Conversion and Reconciliation
In Memory of David Thorp
Are Catholics converted?
This is a question I keep tossing out to others, and turning around in my head. On the one hand, I’ve felt inferences from many sides that Catholics are not really converted. We are frequently accused of being sacramentalized, but not evangelized. People rank Catholics very low as intentional disciples. Numbers show that young Catholics are more marginal in the practice of their faith than young Evangelicals. Evangelicals still get lots of Catholics in their congregation, although this is slowing down a bit. One can look at Catholics more as having a Catholic identity than a full Catholic way of life.
On the other hand, I think a lot of conversion is going on, even though Catholics do not acknowledge that explicitly. A key problem in this is that the meaning of conversion is large coopted by Evangelical practice. For them, and for a lot of common assumptions, conversion is something that adults do when they consciously accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior. Or, another common connotation of conversion involves switching from one faith to another. So if I went to most Catholic parishes and asked Catholics, “Are you Converted,” they would probably look strangely at me or shake their heads “no.”
One incident stands out in my mind. I was invited in early November, 2012, to a Sodality in a parish north of Washington, DC. These women had just finished forty-five minutes of Adoration and Benediction. They took some tea and cookies—and their seats. I presented, in my talk, the central notion of the Synod, later endorsed in Pope Francis’ groundbreaking “The Joy of the Gospel,” that evangelization consisted in a personal encounter with Jesus. As they looked at the screen with my projected slide, I asked them, “How many of you have had a personal encounter with Jesus Christ?” They looked back, quite puzzled. They looked around at each other. Then I smiled and said, “Weren’t you having a personal encounter with Jesus Christ when you were at Benediction?” Then came the smiles of recognition. Yes, a lot of conversion and evangelization is part of Catholic life, but we still do not own it in those terms.
Part of the Catholic issue with conversion is terminology and reference. You can look at Catholic life as an unending succession of personal encounters with Jesus Christ. Every prayer, every thought about Scripture, every sacrament, every act of kindness, every ministry, and surely every Mass is a personal encounter with Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is more than a reconstructed memory with emotional significance; Jesus is the Risen Lord, present in the Church, in the sacraments, in the poor, and showering the world with his Holy Spirit. So Catholic life actually is primarily personal experience of Jesus. But Catholics have not been disposed to think of their lives relationally, in terms of connections and commitments. We more thank of our lives in terms of things: ceremonies, Mass, benediction, missals, rosaries, holy water. We have even made grace into a thing that one either has or doesn’t have.
This is why Catholics are baffled by relational, personal language. But this is exactly the challenge that Catholics leaders have to bring to their people—we are not about things, we are about Jesus, his Spirit, and his Father. Our life is a vital and vibrant connection with Christ, exactly as branches depend on their vines. Our gatherings on Sunday are communities of disciples coming to reaffirm their unity with, and commitment to, Jesus Christ—not parishioners “going to Mass” or, even worse, “hearing Mass.” Celebrants don’t “say Mass.” They help lead a congregation, through the rites, to affirm Jesus Christ as central in their lives, identify with Christ as the Great High Priest, give themselves with him to the Father in the Spirit, and unite with him in the most intimate way possible through Holy Communion. And then they are sent out as disciples into the world.
We know this; we just don’t talk it. And we have to start talking this openly and unashamedly or else Catholics will be squandering the very thing that holds us together, our relationships.
Far better to talk about conversion as the process by which we place Jesus Christ at the center of our lives. For some people, this begins as adults—indeed, we proudly bring people through the Catechumenal process at Easter, celebrating what the Spirit has done in their lives. For most of us, however, it begins at birth, with the commitment of our families, and with the way of life in which we have been raised. Catholics don’t come to know conversion, if they’ve been baptized as children, with one sudden flash; rather, Catholics are raised in an environment of conversion from the beginning. Conversion is the gradual emergence of a consciousness of being touched by, and involved with, Jesus Christ. Whether from birth, or whether as adults, the end reality should be the same: to be disciples of Jesus, living for his Kingdom, receiving his Spirit, and serving the Father as he did.
