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By Marcel LeJeune, Catholic Missionary Disciples
The answer is no. This is because conversion requires our consent.
Unlike a legal contract, conversion requires more than an outward act.
WHAT IS CONVERSION?
The root of the word “convert” means to “turn around”, “change”, or “transform”. Think of turning from sin, death, evil, and hell to now orient yourself toward grace, goodness, virtue, heaven, and everlasting life. It is the transformation of the human heart, by an act of God’s grace.
Thus, we sometimes call one who becomes Catholic a “convert” which means they have turned from their previous beliefs and now are Catholic. We all know that many of the most vibrant Catholics have come from other faith traditions or no faith at all, to become Catholics. Why are they so vibrant? It is because they had to consent to becoming Catholics and their consent made all the difference. Consent is the “yes” to the invitation of Jesus.
Notice the dynamic of conversion in the Bible:
Encounter with Jesus
Invitation to relationship with Jesus
Consent to be in relationship with Jesus
Discipleship and mission
You can’t be a disciple until you consent to believe and follow. You can’t consent until you have been given the grace of an invitation (and know what you are consenting to). You can’t get an invitation to Jesus until you have had some kind of encounter with Jesus.
So, why do we act as if conversions will magically happen if we are good Catholic or put on good programs at our parish? It rarely works that way. While God’s grace always comes first, grace is not magic. It doesn’t work without our consent. We have to give our “yes” before we can be changed. Notice the consent in these stories of conversion.
Conversion of St. Andrew (John 1):
1 – While following John the Baptist, he encountered Jesus, when pointed out by John.
2 – Jesus invited him to “come and see” where he was staying.
3 – Andrew said “yes” to the invitation and started to follow Jesus.
4 – He brings St. Peter (his brother) to Jesus, because he “found the Messiah”.
The Conversion of the Woman At The Well (John 4):
1 – The woman has an encounter with Jesus, while drawing water at a well in Samaria.
2 – Jesus invites her to relationship by drinking of the “water of eternal life” and to worship in “spirit and truth”
3 – The woman believes in Jesus and asks to drink of the water
4 – She runs and tells the whole town that Jesus is the Messiah (a town that shunned her).
The re-Conversion of St. Peter (John 21):
1 – Peter encounters the risen Jesus (after denying him 3 times) on the beach.
2 – Jesus invites Peter to re-commit himself (by stating his love of Jesus) 3 times.
3 – Peter says he loves Jesus, even if imperfectly.
4 – Peter ends up leading the new Church after Jesus’ ascension.
3,000 Conversions at Pentecost (Acts 2):
1 – Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, goes into the streets and proclaims the Gospel.
2 – The crowd is invited to accept, in faith, Jesus as Lord and Savior, repent, and be baptized
3 – 3,000 repent of their sins, believe in Jesus, and are baptized.
4 – The Church grows and the process of discipleship and mission is started in the new converts
We could go on with numerous examples, but let these suffice for now. The process of conversion is not that complicated.
5 TAKEAWAYS FOR 21ST CENTURY CATHOLIC MINISTRY
So, how does this impact Catholic ministry in the 21st Century? Well, it should directly impact how we evangelize others. Here are 4 takeaways from this.
1 – God acts first. We have to remember that the almighty God of the universe desires conversion more than we ever could. With the perfect heart of a father, he pursues and works to draw all people to himself. He is always present to everyone (he is omnipresent, so he has to be with everyone at all times). So our job isn’t to make him present, but rather, to make his presence known. Even many Catholics have not had an initial conversion to Jesus. JPII said this:
Many “only have the capacity to believe placed within them by Baptism and the presence of the Holy Spirit” -JPII, CT 19
Notice grace has been received (capacity), but they have not consented to it, and thus it isn’t fully operative in them.
2 – Encounters with God come in many forms. This can happen through Christian witness of life, the proclamation of the Kerygma (simple Gospel message), Sacraments, personal prayer, Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, etc. We ought not limit an encounter of God to a program or place. God won’t be tamed that easily. But when we invite others into a relationship with Jesus, we need to be explicit about what we are doing. If you read the book of Acts of the Apostles, you will see all conversions are preceded by an explicit proclamation of the Gospel followed by an explicit plan of action – repent, believe, and (if necessary) be baptized. We too need to be explicit and bold. As Paul said,
“For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” But not all have obeyed the good news; for Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed our message?” So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ.” -Romans 10:13-17
A simple definition of the Kerygma = “the initial ardent proclamation by which a person is one day overwhelmed and brought to the decision to entrust himself to Jesus Christ by faith” (JPII, CT 25). For a longer explanation and how to proclaim it well, click here.
3 – Discipleship and mission go hand-in-hand. While knowledge of Jesus, the Church, our doctrines, and how to best evangelize, will certainly help our mission, we ought not wait. Notice that almost all of the conversions above prompted the converts to immediately go and tell others about Jesus. They didn’t go through extensive training or courses, but passion flowed out naturally. We hope that as they grew in their faith, they also became better evangelists, but being ignorant or a baby disciple should never stop us from sharing Jesus. Still, catechesis and formation for mission, prayer, etc, is necessary for maturation:
“within the whole process of evangelization, the aim of catechesis is to be the teaching and maturation stage, that is to say, the period in which the Christian, having accepted by faith the person of Jesus Christ as the one Lord and having given Him complete adherence by sincere conversion of heart, endeavors to know better this Jesus to whom he has entrusted himself” -JPII, CT 20
4 – Aim for consent. You want folks to know what they are getting themselves into, of course. So you should certainly help them count the cost. But, your ultimate goal in evangelization is the consent of the other person. Without this consent, we do not have conversion. As St Pope John Paul II wrote:
“Many…who have been baptized and been given a systematic catechesis and the sacraments still remain hesitant for a long time about committing their whole lives to Jesus Christ.” -JPII, CT 19
5 – Conversion isn’t a one-time event for most. Even if you have had multiple conversions, you are not a finished product and will need more, while still living this life. Thus, Catholics don’t believe in a one-and-done conversion to Jesus (unless you are at the point of death). Rather, we give all we can every moment we are invited to do so. I urge you to do it once again now. Here is a prayer that you might consider using:
“Lord, I have let myself be deceived; in a thousand ways I have shunned your love, yet here I am once more, to renew my covenant with you. I need you. Save me once again, Lord, take me once more into your redeeming embrace” -Francis, EG 3