Editor’s note: This week The Compass begins a Lenten series on the topic of repentance. Lent is an ideal time to draw closer to God, turn away from sin and, in the words of St. John the Baptist, repent!
Sometime in the fall of last year, I received in the mail a book titled “A Journey with Jonah: The Spirituality of Bewilderment” by the Irish Dominican priest and theologian, Fr. Paul Murray. At 84 pages long, it is a deceptively slim volume that packs a spiritual punch. There are no wasted words in this brief meditation on the equally brief book of the prophet Jonah.
One of the key insights in Fr. Murray’s book is how the Book of Jonah is suffused with the themes of conversion and repentance. “All shall turn from their evil ways” (Jon 3:8) speaks about turning away from sin and self-centeredness and turning back to God. Another name for this is “conversion.” There is no better time than the Lenten season to begin, restart or more intentionally continue this spiritual task.
Furthermore, in the prophet’s announcement, “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed” (Jon 3:4), we are meant to hear the echoes of the 40 years of Israel’s wanderings in the desert. We are also reminded of the 40 days of Lent and its call to “repent and believe in the good news” (Mk 1:15). This call to repentance and conversion resounds powerfully during Lent and it is one that is personal. Each person is called to examine their conscience and reflect what “conversion” might mean for them in their particular situation.
The stories of the great converts, in American Catholicism especially, inform us that saying “yes” to Christ and his church, which baptism entails, marked a radically new beginning and a new path for them. It changed their lives completely. As our nation celebrates Black History Month Feb. 1 to March 1, one is reminded of three great converts and towering figures of Black Catholicism whose stories bear witness to this reality.
Benedictine Fr. Cyprian Davies was known as the chronicler of Black American Catholic history. Servant of God Sr. Thea Bowman, a member of the Wisconsin-based Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, touched and transformed many hearts with her infectious joy, scholarship and music. Cardinal Wilton D. Gregory, a wise and respected figure among the U.S. bishops, is the current Archbishop of Washington, D.C. All three are converts to the Catholic faith. Their histories teach us another truth about conversion: it is never done once for all. The road of conversion is one that must be traveled and followed anew each day. Fr. Murray underscored this point with marvelous insight, and he deserves quoting at length:
“Conversion is not beautiful and complete; it is never finished. God’s image in you must be formed gradually; transformation into Christ, ‘putting on Christ,’ must happen gradually. Day after day I must combat my laziness and the habits that enslave me; prejudices regarding my neighbor, the likes and dislikes by which I let myself be swayed, the search for power and self-satisfaction, despondency and resignation. I must combat cowardice and conformism as well as aggressiveness and bullying. Day after day I must come down off my throne and seek to learn the way of Jesus. Day after day I must empty myself of my certainties and overcome, in faith, my prejudices; I must not decide myself what it means to be Christian but learn from the church and let myself be led by her. Day after day I must support others, just as they support me, given that God supports us all.”
This call to daily conversion — that resounds so powerfully this sacred season of Lent — is needed today more than ever before. People of faith in our country who are so divided on politics regarding elections and voting rights, religion concerning Mass in Latin versus vernacular language, and science/health dealing with vaccinations and face masks are invited to listen anew to the Gospel invitation to repent, turn to God and find common ground. Lent presents us a privileged moment to take up this journey anew.
One of the things I hope to do as part of my Lenten spiritual exercise is to reread the Book of Jonah with the helpful guide of Fr. Murray’s small but powerful commentary, “A Journey with Jonah.” Perhaps, you might consider doing the same.
Fr. Amadi is pastor of St. Mary Parish in Algoma.