So if I asked Catholics, “Is Jesus Christ the center of your life?” what kind of answer would I get? I think it would come out like this, for most people who do any kind of explicit relating to Mass or church: “I want to put Jesus at the center of my life, and I strive to know how to do that in today’s world. But I cannot think of my life apart from Jesus.” This seems to me to be quite an acceptance of a path of conversion and discipleship.
What do we see when we look at our lives from the perspective of encounter, of conversion? Of course, the first and major view is that of the Risen One, Jesus, who defines a whole way of looking at life and world. It would also be our images, our ongoing dialogue, the pieces of scripture that float in our heads, the prayers we make in and to Jesus, the burdens we carry that we bring to him, the outreach we make to those in need—at least all of these things.
But I think it would also be a sense of having drawn close, once again, to Christ. This is what I want to explore for a moment. We live our lives with greater or lesser distance from Christ. Many moments seem to have no reference to Christ, certain moments have powerful feelings of closeness and unity with him, but other moments bring a painful awareness of our distance. Our very love of Jesus helps us see how far we are from him in our hearts. There is the ordinary distance of lives lived with countless distractions. There is the also ordinary distance of lives lived with petty vices and sins—the anger, greed, envy, pride, laziness and lust that forms so much of the background of our souls. And there are also those very pungent moments when we ruptured a relationship with Jesus—and we clearly know it. We violated our connection with Christ so deeply that we felt we could not even look upon him. It eats at us. We feel so far from God and Jesus.
Here is where we begin to see how reconciliation comes into play. However far we felt from Christ, Christ still comes toward us—not primarily correcting us, although there is that; but primarily embracing us in our shame and brokenness. “Has no one condemned you? Neither will I condemn you.” Before we can even think of healing our relationship with Christ, Christ has already begun healing us, drawing us close, assuring us of his divine love, and restoring us to an even deeper relationship with him.
I do not think of forgiveness as God saying, “OK, you’ve done enough, so I won’t punish you that much.” I think Catholics, and other forms of Christianity, have, unfortunately, come to think of reconciliation that way. The background for all of this is the construct we have of a just God who only settles the score by taking the belt out of the closet, or the paddle from behind the door, or, if needs be, throwing us in hell and tossing the key. With this kind of background, we live in fear and sin; reconciliation is a release from this, as if Mom forgot to tell Dad what we did wrong, and we didn’t get a whooping after all.
The key insight to reconciliation I think goes in the opposite direction. It’s not what we do to keep God from punishing us; it’s what God does to restore a relationship that God wills to maintain in God’s eternal love. God does the justice; God bring the peace; God fulfills the covenant; God’s infinite goodness spills into the huge vacuums our sins have created. Mercy is when God builds a space for us to draw close and renew our relationship with him.
I do not think these experiences are rare. I think the Sacrament of Reconciliation, however strangely we have practiced it over the centuries, did exactly this. It was not us coming to tell our sins in shame—although we made it look that way—so much as it was, and is, God liberating us from the bonds and weights of our sins. The Sacrament is where we appropriate in our own personal lives the eternal love and mercy that God has for us, and has shown us in the Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. But the Sacrament only exposes the inner, relational dynamic that I think every Catholic finds going on, at one or another level, in her or his life, if they are even half conscious of their faith. Our experience of reconciliation is a dimension of our ongoing experience of conversion.
Just a word about how sin appears. One helpful book (Sin, A History, G. Anderson) analyzed biblical images of sin, talking about the shift in the Bible from the image of sin as a “weight” that had to be lifted, to that of a debt that had to be paid. Obviously Jesus and his contemporaries used the image of debt—it’s nestled in the Our Father which we regularly say. But other images of sin also make sense: sin is distance, sin is violation of a law or norm, sin as illness—which give us, accordingly, images of reconciliation as drawing near to God, being acquitted or pardoned, or being healed. I think the dominant image of our day is this: sin is the breaking of a relationship, with all the alienation that goes along with that. Reconciliation, then, is the restoration of relationship, the reassurance of love and bondedness, the celebration of unity restored. Naturally, I think it would help if this image pervaded our ministry of sacramental Reconciliation, and all other associated ministries that deal with reconciliation—counselling and tribunal work, for example.
