Being Missionary in Light of the Stages of Conversion
Written by Rev. Ronald Wayne Young, OMI
Often, reflections on conversion begin by considering the state of the convert in isolation as a psychological matter. However, conversion is primarily an ecclesial concern since the Universal Church is essentially a communion of the converting, of saints in process. So, it is perhaps more appropriate to reflect on what evangelization is at the various stages of the conversion process. In other words, what is the Church’s mission to converts at all stages of spiritual development? The short answer is that the Church has the responsibility of serving to move people to the next stage of spiritual development. This is evangelization too. But, the question remains how can evangelization stimulate and propel spiritual progress?
The Sanctified and Evangelization
It would seem prudent to start at the end, at the final goal of conversion and, so, to clarify both the process of conversion and the proper stages of evangelization appropriate to each stage of conversion. The proper end of conversion is personal holiness, sanctification or “divinization” in the Eastern Christian spiritual tradition. In the contemplative tradition, the word is spiritual “union.” It is a secure state, an attainment during life and, ultimately a principal work of the Triune God in the world. The Universal Church is a collective of people on pilgrimage toward God, seeking holiness by various means and approaches and attaining sanctification as a free gift by a free divinity.
It is as full of paradox as poetry is full of words because describing the ultimate state of personal harmony with God, the world, one’s neighbor and one’s self moves one into the Zen of describing divine things with human words and enacting them with human deeds. The worlds of the transcendent and the conditional connect in the most natural supernatural way as though they were made for each other, but cannot be imagined through human artifice as doing so.
Ultimately, the sign of authentic holiness is an unselfconscious usefulness that leads others to this most desirable state of being. The self in isolation has become the self for others in grateful and willing sacrifice to God. Priorities have shifted in often startling and dramatic ways as Heaven waits no longer for death as the boundary between this world and the next.
People experience the presence of the sanctified person as a sacramental encounter with the divine presence. The sanctified carry with them the marks of intimacy in crucifixion wrapped in resurrected splendor. They speak the same simple words, but with a depth of understanding that penetrate and disturb simply by clarity of insight and the urgency of sincerity. They have been made simple, like God is simple, yet when analyzed they appear as complex as the science of the Universe. In each of these ways, the ultimate goal of the Universal Church’s mission as preeminent Sacrament of Salvation is to serve as a mother in the travails of birthing Heavenly children, a crèche for sanctification, and an environment where the quest for holiness is the very atmosphere of spiritual family life. So, evangelization in light of this goal is the work of birthing, schooling and ennobling authentic holiness.
In the end, the final work of the Church’s evangelization is to receive the fruit of people’s holiness in celebration and with gratitude. To be evangelized by a living representative of the Christian gospel and receive divine service through sanctified human hands is the necessary openness required of the Christian community. To receive God’s handiwork with joy is the Church’s responsibility and delight. This receptivity is itself a sign of the Church’s union with God and the ongoing divine mission. This is the last stage of the Church’s evangelization of converts.
First Stage: Witness to the Gospel Message
Strangely, the first two stages of conversion are not for converts. They are for those who will welcome converts. It is for evangelizers or missionaries. The first stage is spiritual maturity sufficient to offer a living Christian witness to the gospel message. According to the teaching the Saints, and of every Bishop of Rome, every Pope, authentic Christian witness is the first priority of the missionary life. To offer a living witness to the gospel is to grow in union with God to the point that one carries the concerns of God’s heart in one’s heart. God is set on the salvation of all people, on their fulfillment and on their union with Him in a divine life that satisfies and challenges.
Many people are living their Christian religion in a convenient self-satisfying way. This is the opposite of authentic Christian witness. Their Christianity is whatever can fit in their pocket or purse. It is a small controllable thing that assuages a guilty conscience or hedges their bet on a potential afterlife. These are those who say that they are “spiritual, but not religious.” By this, they seem to mean that their religion, as they conceive it, is the real authentic expression of all that externalized symbolic stuff. However, this is a false understanding of authentic religion because their concept of religion is so small, it is easily made superfluous. After all, anything that can be so form-fitting cannot challenge sufficient to achieve human growth. Real Christianity is by its very nature challenging, a great adventure. We do not own or control real religion. It owns us like a kingdom that “breaks in” upon our lives and while conveying hope, takes us to those unenlightened places within ourselves and in our world to be put right.
