Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
Being Born Again
A year ago, a young woman from Oregon jotted down
some poetic reflections on her Easter Vigil experience. She wrote
about "waiting...for the flash that changes everything" when she
and other candidates for Baptism were "passing like sleepwalkers
through the water, the oil, the first bread and wine."
But there was no "flash" and "no release from the
frailties" of ordinary human life. Yet, as her verse concludes,
she found that certain "unpretentious miracles" were happening:
"Over and over, we struggle out of the tomb, Feet
tangled in the winding sheets, Decay just setting in; Over and
over catch the scent of clean air As the stone yields; And over
and over, turn again To the dawn, to the new light."
Rolling stones over and over
This new Catholic knows that Easter
is just a beginning. "Over and over" we are born again and again.
Over and over God rolls back stones from our tombs of complacency.
Some unexpected eventwhether heart-lifting or heart-breakingnudges
us towards questioning the meaning of life. A baby is born. Someone
betrays us. We lose a job. We find a friend. News from Cambodia
appalls us. We celebrate a marriage of 25 years. A relationship
sputters and dies. A child leaves home. A spouse dies.
Catholics believe that these are revelation
times. These are times when life pushes us to our limits. In happy
times, we ask, "How did we deserve this?" If our answer is, "We
don't. It's pure gift. It's pure grace," then we have seen the revelation
of God's generous love. In painful times, we ask, "How did we deserve
this?" If our answer is, "We don't. And we can't handle this alone,"
if we turn to God (or to companions as the enfleshment of God) for
hope and healing, once again we have tasted the revelation of God's
love. It was in such oppressive times that God's loving presence
was revealed to Abraham and Sarah in the desert, to Moses and Israel
in the burning bush and the exodus, to prophets looking at the violence
and injustice of their times, to Jesus in his desert (see readings
for First Sunday of Lent).
Conversion: our response to God's
Therefore, over and over, such times can be conversion
times. These moments of revelation are God's call, God's reaching
out to us. Conversion and faith are our response. Conversion is
our "turning toward" God who is always turning toward us. Conversion
is the ongoing response of our whole person turning in faith and
love to the God who loves us. Faith is far more than a head-trip
with the mind. If revelation and grace are the gift of God's very
presence and life and Self to us, faith is the giving of our whole
self (head, heart and hands) back to God. That takes time. That
takes some chipping away at the stone and defenses that block
God's entrances to our tomb. We self-made Americans would rather
pick ourselves up by our bootstraps. It takes time and humility
to find that healing love is not self-made but pure gift.
That is why Catholic versions of conversion differ
from fundamentalist pentecostal versions. Pentecostals leap into
faith. Catholics tend to crawl. The classic model for the pentecostal
version is Paul's sudden conversion on the way to Damascus, knocked
off the horse onto his rear by grace. That "born again" experience
is identified by time and place. It's a one-time event. Once it
happens, we've got it madeor so we are tempted to think.
With Jackie Gleason we cry, "How sweet it is!" It seems to come
from nowhere. It is "baptism in the Spirit" by direct action of
Catholics agree that God's Spirit is behind it all.
Catholics also believe in a Spirit incarnate, a Spirit enfleshed
in persons and events. The Spirit was never more incarnate than
in the person of Jesus (1 John 1). Jesus reveals this Spirit of
God's love to us in what he says but more by who he is and what
he doesas embodied in the events of his life: healing the
sick, forgiving and eating with sinners, caring for the poor,
dying and rising. He is the Word made flesh (John 1) by the power
of God's Spirit. Jesus gives us that same Spirit who speaks through
the events of our livesbabies born, jobs lost and friendships
found. In these times the Spirit can reveal the God of hope and
Conversion as birth
Catholics agree with evangelicals, nonetheless, that
one image for conversion is birth. Although conversion is no one-time
born-again experience, each conversion is a new birthwe
are born again and again. Philosopher Sam Keen writes, "Every
crisis in which the psyche is stretched, pushed and impelled into
a larger world, invited to become spirit, will be symbolized by
the trauma and triumph of birth. Without being born again, and
again, there is no journey, no spirit, no love" (The Passionate
Life, p. 30). All great moments of agony and ecstasy normally
involve the trauma of birth (cutting cords, moving out, letting
go) and the triumph of birth (new life, relationships, responsibilities).
At life's great turning points (choosing a vocation, entering
marriage, having children, making a commitment, experiencing the
death of a loved one) especially, we are like Abraham and Sarah
setting out into the desert. There's no National Geographic
map, no AAA insurance. Are we able to let go of control and journey
in faith on uncharted paths?
These dramatic kinds of conversion, however, are still
crisis-oriented, like fundamentalist conversions, "peak experiences."