The Pivot of Conversion
What is conversion all about? Or, almost the same question, what is reconciliation all about? One of the great theologians of the twentieth-century, and he’s only growing in esteem, was Bernard Lonergan, a Jesuit who taught mostly in Rome until his final years at Regis College in Toronto. His most important book, I think, was Insight in which he explored dimensions of human thinking, uncovering in them a transcendent drive for God. That book ends up with a famously-long proof for God’s existence. But in a book written much later, Method in Theology, Lonergan applies ideas from Insight to theology.
A thread in this book involves conversion, what Lonergan calls self-transcendence. He describes various conversions that people might undergo. He talks about intellectual and moral conversion, when we are drawn beyond ourselves toward truth and goodness, for their own sakes, and not out of the biased, sinful constructs that haunt human existence. These conversions come to actuality in what he calls “being-in-love.” But then he talks about a third conversion, the religious conversion. “Being in love with God, as experienced, is being in love in an unrestricted fashion (p. 105).”
While Lonergan mostly talks from the human side, the desire to love God unrestrictedly on our part, with “all our heart, soul, mind, and strength”—to use the phrase of both the Old and New Testaments—he also has to deal with the divine side. We are caught up in unrestricted loving because we are unrestrictedly loved by God. Here I want us to sit with this idea for a minute. We get close to this truth over and over in our Catholic lives; the hunch touches us now and then. But today the insight has to be driven home and underlined: conversion is the graced discovery that the ultimate ground of all reality, all experience, all human life, is Absolute Love. Conversion is the realization of this. And reconciliation brings us in touch, once again, with this Absolute Love.
We have so often thought of God in terms of power, or being, or action. We have all those stories from the Hebrew Scriptures to color our images. We have all kinds of philosophers who have tried to describe what seems indescribable. But our challenge is, I think, to push yet one step further: God is Absolute Love. Rather than thinking in St. Thomas’ phrase: Ipsum Esse Subsistens, I try to think of God as Ipsum Amare Susbsistens—subsistent Love Itself. As the first Letter of John says, “God is Love; whoever abides in love abides in God, and God in her or him.” This love grounds and give meaning to everything. This love is unalterable, whatever experiences we might have undergone. And our particular Christian mission is to point this out to a world that has coopted the word love into an advertising slogan, and decided that power, money, or physical laws really ground reality. It’s our job to say: “No.” Everything is about Absolute Love: our receiving it, our letting it transform us, our letting this Love draw us into a future, our seeing the Kingdom of God as exactly this Love sweeping through history, reaching its first apex in the Death and Resurrection of Christ, and driving toward its final climax in the Eschaton.
Will not the Eschaton, the fullness of the Kingdom, be exactly the triumph and actualization of Absolute Love in creation?
I have found great clarity in my thinking about God as I circle more and more around this idea of Absolute Love. It’s a Love that creates everything, fills everything, shapes everything, draws everything forward while respecting their autonomy, and comes to its greatest reflection in that unique evolutionary event which we call the emergence of humankind. What a privilege we have to be the only matter that we know of, so far, that can form relationship with Absolute Love and begin to reflect this in our lives. Jesus perfectly reflects this love: “Whoever sees me has seen the Father.” It’s a love that gushes wine at a wedding party, gives sight to the sightless, reaches out the estranged, washes dirty feet, and calls a dead man back to life. It’s the same love that offers up life on the cross as the definitive sign of God’s reconciliation. “Greater love has no one than to lay down his life for his friends.” And it’s the same love that breathes the Spirit of divine love upon us.
This love sweeps through human history and shapes our human destiny. Christ is the pivot of this love, the point where it all becomes clear, the point where history shifts from possibility to actuality. Following Christ means making Absolute Love the norm according to which we live: seeing this Love, spreading this Love, sacrificing for this Love, making our lives reflections of this Love, or, perhaps better, letting God make our lives reflection of this Love. Reconciliation is the initiating force of this Love looking to repair and restore the pock marks that have denied this love, violated it, or hidden it.
David Thorp knew this love. It’s was the central experience of his life, what organized his affections, his professional life, his prayer, his discipleship. I saw so many glimpses of this in his writings which I had the privilege of editing, thanks to Catherine and Barbara. As you go through the 100 meditations in his posthumous book, Encountering the Living God, you see shades of this vision of Absolute Love, elaborated this way or that way over David’s years of writing.
