversion,” the bishops wrote, “but rather to experience the gradual and lifelong process of conversion …” 

So what does “conversion” really mean then?

Back in 1918, “The Catholic Encyclopedia” explained conversion in the way most of us think of it still: “More commonly do we speak of the conversion of an infidel to the true religion, and most commonly of the conversion of a schismatic or heretic to the Catholic Church.” However, even a century ago, “The Catholic Encylopedia” also defined conversion the way we more fully understand it today, especially when speaking of the new evangelization: “The return of the sinner to a life of virtue …”

The word “conversion” comes the Latin verb convertere which means to “turn around” or “transform.” More completely, it means “to turn around” vertere, “and “together” cum. This Latin verb, in turn, developed from the Greek word metanoia, which means to “change one’s mind.”

The late Jesuit theologian Fr. John Hardon explained metanoia as “literally repentance or penance. The term is regularly used in the (original) Greek (of the) New Testament, especially in the Gospels and the preaching of the apostles. Repentance is shown by faith, baptism, confession of sins, and producing fruits worthy of penance. It means a change of heart from sin to the practice of virtue.”

In stories of the conversion of saints, we are used to thinking of their conversions as a spectacular moment in their encounter with Christ. For example, we see:

  • Peter and the miraculous catch of fish, when he throws himself at Christ’s feet and pleads “depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.”
  • Paul, when he is knocked to the ground and hears the risen Lord’s voice: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”
  • St. Francis of Assisi, who recognized Christ in a poor leper (Francis had a particular aversion to lepers in his youth) and was moved to kiss the sick man.
  • St. Augustine, whose youth was filled with wild living which led to his fathering a child, suddenly hearing the voice of a child urging him to “Pick up and read.” So he picked up the New Testament and read the Letter to the Romans and changed his life by “putting on the Lord Jesus Christ.”

But conversion is not always one highlight moment in life. Yes, we may experience those, but for most of us and most of the time, conversion is a constant reconnecting with Christ and with his body, the church. This is why the sacraments of reconciliation and Eucharist may be received over and over again — so we can “turn back” to Christ whenever we need to do so. We can change our minds and “put on Christ” again.

This is the lifelong conversion that the bishops are speaking about in the new evangelization, a “reorientation of one’s life toward Christ (that) is possible because of the work of the Holy Spirit.”

At the November biennial meeting of the U.S. bishops, Cardinal Timothy Dolan also called his fellow bishops to conversion. “We cannot engage culture unless we let (Christ) first engage us; we cannot dialogue with others unless we first dialogue with him; we cannot challenge unless we first let him challenge us,” the cardinal said. “The venerable servant of God, Fulton J. Sheen, once commented, ‘The first word of Jesus in the Gospel was ‘come’; the last word of Jesus was ‘go’.’”

So, as disciples and witnesses to Christ, we must always turn around; we must “come and go.” We must come to the Lord (turn back) in repentance and seek strength and healing, and then we must go, as in living our lives in a way that draws others to Christ. We must be converted again and again so we can serve as true witnesses to Christ.

“The witness of Christians, whose lives are filled with the hope of Christ, opens the hearts and minds of those around them to Christ,” the bishops said about discipleship.

As we are converted, we will also convert others.  We will all “turn around together.”

Sources: “Disciples Called To Witness”; usccb.org; “Strong’s Bible Concordance”; “Modern Catholic Dictionary”; and “The Catholic Encyclopedia.”

Kasten is the author of “Linking Your Beads, the Rosary’s History, Mysteries and Prayers,” published by Our Sunday Visitor.

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