Christianity is a divine gift from the heart of God and as such, has a potential for growth that lasts a lifetime. It is bigger, wider and wiser than we first suspected. It is so big, that one has to grow to fit it, rather than tailor it to fit ourselves. It is both a place of secure safety and constant challenge. It is interesting and intriguing, evoking human imagination and creativity at every turn. If we are faithful to real religion, it turns us toward a life that can see eternity. It has power over us and over the world and we become powerful because of it, not in spite of it. However, our “power” is found in being the “least among the brothers and sisters” who serve. It admits the humility of the actual truth of our need for God and the free gift of an endless and divine loving affirmation that is not self-centered.
Real Christianity is inconvenient and self-sacrificial by nature. It is found in the “extra mile” or the “blessing those who hate you.” It is forgiving “seventy times seven.” It desires justice and peace for people’s lives, while knowing that justice without mercy is useless. It is compassion which is shared passion or suffering with those who suffer. It carries the saving Cross with Christ by bringing faith, hope and love into every context, especially where badly needed.
To love in this way, the truth about us, our sins and failings, our neediness and pettiness, the smallness of our egotistical focus becomes self-evident without becoming paralyzing. We are made aware that we need the discipline of a disciple of Jesus Christ, if we are ever to discover the courage of an apostle. Jesus’ discipline is not a war of words, being right at all costs by dismissing people even if they are wrong. Sometimes it is better to lose a fight and win a friend, than win a fight and lose everything we most desire. Even being right in the truth, even religious Truth, can become wrong if we fail to manifest that love and respect that God has for each and everyone. After all, Jesus came to save and to gather, not to lose and to scatter.
Real Christianity does not first see what religion their neighbor practices before it sees a child of God in beauty and splendor with inherent dignity and beguiling character. Human beings are sacred “images and likenesses” of the divine and are treated as such without judgement or the need to be judged. When lived, real Christianity calls out the greatness within, the potential spark of human aspirations are fanned into a bonfire of creative, redemptive and sanctifying behaviours that mirrors the mission of the Trinity of God by reflecting the source of all light. In God’s light, we see light and become light for others.
Christian witness invites us to testify to what we have “seen and heard.” Our spiritual application in relation to ourselves, our neighbors, our world and God tests, reinforces what is useful and dismisses the inadequate. Living the Christian life is essentially a life in relationship and the relationships of our lives purify and make manifest the claims about Jesus that we make. One may exclaim, “HE IS RISEN!” But, if he is not rising to life in you, where is your proof? As with each development in holiness, it appears as though one as passed through the fires of purification and difficulty when what has really happened is that one has been gifted with a purification of the heart and mind that is truly at God’s service. This is the key. Being of real service requires a heart that is pure and gentle, patient and kindly disposed, courteous and willing, even wanting the good of everyone in a way they can understand it. That means one must grow to offer service that actually serves, it carries no hidden agendas and wants no return.
The Christian Truths of our Revealed Faith are not forced down other people’s throats, but emerge in the natural/supernatural interplay of belief and behavior that accord one another their proper due. We are not afraid to talk about Jesus. However, we speak about him most loudly by our actions, by our commitments and by our conduct. Words are meaningless without context. The witness of living the Christian life as a Christian is the context of our words and they are given sparingly lest we fall into hypocrisy.
Christian witness is about testifying to the sublime beauty of life offered in Jesus Christ, especially when there is a price attached. Through his life, death, resurrection and exaltation, Jesus has made a Way to life without end. As a Roman Catholic Christian, we live the Sacraments of divine love and redemption. All too often, we encounter those who live in union with God through the Sacraments once a week, while they are in church. We are called and compelled to become practicing Christians, people who live the Sacraments of the Church of Jesus Christ beyond Church walls. We have to become Christians the other six days in the week if our proclamation about Jesus is ever to be believed. This is the key, to be credible in communicating about Jesus; we have to live his Faith to the point of martyrdom. The word martyrdom means witness.
