What image comes to mind when you hear the word conversion? To many, the words of those who encountered Jesus in his earthly ministry may come to mind. Conversion may sound like the cry of the Samaritan woman in John’s Gospel: “Come and see a man who told me everything I have done. Could he possibly be the Messiah?” (John 4:29). Perhaps Caravaggio’s The Conversion on the Way to Damascus rises to the surface, an expression of a dramatic scene illustrated with a few artistic liberties. Still, we may associate conversion with a story like St. Augustine: a turning from a former life of debauchery or sin to a life lived in pursuit of God.
Because of the art that is important to our faith, cultures, and families, we may assume conversion to be a dramatic, “lightning-bolt” moment: brief, intense, supernatural, and immediately transformative. While our tradition does speak of the reality of dramatic conversions, conversion itself is often more gradual and organic. For those of us whose lives have not yet become hagiography, what does conversion look like? More particularly, what does conversion look like for us in this particular moment, in our current context of history and life?
First of all, what is conversion? Conversion, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, is “a radical reorientation of our whole life, a return, a conversion to God with all our heart, an end of sin, a turning away from evil, with repugnance toward the evil actions we have committed. At the same time it entails the desire and resolution to change one's life, with hope in God's mercy and trust in the help of his grace” (CCC, #1431). It is “first of all a work of the grace of God who makes our hearts return to him,” and is not “aim[ed] first at outward works, ‘sackcloth and ashes,’ fasting and mortification, but at the conversion of the heart, interior conversion” (CCC #1432 and #1430). In other words, conversion is a movement away from sin, a re-ordering of priorities with Christ re-categorized as the center of our lives. It is something that occurs through supernatural grace and the initiative of the Holy Spirit, first changing our hearts and minds, but through our cooperation, manifests itself in everyday actions or “visible signs” (CCC #1430).
The process of conversion, for most of us, is not instantaneous; rather, it usually a slow, gradual process that involves daily recommitment and practice. In a 2017 audience, Pope Francis reflected on the gradualness of conversion this way: “Avoiding evil and learning to do good: this is the rule of conversion. Because being converted doesn’t come from a fairy who converts us with a magic wand: No! It’s a journey. It’s a journey of avoiding and of learning.” As Pope Francis highlights, conversion can be as simple as learning something new. It involves openness to re-orienting our priorities, changing our opinions, reconsidering our worldview, and engaging with the truth. However, the gradual process of conversion doesn’t start and end with us; it is always oriented towards the building up of humanity and being brought more deeply into right relationship with God and one another. Conversion always has a social and relational impact. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church notes, “Conversion is accomplished in daily life by gestures of reconciliation, concern for the poor, the exercise and defense of justice and right, by the admission of faults to one's brethren, fraternal correction, revision of life, examination of conscience, spiritual direction, acceptance of suffering, endurance of persecution for the sake of righteousness” (#1435). Our actions towards our neighbors, God, and the world around us is where our conversion is realized and bears “fruit that will last” (John 15:16). Conversion has both vertical and horizontal dimensions to it; it calls us to recognize ourselves as Beloved children of God, and, at the same time, recognize this Belovedness in our neighbors more clearly as a result of the transforming love of God. We are called to learn more, think more deeply, and consider more thoroughly, especially when the common good of our neighbor is at stake: “It follows that Christian conversion demands reviewing especially those areas and aspects of life ‘related to the social order and the pursuit of the common good.’” (Evangelii Gaudium, 182).
When we say that the Christian life is one of on-going conversion, we simply mean this: we are called to learn of our and our neighbors’ Belovedness over and over again and re-commit to it each day. This learning is not merely intellectual, but is also a deep education and formation of the heart and soul that spills over into our concrete lives. In our period of history and social context, conversion may be less dramatic and more gradual for most of us than some of the saints and figures of our faith. However, that does not mean that it is any less exciting! Our personal process of conversion can start as the size of a mustard seed, and grow into a deeply authentic faith that changes the world: “An authentic faith – which is never comfortable or completely personal – always involves a deep desire to change the world, to transmit values, to leave this earth somehow better that we found it” (Evangelii Gaudium, 183).
What is going on in our world and in the lives of our neighbors that is calling us to conversion? What new things or viewpoints are we being called to learn or unlearn to realize our Belovedness and the Belovedness of our neighbor? How can we be more open to living a life of ongoing conversion?