There are also "plateau experiences," the long heat of the day
after setting out on our path. Abraham and Sarah did not face
crises every day. They were simply called to live each day in
fidelity. Some may not be able to point to vivid born-again experiences
prompted by crises. But they know they live more deeply in God's
love today than they did five years ago. A greater and greater
portion of their personal and communal lives is born into the
Since Catholics are many times born again, we have
sacraments and a liturgical year to celebrate and nourish this
new creation. All of human life can be born again. The ordinary
is born again into the extraordinary; our faith-vision helps us
see this. Eating, drinking, bathing, anointing, reconciling, healing,
leading, marrying, using bread, wine, water, oil, gesture and
vesture, music, laying on of hands and taking part in processions
in a community of faithall these human events are caught
up into the new creation. Sunday after Sunday, Lent after Lent,
year after year, we bring all this to liturgy so that all of life
and all creation might be born again and again through God's Spirit
who makes all creation new (Romans 8).
Conversion as dying/rising
A second image of conversion is the paschal
mystery, namely, our entering the dying/rising of Jesus. This image
is grounded in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA).
There the Church offers a vision of conversion for new members.
The RCIA states that this also holds true for all members
since conversion is an ongoing journey. "The whole initiation must
bear a markedly paschal character, since the initiation of Christians
is the first sacramental sharing in Christ's dying and rising" (#8).
Once again, the Catholic version of conversion is sacramental. Initiation
is the first sharing in Christ's dying/rising; but every sacrament,
especially the Eucharist, celebrates our deepening experience of
the death and resurrection of Christ.
We need to move beyond the jargon of
paschal mystery, however, and connect that dying/rising with concrete
events in our lives. Our biblical tradition does precisely that.
Unlike the writings of some other religions, the writings of Jews
and Christians are rooted in historical events and storiesstories
of real people to whom God gives life even when they are dead, powerless,
enslaved: to Abraham and Sarah when they are old and barren, to
Rachel and Rebecca when they are barren, to Moses when he is fearful
and timid, to Hebrews in slavery, to David when he is too weak,
to Israel in exile, to Jeremiah when he is too young, to Isaiah
when he sees himself as too sinful, to Mary who is a virgin, to
the Samaritan woman rejected because she was a woman and a Samaritan,
to workers in the vineyard who are late, sons and daughters who
are prodigal, sheep who are lost, tax collectors who are traitorous,
adulterous women whom "perfect gentlemen" want to stone, sinners
who know their sin, Jesus tempted in the desert, sweating blood
in the garden, nailed to the cross. In each story there is deathpowerlessness,
barrenness, rejection, crucifixion. In each story God gives lifepower,
birth, acceptance, resurrection.
We proclaim these stories, and we listen.
It is not so much that we take hold of the stories. The stories
take hold of us. We ask, "Have I and my people ever felt too old,
barren, fearful, enslaved, weak, exiled, young, sinful, Samaritan
(read black, Hispanic, Polish, Irish), prodigal, lost, in a desert
or on a cross?
If so, do I believe God is there in those
times turning to me and my people offering love, grace, freedom,
liberation, gift, life? If so, have I put my trust in that God,
turned to that God? That is hardly a head-trip. It is surrender
of our whole person to the God who surrenders in love to us.
For many people, dying often means a
crisis. Dying, however, can also mean the day-to-day dying of people
who love, for example, in marriage, friendship, serving others.
In Italian, amore (love) has its roots in morte (death).
In the quiet dailiness of our relationships and our vocations we
experience death to self and to our needs. This kind of dying is
part of one's care, compassion, sensitivity and love for other persons.
We experience the new life which that death brings. When we turn
to God as the source of that life, conversion happens. "Those who
live in love live in God and God in them" (1 John 4). That is the
life for which we give thanks at Eucharist and which is the place
of ongoing conversion.
Conversion as mirrored in the RCIA
There is no better way to understand the meaning of
conversion in all its dimensions than to look at the RCIA. Various
signs of conversion are found there. This is the Church's own
vision for nourishing the ongoing conversion of its members. The
RCIA identifies the signs of this ongoing conversion. In the first
period of the RCIA (inquiry), a time when candidates for initiation
search for faith with the Catholic Christian community, the goal
is "faith and initial conversion." Very simply, that means a person
"feels called away from sin and drawn into the mystery of God's
love" (#36, 37). This is a first sign of conversion. That may
or may not have happened for an inquirer. If it has not, the inquiry
period offers evangelization, which literally means "sharing the
Good News" of God's love as an invitation to conversion. We simply
tell the great stories of God offering life where there is death.
We invite inquirers to see themselves in those stories. "Yes,
I am the prodigal embraced by the Father. I am the lost sheep
carried home. We are the people with whom Jesus is present during
the storm." If they see themselves in these stories, conversion
The same is true for baptized Catholicsthey
may or may not have been "drawn into the mystery of God's love."
