The Sacrament of Ongoing Conversion
by Regis J Flaherty
Are you a convert? Do you intend to convert?
I hope that you answered "yes" to both questions.
"But I was born Catholic," you might say. "Do I intend to convert? Convert to what?"
Whether we are "cradle Catholics" or "converts" to the Catholic faith, as baptized and confirmed Catholics, we have all turned from sin to Christ, which is the essential meaning of Christian conversion.
Yet even if we’ve been Catholic for 50 or 100 years, sin still afflicts us. It continues to raise "its head in countless ways among Christians," as the Catechism of the Catholic Church acknowledges. As St. Paul says, we are all sinners and fall short of the glory of God (see Rom. 3:23). Scripture tells us that we "must be perfect, as [our] heavenly Father is perfect" (Mt. 5:48). This is no small task! Even the greatest saints were aware of how short they fell from that lofty goal. In fact, an integral part of sanctity is the recognition of the need for repentance—the recognition that we still stand in need of God’s forgiveness, that we still need to undergo conversion.
Conversion, then, is not a one-time event. It is, in fact, an ongoing process. There is an initial conversion in which a person is washed clean of sin and puts on Christ. As the Catechism teaches, "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."
Yet, sin still "clings so closely" and we find freedom only "with perseverance [in] the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith" (Heb. 12:1–2). Our late Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, spoke in a homily of the need for "constant conversion until [we] have reproduced the image of Christ in [our] lives."
A Prodigal Comes Home
Pope John Paul II used the story of the prodigal son (Lk. 15:11–32) to describe the nature and process of conversion. He also spoke of this parable as a template for the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation. In a homily delivered in March 1980, he connected these two realities. The Holy Father first stated that the parable enumerates the "logical and psychological stages of conversion." He pointed out how the prodigal traverses the necessary stages for conversion: "The way . . . passes through an examination of conscience, repentance and the resolution to improve."
The end of this process, said the Holy Father, is confession in which penitents confess "to God Himself, although the priest-man listens to them in the confessional. This man is the humble and faithful servant of that great mystery which has taken place between the returning son and the Father." This ministry of forgiveness and reconciliation was entrusted to the Church when Christ ascended.
A Sacrament of Many Names
The popular name for the sacrament that offers forgiveness of serious sins committed after baptism is "Confession." Indeed, that is a good and valid name since "disclosure or confession of sins to a priest is an essential element of this sacrament," as the Catechism tells us. In the confession of sin, the penitent also "confesses" or bears witness to the holiness and mercy of God and gives Him praise. It was so for the prodigal son who, when he came into the presence of his father, cried, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son."
Yet this sacrament is known by other names as well. In the Catechism it is most often called the "Sacrament of Penance." There is both an interior and exterior dimension to penance. Interior penance is a radical change of heart, a turning to God, and an abandonment of sin. It entails a sincere desire to amend one’s life. That interior change manifests itself in the exterior fruits of that decision. The realization of the evilness of sin and the great grace of God shows forth in the penitential practices encouraged by the Church, which include fasting, prayer, and almsgiving (see Catechism, nos. 1430–34). Penance is necessary for conversion and for the sacrament that bears the name.
The Catechism also calls it the "sacrament of conversion" because "it makes sacramentally present Jesus’ call to conversion, the first step in returning to the Father from whom one has strayed by sin." This conversion is primarily the work of the grace of the Holy Spirit. It is God’s initiative, then, to call us to Himself, whether it is an initial reorientation of life, a turning from habitual sin, or repentance for the most recent fall from grace. Responding to that grace will lead the penitent to the sacrament and the grace that is available there to live in righteousness.
Absolution is the result of a sincere confession and, therefore, it is also rightly called the "sacrament of forgiveness." Just as the prodigal son is quickly received back by his father, so also the penitent hears the priest say, "Through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." The mercy of the father in the parable seems almost excessive as he tells his servants to "bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet; and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry" (Lk. 15:22–23). But even this abundance pales in light of the love and grace of the Heavenly Father that floods the soul of the repentant sinner. In the sacrament of forgiveness, the dead in sin are given life, and the lost come home.
When the prodigal son returns home, he is reconciled to his father and, through the father’s efforts, reconciliation is attempted with the older brother. It is the same with the sacrament that the Catechism also calls "Reconciliation." The penitent enters the confessional estranged from God and His family, but he leaves having been reconciled. Conversion is a family celebration, and it is important to see it as such. If the angels rejoice at the return of a sinner, should not the earthbound siblings of the penitent do the same? And since we know the mercy of our Father, we should always see those who have fallen away from the faith as a short confession away from God’s arms and ours. Love truly hopes all things, and not in vain (1 Cor. 13:7).
Finally, this grace-giving sacrament is identified as one of the sacraments of healing. Conversion resuscitates a dying life, bringing spiritual healing to the dead and wounded. The crowds who came to Christ in Palestine experienced healing; those who come to Him in the confessionals in our towns and cities also experience healing. God "lifts up the soul and gives light to the eyes; he grants healing, life, and blessing" (Sir. 34:17).
The Continuing Call
So, we are converts, and the call to deeper conversion continues for all of us who seek Him with our whole heart (see Ps. 119). We can run to the arms of our Father, where there is grace and mercy. As Pope John Paul II encouraged, "Approach trustfully the sacrament of Confession: with the confession of sins you will show that you want to acknowledge infidelity and to put an end to it; you will admit the need for conversion and reconciliation, in order to find again the peace and fruitfulness of being children of God in Christ Jesus; you will express solidarity with the brothers and sisters who also undergo the trial of sin. . . . Receive with a grateful heart the absolution given by the priest. This is the moment when the Father pronounces over the repentant sinner the life-giving word: ‘This my son is alive again!’"
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Regis J. Flaherty is the director of The Gilmary Center, a Catholic retreat center in western Pennsylvania. He is the coeditor, along with Scott Hahn, of the recently released Catholic for a Reason IV: Scripture and the Mystery of Marriage and Family Life. To purchase this and other Emmaus Road titles, visit www.emmausroad.org. This article published in Lay Witness Magazine and reproduced with permission of Catholics United for the Faith
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