You’re Part of the Story

open-bible

Imagine paging through a novel in a bookstore only to find that you have been written in as a key character. Now, wouldn’t that catch your attention?

Yet, that’s exactly what’s happened.

Today’s Mass readings tell us about three men who have a part in The Story: Ahaz, Paul, and Joseph. The main plot line: The Gospel (for a synopsis, see Rom 1:2-6). The Author: God — the greatest Writer in all of space and time. There’s foreshadowing (the prophecy about the coming of Emmanuel), conflict (decisions facing Ahaz and Joseph), heroes, and villains. Did you catch the part where you were mentioned? (Rom 1:6)

Your name may not be specifically referenced in the Bible, but God has called you by name — to be one of His principal characters. He has done this for no other reason than out of His great love. One of the interesting things about this story is that you get to choose how your character is going to play out.

Will you be known as a someone like Paul — “a slave of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God?” Like Joseph — “he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him?” Or like Ahaz — a man who not only wearied people but also wearied God?

Most of the time the characters in God’s story have no idea how big of a role they played. Take Joseph, for example. His obedience had a huge effect on the course of events. At the time, I doubt he fully understood the part he played. The same is true for you and me. In our story, what we often think of as significant really isn’t, and the things we take for granted might have profound effects to follow. We’re not in a position to appreciate the eternal impact we’ll have, but it doesn’t diminish our importance in the outcome.

So at the end of time, when God finishes the last chapter of His Great Epic, what description will be found along with your name?

 

Conversion 101

When you hear the word “conversion,” what’s the first thought that comes to mind? More than likely you would recall a story of someone like a drug pusher or a famous personality who hits rock bottom before undergoing a sudden and dramatic change as he surrenders his life to Christ. That’s the kind of testimony we often hear about, but it’s not the only way we experience conversion. Jesus calls each of us daily to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him. This post is the first in a series of six that seeks to understand just what that means and how to get there.

The word “conversion” comes from the Latin, convertere, which translates as “to turn back.” Pictugirl-looking-backre someone moving in one direction and then stopping and reversing his course. The whole person — with his mind, senses, and action — begins to follow a new trajectory. We assent to God’s truth and in particular, to the reality of the person and mission of Jesus Christ. We experience a change of heart, leading to repentance and a desire to turn from sin and turn toward God. We respond by reforming our lives. This profound change in mind, heart, and in one’s life is known as metanoia.

The process is not one-sided. God desires our conversion and first calls us to Himself. His Spirit works in our hearts and when we open ourselves up to His grace, He helps us. As we come to know and seek Him, we grow in a personal relationship with Christ.

Nothing in Scripture or Church teaching says this has to happen abruptly or in a sensational way. While many Christians can describe a singular, life-altering moment of conversion, it seems that a majority (some say 70%) do not. The change of heart and mind of this second group has been more gradual, but no less decisive. God moves as He pleases and doesn’t need to conform to our romanticized notions.man-praying-at-beach

Evangelicals often speak of conversion as making a decision for Christ. I think they mean to emphasize its decisive nature. Unfortunately, the terminology can give you the impression that conversion is only a matter of intellectual assent, overlooking the change in heart and the subsequent response in action that should follow.

How does conversion fit in with Baptism, particularly for Catholics who receive the sacrament as infants? Baptism gives the capacity to believe and the presence of the Holy Spirit, but it still requires our personal assent and cooperation. It is then possible to receive Baptism without personal conversion, becoming sacramentalized without ever being evangelized.

I was raised Catholic and attended Catholic schools. I believed in God, and I knew and accepted the teachings of the Church. I prayed, attended Mass, and tried to live a moral life. The Holy Spirit was active in my life. But in another sense, I had never taken the Gospel to heart. I was living an inherited faith, never having surrendered to Jesus. Spanning the course of one year during my junior and senior years of high school, the Spirit began to awaken my soul. As I started to recognize the magnitude of what it meant to be a disciple, I resisted. It was during a retreat that I experienced a pivotal moment when I gave my life over to Christ, but God had already been working with me for some time before then. You can read more about my story here: My Story

Can someone have “accepted Christ” and yet never have undergone actual conversion? I believe so. It certainly was true for me in my early teenage years, and if this is so, it raises a question. If conversion can be gradual, without a defining moment, and is more than simple intellectual assent to biblical truths, then how do we know when we’ve experienced it?

To believe, not just in a theoretical way, but with our whole heart, mind, and soul, is in itself evidence of conversion. The Holy Spirit comes upon us and works in our hearts in a special way. Our spirit recognizes and rejoices in Him. We also recognize Him by the fruits of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. This same Spirit gives us a hunger for God that calls us to seek Him and do his will.

