Like every field of endeavor today, religion has its share of jargon. Some of this jargon is known and understood primarily by specialists, but other terms are familiar to everybody. “Convert” is one of those terms. We know that a convert is one who changes from one religion to another (a Baptist becomes a Catholic or a Catholic becomes a Muslim). In more recent years, “revert” has come into common usage. A revert is someone who has wandered from the church of their childhood or joined another religion and then returned to their original faith. We also have terms to describe various degrees of separation from the Catholic Church. We have “Christmas and Easter Catholics” who attend church for big feasts and family rituals, and “Fallen Away Catholics” who are not active at all but have not joined another religious body. Then there is an ambiguous term called “practicing Catholic”.
In one of the early handouts we received in a Renew My Church meeting, there was a statement that “85% of our younger members do not actively practice their faith.” Everyone in the room knew what that meant. 85% of teens and young adults do not regularly attend Sunday Mass. Yet many young adults who do not attend Mass regularly would dispute the claim that they are not practicing their faith, just because they do not go to Mass. Their understanding of practicing their faith may be limited, but it is not entirely wrong. Practicing our faith includes Monday through Saturday as well as Sunday! Practicing our faith involves virtues and ethics and charity as well as worship.
All of this brings us around to another term that is often misunderstood, and usually to our own detriment. That word is “conversion”. If a convert is one who changes religion, then conversion must be the process of changing religions. But, like “practicing Catholic”, that is a limited and misleading understanding of conversion. Conversion is also for lifelong Catholics or lifelong Methodists who have no intention of going anywhere else.
A good example of the broader meaning of conversion is in Pope Francis’ Christmas message to the members of the Curia (the administrative offices of the Vatican): “Conversion is a never-ending story. The worst thing that could happen to us is to think that we are no longer in need of conversion, either as individuals or as a community. To be converted is to learn ever anew how to take the Gospel message seriously and put it into practice in our lives. It is not simply about avoiding evil but doing all the good that we can. That is what it means to be converted. Where the Gospel is concerned, we are always like children needing to learn. The illusion that we have learned everything makes us fall into spiritual pride.” Since Pope Francis has been trying to reform and reinvigorate the Curia for the past ten years, it is easy to read these words as a not so Merry Christmas card to his employees. But his words certainly apply to us at Assumption, as we seek to recover from Covid and renew and reinvigorate our own sense of being church. How do we tell our story in a way that resonates with people who are searching for meaning and direction in their lives today? Pope Francis points to the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s as a moment of conversion for the whole church: “an effort to understand the Gospel more fully, and to make it relevant, living, and effective in our time.”
The Pope goes on to say: “The contrary of conversion is ‘immobility’, the secret belief that we have nothing else to learn from the Gospel. The is the error of trying to crystalize the message of Jesus in a single, perennially valid form. Instead, its form must be capable of constantly changing, so that its substance can remain constantly the same. True heresy consists not only in preaching another Gospel, as Saint Paul told us, but also in ceasing to translate its message into today’s languages and ways of thinking, which is precisely what the Apostle of the Gentiles did. To preserve means to keep alive and not to imprison the message of Christ.”
St. Paul had a conversion moment on the road to Damascus, when he had a personal encounter with Jesus Christ. As a result of this encounter, he did not cease to be a Jew (He claimed to be a Pharisee to the end of his life), but everything else about his life changed. His faith was not centered on trying to follow the Law perfectly, but on the free gift of God’s grace in Christ Jesus. Instead of persecuting followers of Christ, he devoted the rest of his life to telling the story of Jesus Christ, mostly to people who had no background in Judaism. He had to find a way to tell the Gospel story in a way that was compelling to people who were very materialistic and to people who were caught up in the worship of gods, who themselves were very materialistic. That is the challenge of every age. How do we make the Gospel story compelling today? But like St. Paul, the conversion of others begins with the conversion of me. Am I willing to take a fresh look at what I believe and why I believe it?