One Body: It’s all about conversion

Julien Hammond

September 29, 2020
Detail of The Return of the Prodigal Son by Pompeo Batoni (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
 

It’s all about conversion

by Julien Hammond

 
It is quite common in ordinary Catholic parlance to hear someone refer to him or herself, or to another in the Church, as a “convert”. Typically, this word is used to signify a person initiated (baptized) in one tradition of the Christian family, which they subsequently left before being received into full communion in the Catholic Church through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA). The implication is that the person “converted” away from their old (erroneous/incomplete) way of living the Christian faith to a new (true/fuller) Christian life in our Church.
While this may seem helpful shorthand for describing someone “joining the Church”, it is in fact a misuse of the theological concept of conversion and quite foreign to the Rite itself. Indeed,
The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults is careful to point out a most important difference between the preparation of unbaptized persons (catechumens), and the preparation of baptized persons for completion of their initiation. The essential difference, of course, is the fact of baptism. They [the latter] are already members of the Christian people, the Church. Both their catechetical instruction and the rites which celebrate their growth in faith must acknowledge their dignity as members of the Church. (RCIA, n. 457)
Conversion, then, is not really about switching allegiances within the Christian family. Rather, it is the call to all the followers of Jesus to “repent and believe in the good news” (Mk 1.15), to turn away from sin and conform our lives to the Gospel, in the sense of the Greek word metanoia. Of course, the “first and fundamental conversion” precedes and sets the conditions for Baptism:
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. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1427)
But Christ’s call to conversion is ongoing and “continues to resound in the lives of Christians” all throughout the Christian journey of faith. Hence, the emphasis in Christian spirituality on repentance, penitential practices, and spiritual exercises that lead to the conversion of the heart, interior conversion (cf. Catechism, 1428-30).
This call to interior conversion holds massive implications for the Ecumenical Movement. “There can be no ecumenism worthy of the name without a change of heart,” wrote the bishops at Vatican II, “for it is from renewal of the inner life of our minds, from self-denial and an unstinted love that desires of unity take their rise and develop in a mature way” (Decree on Ecumenism, 7). Furthermore, “full communion will not be achieved by convergence alone, but even more by conversion, which implies repentance, forgiveness and renewal of the heart” (Cardinal Walter Kasper, That They May All Be One, 134):
The way toward reconciliation and communion unfolds when Christians feel the painful wound of division in their hearts, in their minds and in their prayers. This experience makes them aware of how much harm has been caused by pride and selfishness, by polemics and condemnations, by disdain and presumption. It also awakens in them a readiness to engage in a serious examination of conscience, recognizing their faults and trusting in the reconciling power of the Gospel. Only in the context of conversion and renewal of mind can the wounded bonds of communion be healed. (A Handbook of Spiritual Ecumenism, n.6)
Many of the spiritual practices and disciplines associated with the Ecumenical Movement (which we shall touch upon in future postings) – careful reading together of the Sacred Scriptures and church history, attentive listening and dialogue in a spirit of humility and charity, public and private prayers for unity, gentle fraternal correction, service of others, disciplines around sacramental sharing, and so on – are all aimed at arousing within us the pain of our Christian divisions, that all may be renewed and radically converted to a Gospel life, truly centred on Christ’s love.
Christ’s call to conversion extends beyond just our individual Christian lives, however. It includes denominations and ecclesial communities and indeed the Church as a whole, ever called to increasing fidelity to the Gospel. Pope St. John Paul II wrote about this in his 1995 encyclical, Ut Unum Sint:
In the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, there is a clear connection between renewal, conversion and reform. The Council states that "Christ summons the Church, as she goes her pilgrim way, to that continual reformation of which she always has need, insofar as she is an institution of human beings here on earth. Therefore, if the influence of events or of the times has led to deficiencies ... these should be appropriately rectified at the proper moment" (Decree on Ecumenism, 6). No Christian Community can exempt itself from this call. (Ut Unum Sint, 16)
One ecumenical body that has spent a considerable amount of time analyzing and commenting on – and attempting to live – this need for ongoing communal confession and conversion, is the independent French dialogue group known as the Groupe des Dombes.
Founded in 1937 by the revered ecumenical pioneer, Abbé Paul-Irénée Couturier, the Groupe des Dombes is based on “the spiritual conviction that reconciliation between the churches can come about only as the fruit of a process of conversion on the part of the different confessions – converting one another and together being converted to God and his Christ” (cf. Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement, “Groupe des Dombes”, 503-505).  The Groupe published specific work on this theme in the 1990’s: Pour la conversion des Eglises (1991)/For the Conversion of the Churches (1993).
[Sidenote: A superb interview – produced by KTOTV in 2015 and available only in French – with the Catholic and Protestant co-chairs of the Groupe des Dombes describes the Groupe’s origins, its methodology, and the work that it has produced on the subject of conversion. The interview is available here on YouTube.]
In addition to the individual and communal (which they call “ecclesial”) forms of conversion described above, the Groupe introduces an important third category, which they term “confessional conversion” (See For the Conversion of the Churches, 27-29).
Confessional conversion flows from the notion that every Christian belongs to “a confessional church that comes from a specific and historical context, containing its own spiritual and doctrinal profile which distinguishes it from other churches”. Noting that confessional identities “crystalized in history as a result of the occurrence of divisions”, each Confession necessarily inherited along with many good spiritual gifts, “certain manifestations of rejection of and aggressiveness towards the way other Christians were living out their Christian and ecclesial identities”. Already in the 3rd century, the Church Father, Origen, had identified this pattern:
Where there are sins, there are also divisions, schisms, heresies, and disputes. Where there is virtue, however, there also are harmony and unity, from which arise the one heart and one soul of all believers. (See Catechism of the Catholic Church, 817.)
The purpose of ecumenism, therefore, is not “to win all souls for Rome” (or any other confessional jurisdiction for that matter). As long as there remain divisions in the Church, each Confession (including the Church of Rome) must purge itself of its inherited sinful attitudes and behaviours towards fellow Christians and enrich “its own inheritance with the aim of rediscovering full communion with other Confessions”. In particular, “this requirement of conversion is…an invitation to our confessional identities to open up to each other and let themselves be penetrated by the values which the others bear”. This invitation has been picked up in the 21st century especially through a paradigm of ecumenical engagement known as “Receptive Ecumenism” (which we shall also consider in a future posting).

Julien Hammond is the ecumenical officer for the Archdiocese of Edmonton and has served as a member of the Roman Catholic-United Church of Canada Dialogue, the Anglican-Roman Catholic Dialogue in Canada, and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)-Roman Catholic International Consultation.