What is Conversion and Why is it Necessary?
by Steven R. Hemler
In the early church, adult conversion came first, then catechesis for catechumens, and finally baptism. Today, this order is most often reversed. Infant baptism is first, then catechesis, and finally conversion. But when is this conversion? This moment/stage/process has been called "the Achilles' heel of Catholicism." That's because too often Catholics have simply presumed conversion has happened or would happen. Hope that it would happen is still often based on instruction, knowledge, truth, and intellect. But, conversion is much more than merely an intellectual assent.
Conversion is a free and radical offering of one's whole life to God (Mark 8:34-35; Matthew 6:19-21; Matthew 6:24-33; Matthew 10:37-39). Following Jesus demands much more from us than only believing certain truths and doing certain good acts (Luke 18:9-14; Luke 14:33). It calls for a deep change, a radical turning about, a total commitment of our lives to Jesus Christ through repentance and obedience of faith (Luke 13:3; 2 Corinthians 5:15; Luke 11:23).
Conversion means re-centering our passions and re-aligning our affections towards doing God's work in the world. Seeking our own pleasure and enjoyment (i.e., fun, fame and fortune) become secondary. Reaching out in service to others and seeking God's Will for our lives become primary. Conversion entails liberation from self-centeredness and empowerment towards a vocation of service in partnership with God.
Conversion also involves a radical re-grounding of our sense of specialness and destiny. Conversion is fostered by embracing the liberating conviction that our worth and value is given as our birthright because we are children of a loving God. This realization releases us from the burden of self-doubt and feelings of low self-esteem that often impair our faith response. We realize that God, who from all eternity has known and loved us, invites us to partnership in our life's mission and purpose, which involves doing His Will and serving others.
While Catholic theology recognizes that conversion is an ongoing process of continually living out faith in Jesus Christ every day, it also recognizes the importance of initial conversion. Donald L. Gelpi, in his book The Conversion Experience, explains that we experience initial conversion to Christ through repentance, when we candidly acknowledge and confront in faith the emotional disorders that inhibit our consent of faith and look to God as the ultimate source of emotional healing. In addition, we may convert initially when we respond to the love of Christ we see in those whose lives resemble His. We convert initially when we not only fully understand the moral demands of Christ, but also commit ourselves to living according to those ideals. Initial conversion demands that we renounce everything that separates us from the love of God as revealed in Jesus Christ and by the Holy Spirit.
Initial conversion is, therefore, primarily a conscious commitment to Jesus Christ and an adult decision to give one's life to him in discipleship. In this context, initial conversion is not necessarily the profoundly emotional event experienced by many evangelicals. For many Christians, initial conversion is simply a low-key discovery of an owned faith and a discipleship decision that have developed over time, coupled with a conscious commitment to live out that faith in one's life.
However, the ongoing, gradual, and lifelong nature of the conversion process has been overemphasized to the extent that adult Catholics are rarely, if ever, challenged to an initial conversion, a mature faith decision. Catholics could learn a lot from evangelical Christians about the importance of initial conversion. Catholics, like all Christians, must at some time in their adult lives initially respond to God's loving invitation by making a fully conscious commitment to Jesus Christ and a mature decision to give their lives completely to Him in discipleship.
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Copyright © Steve Hemler. Steve Hemler has been involved in youth ministry, pro-life political activism and religious education. His articles have been published in America, Liguorian, Church, Modern Liturgy, Religion Teacher's Journal, Liturgical Catechesis, and National Review.