Martyrdom meant dying in the Early Church and there are still places where people actually die for the Faith. However, it is more common in modern life that we will experience ridicule, suspicion and gossip if we attempt to live like Christ, for him and in him. The World is not kind, but apparently God loves it sufficient to save it and we have to love it with the same dedication. The divine motive for the Redemption presumes that something about human beings is worth saving, even to the point of dying ourselves. Our martyrdom, our testimony depends upon discovering what we think is worth saving, then changing our attitudes, our words and behaviors in accord with that view to achieve salvation. In other words, we are called to conversion of life to give witness that is substantial. It has been paid for by our willingness to grow into another Christ in our families, in our friendships, at work and out and about.
Witness is not cheap, but extravagantly expensive. It costs everything of personal comfort and convenience for the sake of bringing the Sons and Daughters of God to birth to new life in Christ. Martyrdom is real dying to our own small agendas and self-will in order to embrace a divine agenda willed since before the beginning of time. Thus, the conversion of others depends on God and God has desired to share this burden, this divine design by offering us the opportunity to being converted to the point where we can testify to the reality of what we claim about Jesus.
Jesus is the focus, the spotlight remains on him. The light we seek has no fame, power or wealth attached, but only more service for love of Jesus. Thus, the first stage of development in Christian conversion is the development of an authentic Christian witness that proclaims Jesus Christ first and always.
Second Stage: Evangelization through Proclamation
If there is one thing everybody seems prolific in offering, it is proclamation. The call to proclaim the gospel message is seminal to the entire collaborative effort of mission in union with the mission of the Holy Spirit. However, because of the frequency and regularity of proclamation, some elements may get lost along the way.
Looking to the proclamation of Jesus teaches us much. The subject of his proclamation is God and God’s activities in favor of people. Jesus is not self-referential except where it furthers his message as an example of what he is proclaiming about God. However, Jesus affirms that human choice and real change is required to join God’s family. This message of love is always tied to the need to “Reform your lives, because the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” Clearly, the message of Jesus is a message of conversion required of everyone, at all times, in every context.
Jesus offers no shortage of information about his relationship with God, His father. He has much to say about the goodness and graciousness of his Father because he knows him intimately through prayer. While there has been some recent discussion of whether God is male or female, these fail to understand that God is both and above all these human representations. However, the image of the First Century Jewish Patriarch is important to understand as Jesus’ central image of God. The Father is the leader, the provider and protector. He is the dignity and honor of the entire family in himself. His word is final and his wisdom and will are all important. However, this Father is as different from human fathers as day is different from night.
The Father is entirely focused on his sons and daughters, their wellbeing and inner sense of belovedness. He is observant, concerned and engaged, not distant or aloof. He values people eternally and wants their fulfillment in this life and the life to come. God, the Father is more generous, thoughtful and compassionate than anyone has yet imagined. There is always a way to the Father’s heart through prayer and to be united with Him is to be united with one’s self in a wholesome and loving relationship that is always reflected in one’s behaviour toward others. The Father is the source and foundation of the call to missionary activity by the Son and Holy Spirit and the Church.
Jesus is constantly shocking and amazing his listeners without needing to try. It is the shock of how God sees the world and human activities versus how human beings see these things. God is not impressed with human power, wealth or fame. The values underlying the Kingdom of God are very different from the values underlying the human kingdoms. While God is merciful and full of compassion, he is no fool and not to be toyed with through pretense. Loving God means loving one’s neighbor sincerely and generously.
Jesus is kingly, but more than a king. He is prophetic, but more than a prophet. He is priestly, but more than a priest and the fact that there are no adequate human words to accurately describe Jesus as “fully divine and fully human” are the limits of human thought and language. Jesus makes God, the Father visibly and materially present and Jesus’ choices and values reflect the character of God. So, his confrontation with Evil, his attentiveness to the poor and excluded, his signs and wonders in the power of the returned Spirit and his proclamation of a kingdom unlike any kingdom of human history reflect God’s sense of what is important. Finally, the willingness of Jesus to accept the unjust sentence of death on a cross to express how intensely God loves humanity is the most profound statement that God can make about the extravagant love that God has for humanity. Thus, the proclamation of Jesus is engaged in the seminal missionary enterprise whose subject is God to the extent God can be understood by humans.