Just one example, from Meditation 30, on p. 66: “God cannot stop being Father of all. And so we cannot stop acting like the sons and daughter of the Father of all. How can we extend his love to one another and to all: that man on the bus, that woman in the store, the child in our home, that person in our neighborhood who speaks another language, that stranger on the street?”
We are witnesses. It’s not about molecules floating aimlessly and accidentally combining. It’s not about unrelenting historical or economic forces. It’s not about acquiring things. It’s not about power. It’s about Absolute Love, what lies behind every molecule, every person, every nation, and every era. We are witnesses to this. We have been converted by seeing this, healed by accepting this, transformed by loving in turn, and sent forth to expand this Love, the awareness of this God, as ambassadors on a totally urgent mission.
Frank DeSiano, CSP
November 1, 2014
Paulist Evangelization Ministries
In Praise of Virginity
Can it be that the time has come, in our general American culture and in our Catholic culture as well, to celebrate virginity?
For almost four decades, virginity has been in the decline. “Chastity is its own punishment,” went a button in the 60s, that decade when we listened to a list of once-scorned sexual acts now sung to us in the musical Hair. Certainly, for Catholics, virginity has been in overt decline. The numbers of women and men drawn to teaching orders as sisters and brothers has almost reached the point of no return. For priests, the whole idea of virginity has been smeared by three-decades of revelations of sexual abuse against minors—confirming for the general public their surmise that no one really keeps celibacy—and now we have the gruesome evidence right before us.
Nevertheless, general society does not know what to do with its new vision of sexuality—a vision that basically extols every kind of sexual act so long as it is not criminal or diseased. Other trends in society carry this vision aloft: the ability to separate sexuality from fertility, and the consequent ability to prolong life-long commitments until one’s 30s (with divorce as a back-up in case even this commitment wanes).
So we have a society where virtually meaningless sexual activity is at least tolerated, if not expected. Our public images in many forms of media presume that two “hot” bodies will soon be in bed. Public health perspectives all look at sex as something to be furthered, with the less-desirable consequences trimmed, if possible. Abortion has never been the primary issue: irresponsible sexual activity has. Likewise, contraception has been far more than a conundrum for moral theologians: it’s been the proclamation of sex with seemingly minimal consequences.
While Catholics may have the least credibility to talk about sexuality, stereotyped as we are (rightly or wrongly) as obsessed about sex, we still have the important role of bearing witness to a vision of sexuality that flows from a profound human responsibility—expressing ultimate commitment to another, and to life, by the way we relate to each other in the most intimate way.
Running against this vision, of course, is the sex-as-gratification-syndrome, once primarily pinned to males, but now pinned to both genders (and the in-betweens)—remember Spike Lee’s “She’s Got to Have it”? While one might argue that one cannot dismiss sex only as gratification, once it is taken out of the context of committed relationship, sex begins to have very wobbly meanings.
Perhaps today’s situations mirror, in some way, that which the Ancient Christians saw in the pagans. These early Christians honored virginity all the more that it spoke against a wanton sexuality running through their pagan environs. Virginity, if it in some way might speak against the pleasures of sex, speaks far more about the meaning of sex.
Virginity speaks about the inner realities of human persons, communicated in the most intimate and personal ways through sexual contact—how frail, and precious, and nurtured these inner realities must be. As most males know that having “sex on one’s mind” colors almost all of life, so most people know, at some discernible level, that randomly coupling with others alters not only our inner states, but our vision of the world. If much of modern life is absorbed with the issue of identity (“to whom do I belong”), the way moderns do sex certainly mucks that question up.
So perhaps there’s a shift toward virginity once again—certainly the growing interest in vocations that even we somewhat non-traditional Paulists see gives evidence of that. Perhaps, as we were discussing in the common room at St. Paul’s College a few weeks ago, younger people see all this sexual activity (and pressure) as instability—one more instability in a frenetic world without much of a meta-narrative to hold it together.
And, more than an oasis in a desert of sexual meaning, perhaps virginity is saying something that must be said before God and before humanity: some values transcend generation, transcend family, transcend human kinship. Virginity, especially when lived authentically, allows us to touch the passion we feel in the lives of Jesus and Paul: a passion for God that calls for total response. Surely that response can be made in many states of life, but virginity, when lived well, certainly raises the bar, and points to the divine-among-us with unusual clarity.