Today we talk about the most mysterious and exciting topic in this whole field. It is the heart of our mission as Christians and the competency that we have the least control of. It is vital to any successful evangelization program, but we can’t make it happen, we can only make the conditions favorable to it and pray that it happens. Today we are going to talk about Conversion.
First, I guess we better define the term as it will be used in this context. From Fr. John Hardon's Modern Catholic Dictionary:
[Conversion is] any turning or changing from a state of sin to repentance, from a lax to a fervent way of life, from unbelief to faith, and from a non-Christian religion to Christianity. Since the Second
Vatican Council the term is not used to describe a non-Catholic Christian becoming a Catholic. The preferred term is "entering into full communion with the Church." (Etym. Latin conversio, a turning, overturning, turning around; turning point; change.)
However when I use the term I will have in mind what is taking place within the individual regardless of their membership status in any church. It is an awakening to the truth and beauty of the Catholic Church regardless of the starting point. In my usage, conversion can (and must) happen to everyone. Lifelong practicing Catholics need to have this experience as well as those who are discovering the fullness of the faith for the first time.
I’m aware that conversions to other faith traditions happen. Someone could be a lifelong Catholic and have a conversion experience to Christ that happens in a non-Catholic setting. That person is then convinced, ironically, that Catholicism is what kept him from Christ. There is a lot to be said about this phenomenon but we’ll set it aside
for now and limit our consideration to that conversion which is to the fullness of the Catholic faith.
This is a very difficult topic to write about because there are no “rules” to it. The best I can do is to describe the experience (as it happened to me and as I have read that it happens to others) and give some of the conditions in which it happens.
It would be impossible to list all the ways conversion happens but hopefully this list gives you an idea of what I’m talking about. Conversion can happen in groups or individually but it is always a very personal experience. It is specific to the individual and not a general feeling or consensus of the group.
The first sign of conversion is a deep, overpowering flood of emotion. It is a mixture of awe, joy, sorrow, gratitude and love. Tears are very common—even for men. In this moment the convert will make very firm resolutions to reform his life—and keep them.
The entire world-view changes. It is a cosmic paradigm-shift. The emotions are triggered because of a sense of closeness to God, but there is also a sense of deep remorse for having offended Him every day of life up to that moment. There is mourning for the time lost that the convert could have been loving and glorifying God. There is a strong sense of determination to correct the wrongs and make up for lost time.
As powerful as this experience is, the effects will fade over time if effort isn’t made to grow in faith and knowledge. The newly discovered spiritual muscles need to be flexed. There must be concrete actions for the new convert to take in order to grow spiritually. Liturgy, prayer, study, service projects. This is critical. Think of a campfire. It is easy to start with tinder and kindling, but to keep it going it needs fuel. As long as fuel is fed the fire will burn indefinitely. There is no need to throw more kindling on. But if through neglect, the flames die down and the fire is reduced to a smoldering heap of ashes, then more tinder or kindling is called for and it needs to be fanned into flames again.
At the parish, events that favor the conditions that bring about conversions should happen regularly; at least annually if not quarterly or even monthly. So in addition to various groups meeting weekly, here’s what I would envision:
In addition the parish should have an ample supply of media for those who can’t (or won’t) make time for the bigger events. Not just a lending library. These are just dust-collectors. The Lighthouse Catholic Media or other kiosk standing in the back of the church is good, but alone does not reach enough of the parishioners. Periodically the materials should be highlighted and promoted from the pulpit. Occasionally (maybe during Christmas and Easter) it might be a good idea to distribute a book or CD to every family in attendance. This will reach many who don’t come every week and is money well spent. Accompanying the gift with an invitation to some social/spiritual event (from the list above) may reach some who are looking for fellowship, not just self-study.
Someday I hope to study this topic in much more detail, but for now, I hope you see the necessity of conversion in the evangelization process and where it fits in the overall scheme I’m proposing for parishes.