Observing Saint Peter after Pentecost also has much to teach about missionary proclamation. Peter speaks prophetically, compelled through union with the Holy Spirit of God. He tells the story of Jesus, not of Peter and it is to Jesus that he attributes the power and majesty of his message. Thus, every sermon or homily is meant to be a prophetic proclamation, empowered by the Spirit, whose subject is God. Peter speaks in a language that is understandable to all who will listen. His intent is to communicate, not to impress. He is a simple instrument in God’s hands, playing a melody of God’s composition. Peter depends utterly on God to make his message heard in the hearts of his listeners, not just their heads. This is an encounter with Truth and Truth’s consequences which call everyone to conversion, even the speaker. Peter realizes that his words could cost his life and he says them anyway. Peter is inspiring because he is inspired by an inner communion with God, through Jesus.
Finally, Saint Paul provides for the quality of our proclamation. He challenges everyone not to be a “noisy gong, or a sounding symbol.” Love is the condition for authentic proclamation. The Christian missionary is called to love people enough to tell them the religious Truth and the consequent truths of morality in line with the Kingdom of God. Paul is willing to undergo trials, tribulations, torture and death to proclaim God’s goodness, Jesus’ Truth and the Spirit’s power. Nevertheless, Paul is always attentive to offer a message in a way that can be heard and understood within the cultural contexts of his listeners. He is an ambassador for Christ, offering Jesus message that he received through the Apostles proclamation and teaching faithfully, without fixing it for the convenience of human conscience or consequence. He feels no need to edit God. Paul knows that it is God’s message that needs to be transmitted faithfully if it is to have the positive and lasting impact that was intended. He calls people to conversion, to become their truest and deepest spiritual selves and shine the light of God’s love to everyone.
In authentic Christian missionary proclamation, conversion in the heart, insight in the head and communion with others in the Spirit is the self-evident result. Authentic proclamation is respectful of God, God’s message of salvation and represents God in Spirit and in Truth. Authentic proclamation is respectful of one’s self, reflecting a prayerful and thoughtful consideration. Authentic proclamation is respectful of one’s listeners, whom God values more than any other created thing. It invites and inspires Christian missionary activity that reflects the character of God, the Holy Trinity by being observant, concerned and engaged. It is as shocking as the idea of genuine love as the invisible force of the physics of the universe can be, without trying to shock anyone. God is impressive without needing to impress. Finally, authentic Christian missionary proclamation is a lived reality of humble ministry, service and charity that helps people see who they really are in the light of God’s eyes. It is most profoundly expressed by what is lived in Christian witness, not by what is spoken. The second stage of conversion is a Christian missionary proclamation that unveils the treasure at the heart of the Christian life in a way that stimulates conversion to God, but directs love, compassion and respect toward all.
Third Stage: Inquiry and Conversion
The predicate or starting place for every conversion is the search for Truth in the truths of life: inquiry. Inquiry is the first stage of the conversion process in the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults. While it might appear to be an intellectual inquiry, it is also and mostly a quest of the heart. Throughout human history emotion-laden experiences like personal failure, significant change, sickness and death evoke the deepest longings for understanding, especially in relation to why God would allow such things and how does one deal with them. So, all initial inquiry begins with really good questions loaded with emotional land mines to which there are no easy answers. However, it is important to remember that these are stages in a living process of conversion and not merely ends in themselves that easy answers will resolve. In any case, inquiry contains three elements basic to all good theological inquiry: the search, for Truth, in life.
Inquiry is a search. To search is to open one’s self to the possibility that one is not complete in one’s self. “No one is an island,” to paraphrase an old saying. There is a world of natural wonders, a world of human experiences, a world of human wisdom in response to nature and experience. In fact, the two traditional sources of Christian Revelation are nature and revealed Truth. They provide relevant and life-giving answers to great questions, though usually in unsatisfying ways because the answers always lead to the next questions and we have to grow inwardly toward maturity in response to them. Nevertheless, to search honestly is to admit the need for others in finding the Other who is God.