The Spirit who lives within us continues to draw us to God. God desires that we share in His divine life and be formed into the image of his Son. Our imperfect human nature, laden with concupiscence or the tendency to sin, will not vanish when we come into a relationship with Christ. Our first conversion, whether experienced in a more dramatic way or more gradually, sets us up for an ongoing battle and the need for continual change and growth. Look for my next post, “Conversion 101: Conversion as a Way of Life,” to find out about how you can make ongoing conversion a part of your everyday experience.

Conversion 101 is the first post in a six-part series about energizing your spiritual life through ongoing conversion.

There Is Hope!

Today is a day to remember that no matter what trial – yes, even horrors – we have experienced in life, we have a God who loves us and we have a destiny of glory that no person nor circumstance can take from us.

But my life is so empty and no one seems to care!

“The wilderness and the parched land will exult;

the Arabah [the steppe] will rejoice and bloom.” (Is 35:1)

I can’t do it anymore. I’m so tired of everything.

 

“Strengthen hands that are feeble,

make firm knees that are weak,

say to the fearful of heart:

Be strong, do not fear!

Here is your God…He comes to save you.” (Is 35:3-4)

I am without hope.

“And the ransomed of the Lord shall return,

and enter Zion singing,

crowned with everlasting joy;

they meet with joy and gladness,

sorrow and mourning flee away.” (Is 35:10)

I don’t know if I can make it.

“Be patient, therefore, brothers [and sisters],

until the coming of the Lord.

See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth,

being patient with it

until it receives the early and the late rains.

You too must be patient.

Make your hearts firm,

because the coming of the Lord is at hand.” (Jas 5:7-8)

Where is God in all of this? Is He really there?

When John the Baptist heard in prison of the works of the Messiah,

he sent his disciples to him [Jesus] with this question,

“Are you the one who is to come,

or should we look for another?”

Jesus said to them in reply,

“Go and tell John what you hear and see:

the blind regain their sight,

the lame walk,

lepers are cleansed,

the deaf hear,

the dead are raised,

and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.

And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.”

(Mt 11:2-6)

I feel worthless. Does God even care?

Amen, I say to you,

among those born of women

there has been none greater than John the Baptist;

yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”

(Mt 11:11)

If you can count yourself among the least in this world, then know that God does care and loves you and is with you right now.

“For I am convinced that neither death nor life,

nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things,

nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth,

nor any other creature will be able to separate us

from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom 8:38-39)

PEACE BE TO YOU!

This is the 3rd Sunday of Advent and the scripture passages from Isaiah, James, and Matthew are the Lectionary readings for today.

All quoted scripture passages have been taken from The New American Bible Revised Edition, World Catholic Press, 2010.

The Case for Conversion: The Missing Ingredient for Spiritual Growth

Do you ever feel overwhelmed by the number of Catholic books, videos, and podcasts? Where do you start? Just because your friend liked a book, does that mean it’s the best for you right now?

Perhaps you prefer spiritual “classics.” Maybe you stick with the most popular authors or choose a publisher’s newest offerings? Or it might be as simple as saying “That sounds interesting?” At one time or another, I’ve followed all of these. Yet, it sure would help if we had a better guide when gazing out over the virtual “flood” of resources.

Parish leaders face the same dilemma. With limited time available to read and research, how do you decide which parish growth and renovation approach you should follow? Do you go with the “22 Steps,”1 the “52 Ways,”2 or the “75 Really, Really Practical Ways?”3 They’re all excellent resources. And just because someone found their methods worked for them, does that mean they’ll work for you?

While it’s impossible to address all the personal reasons for choosing a spiritual aid, I do know one important principle we should never overlook: “Will it promote conversion to Christ?” Conversion is central to everything we do as disciples. Let’s take a brief look at what the Catholic Church teaches about the role of conversion. *

1.Disciples first come to Christ through conversion.

Jesus calls to conversion. This call is an essential part of the proclamation of the kingdom: ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel.’ In the Church’s preaching this call is addressed first to those who do not yet know Christ and his Gospel. Also, Baptism is the principal place for the first and fundamental conversion. It is by faith in the Gospel and by Baptism that one renounces evil and gains salvation, that is, the forgiveness of all sins and the gift of new life. (CCC 1427)

2. Conversion doesn’t stop with our Baptism and  Confirmation but should be ongoing.

From the outset, conversion is expressed in faith which is total and radical, and which neither limits nor hinders God’s gift. At the same time, it gives rise to a dynamic and lifelong process which demands a continual turning away from “life according to the flesh” to “life according to the Spirit” (cf. Rom 8:3-13). Conversion means accepting, by a personal decision, the saving sovereignty of Christ and becoming his disciple. (Redemptoris Missio 46)