To assist one who is searching is not the same thing as having all the answers. I have met many religious and nonreligious types who have all the answers. So far, they only answer the question, who has the biggest ego in the room? So, to assist one who is searching is more a matter of letting go of one’s ego and remembering what it is like not to have the answers one seeks. To be in the place of disorientation, of doubt, relevant fear and insecurity is to share in a searching attitude. The driver of the caravan knows where he wants to go and knows the way to get there, but getting there is another matter entirely. No one can predict what will happen during the journey. If one is truly open to helping others search through inquiry, one risks growing in one’s personal search and opening one’s self to humility. Perhaps, this is not entirely a bad result.
Inquiry is a search for ultimate and absolute religious Truth. People want certainty when dealing with really good questions, especially regarding ultimate questions of religious Truth. It would be true to say that both nature and revealed Truth provide absolute answers to the really good questions. However, being divine answers, they share in the qualities of their source who is God. They answer in infinitely profound ways, in every circumstance and all situations. They are timeless and unlimited by space. However, what one hears at one point of life from these same answers changes at another point of life. Revealed Truth may be timeless and unlimited by space like God, but we are not. Not only do we have to grow to relate to them at all, but we have to keep growing and every time we do, the answers that are Revealed become more profound and relevant to our lives. It is not a game with Truth, but a consequence of conditional beings in relationship with an absolute being. The two are not easily compatible and the absolute has made allowances for the small scope of human perception in offering revealed Truth in a human way through Jesus Christ and the Faith He professed.
Jesus is the divine Answer to a human search for religious Truth. His life of signs and wonders, his preaching and teaching, his death, resurrection and exaltation offer a compassionate divine understanding for the human situation. Wisdom may be found in Jesus’ experience. Wisdom in the Scriptures is experience reflected upon and useful for others. The Creed professed by the universal Church offers Truth, but reflection upon its implications and the inherent meaning contained within it always makes one an instrument of Truth by relating it to the truths in which we live and by which we live.
Further, Christian Truth is not only divine information, but it is behavioral as well. To say “God is love” is impressive, but to live the love God is manifests authentic holiness and conveys another aspect of Truth. This behavioral aspect of Christian Revelation flows from the fact that Jesus was not merely a good source for information or religious wisdom, but also the only manifestation of God in human form. His likes and dislikes, his inclinations and choices were the likes and dislikes, inclinations and choices of God within human history. Thus, Truth is both informational and behavioral and continues along these complex lines of understanding.
Inquiry is in answer to the questions that life raises. Life is contextual; it is a state where people have to face the unknown or uncertain with limited power and halting intellect. It has sidewalks that cause cuts when one falls and walls that stop one in one’s tracks. BAM! Personal failure, significant changes, sickness and death are the most dramatic examples of things that are happening all the time that show human limitation in the face of existence.
Almost always, it is the drama of the experience that causes one to begin the search for Truth, not the experience itself. Death serves a rational purpose or the world would have been overwhelmed by life long ago. However, the pain of separation, of losing someone precious and desirable feels like losing ourselves. Drama implies a force of emotion that is perceived to be negative or alienating from one’s self. This is where the two aspects of Truth apply. The explanations offered by religious Truth and the behaviors that show the evidence of those Truths interact with both the search for meaning and the powerlessness that dramatic experiences evince. Offered sincerely, religious Truth and behavioral Truth evoke trust.
Trust is a form of relational faith in another. This is the natural/supernatural result and goal of the first stage of inquiry as conversion. It is the faith of trust that allows one to fall back into the arms of another and not experience further confirmation that life only hurts. Rather, the faith of trust in God’s Truth is a gift of grace, conveyed by the Holy Spirit that is evidenced by a building trust among those who share the search for meaning and the empowerment answers can bring. It will be simple, uncomplicated and inarticulate in many ways, but trust that the journey is worthwhile and that those with which one is journeying are worthwhile are the signs of effective evangelization at this stage of spiritual development.