3. Catechesis is not just about acquiring knowledge. It  should lead to a conversion of the whole person.

Catechesis aims therefore at developing understanding of the mystery of Christ in the light of God’s word, so that the whole of a person’s humanity is impregnated by that word. Changed by the working of grace into a new creature, the Christian thus sets himself to follow Christ and learns more and more within the Church to think like Him, to judge like Him, to act in conformity with His commandments, and to hope as He invites us to. (Catechesi Tradendae 20)

4. We need conversion to receive graces conferred  in the liturgy and realize the fruits of a holy life.

The assembly should prepare itself to encounter its Lord and to become “a people well disposed.” The preparation of hearts is the joint work of the Holy Spirit and the assembly, especially of its ministers. The grace of the Holy Spirit seeks to awaken faith, conversion of heart, and adherence to the Father’s will. These dispositions are the precondition both for the reception of other graces conferred in the celebration itself and the fruits of new life which the celebration is intended to produce afterward. (CCC 1098)

5. Prayer, essential to the life of every disciple, depends on conversion.

Once committed to conversion, the heart learns to pray in faith. Faith is a filial adherence to God beyond what we feel and understand. It is possible because the beloved Son gives us access to the Father. He can ask us to “seek” and to “knock,” since he himself is the door and the way. (CCC 2609)

6. Social change requires inner conversion.

It is necessary, then, to appeal to the spiritual and moral capacities of the human person and to the permanent need for his inner conversion, so as to obtain social changes that will really serve him. The acknowledged priority of the conversion of heart in no way eliminates but on the contrary imposes the obligation of bringing the appropriate remedies to institutions and living conditions when they are an inducement to sin, so that they conform to the norms of justice and advance the good rather than hinder it. (CCC 1888)

7. Evangelization is a response to our experience of  conversion to Christ.

Goodness always tends to spread. Every au­thentic experience of truth and goodness seeks by its very nature to grow within us, and any per­son who has experienced a profound liberation becomes more sensitive to the needs of others. As it expands, goodness takes root and develops. If we wish to lead a dignified and fulfilling life, we have to reach out to others and seek their good. (Evangelii Gaudium 9)

For the love of Christ impels us. (II Cor. 5:14)

8. Personal and ecclesial renewal pours forth from the  Gospel received in our hearts anew.

Whenever we make the effort to return to the source and to recover the original freshness of the Gospel, new avenues arise, new paths of creativity open up, with different forms of expression, more eloquent signs and words with new meaning for today’s world. Every form of authentic evangelization is always “new.” (Evangelii Gaudium, 11)

Every renewal of the Church is essentially grounded in an increase of fidelity to her own calling. Undoubtedly this is the basis of the movement toward unity. Christ summons the Church to continual reformation as she sojourns here on earth. The Church is always in need of this, in so far as she is an institution of men here on earth. (Unitatis Redintegratio 6)

It’s no secret that our society continues to slide further from God. It is critical that we, the disciples of Christ and his Church, do not slide with it. We don’t just protect our professed doctrine, although that is a must. We must act true to its lived expression. If our secular brother or sister looks at us and sees nothing substantially different from any other direction of gaze, how can we expect them to want to know Christ?

The lived expression of our relationship with Jesus demands authenticity. The Missionariemother-teresa-and-the-express-novenas of Charity are one example of genuine discipleship. Those who had lost faith in both God and men tell of how they turned back to God when they saw how the sisters cared for the sick and dying. Why? The stark beauty and contrast of the love of Christ against a background of selfishness and bland religion jolted their failing hearts like a defibrillator. For others to encounter Christ through us goes beyond our good behavior. It means a radical expression of the love of Christ.

The world will put us to sleep. Our human nature will seek security and complacency. There is only one way to avoid this fate: conversion to Christ. This transformation doesn’t stop with the first profession of faith but continues day after day. Without this, using great resources or participating in a multitude of programs may give us the illusion of spiritual growth, but fail to produce any truly, meaningful change.

1 Reinhardt, James N. 22 Steps to a Great Catholic Parish: Practical and doable ways to improve parish life! New London, CT: Twenty-Third Publications, 2010.

2 Paprocki, Joe. A Church on the Move: 52 Ways to Get Mission and Mercy in Motion. Chicago, IL: Loyola Press, 2016.

3 White, Michael and Corcoran, Tom. Tools for Rebuilding: 75 Really, Really Practical Ways to Make Your Parish Better. Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 2013.