In a study by George Gallup of all major Churches, Catholics scored
lowest (65 percent) in agreeing with the statement, "God loves
you a great deal," and lowest (82 percent) in believing that they
have a personal relationship with God. If any of us as baptized
Catholics have not experienced personal faith and conversion,
we have some catch-up work to do.
Once again, the RCIA suggests what we might do. The
second period in the RCIA, the catechumenate (the period when
the Church nurtures candidates in deeper faith), does not totally
shift gears. It simply continues what the inquiry period began,
and nourishes, stabilizes and deepens the ongoing conversion of
new members. It does so in four ways: 1) Scripture and doctrine;
2) prayer and moral life of the community; 3) liturgy; and 4)
apostolic witness (#75). That is a revolutionary vision of catechesis
(which in Greek means echoing the Word, hearing the Good
News again and again). It moves far beyond head-trips. We can
never know what is in a person's heart; but if conversion is deepening
for new members, there should be signs in these four areas. The
same is true for old members. Therefore, let us explore some dimensions
of these four avenues of catechesis.
Scripture and doctrine: conversion as
Scripture scholar Raymond Brown suggests
that the Greek term for conversion, metanoia, means afterthought.
Many identify conversion with moral change. But, in a sense, the
people who rejected Jesus, especially the Pharisees, were morally
good people. They followed the law. However, from the start they
had refused to change their minds. They felt Jesus had nothing to
teach them. They had their minds made up that they were self-made.
They did not think differently after they met Jesus Christ. They
missed the messagemorality and law do not save. God saves.
Grace saves. And the absolutely free gift of God's love and mercy
is what makes morality possible.
There is much concern these days about
"the closing of the American mind," not only to the three R's but
also to the fourth R, religion. Up goes the cry, "Back to the basics!"
Indeed, we need the basics of religious knowledge. That does not
mean all the tomes of Thomas Aquinas. It does mean what some have
called the hierarchy of doctrine, including such things as the Creed,
Ten Commandments and Beatitudes, the Our Father and the sacraments.
We can know those basics, however, and
miss the basis. Theologian Bernard Lonergan says that the basis
of conversion is to discover life as wonder, mystery, the gift of
God's love. At the heart of all doctrine is the one message of God's
love in Christ Jesus through the Spirit. At the heart of all the
great stories of Scripture is God's love calling us through death
to life. How do we think after we hear those stories? Do we connect
those stories with our own born-again and death-resurrection stories?
When catechumens put themselves into those storieswhen the
stories cease to be just facts about Israel and Jesus and become
revelation of our dying and rising through the power of God's love
in a community todayit is one sign that Scripture and doctrine
have generated conversion for these new Catholics. The same holds
for veteran Catholics, some of whom Gallup claims are weak in personal
faith in God's love.
Archbishop Rembert Weakland claims that,
just like the religious leaders of Jesus' day, some of our leaders
are also weak in proclaiming God's love. He says, "I am sick and
tired of perfectionism." He adds that true witness is full of compassion:
"We witness because we want to try to help broken people." This
compassionate witness is contradicted by those who would "get rid
of the divorced, the gays and everybody else who gives us problems."
If we share such self-righteous attitudes, we may need to ask: Has
Jesus really changed our minds?
Prayer and morality: conversion as
'doing truth in love'
We not only talk the Way. We walk the
Way. We not only speak the truth. We do the truth. We learn about
Christ by following Christ. The Hebrew word for word is dabar,
better translated as word-deed. To believe God's Word is
to do God's Word. God's love comes first. The initiative is always
with God. But God's love makes our love possible. A second sign
of conversion for new and old members is that we are praying and
Catholics believe we learn about Christ
by following him where he lives todayin a community of faith.
We believe in "Christ among us" more in people than in books. We
follow Christ by experiencing him in sick people who pray, married
people who communicate, alienated people who reconcile, broken people
who work for justice. We ourselves are born again and again; we
die/rise again and again in our life of prayer and living out our
commitments to communicate, reconcile and work for justice. This
does not mean we are sinless. It does mean that, after we believe
in the power of God's love and let it transform us, we become better
loversin prayer and action in the community.
Liturgy: celebrating conversion with
'good red wine'
A third sign of conversion, especially
for Catholics and others who believe in a sacramental world, is
discovering and celebrating God's presence and love in the liturgy:
in bathing, anointing, eating, drinking, reconciling, marrying,
leading and healing, in gesture and vesture, smells and bells. The
Catholic vision which celebrates God's creation and love in the
Eucharist and other sacraments extends to the whole of creationrejoicing
in God's goodness revealed in all the earth's blessings. At our
best, Catholics have special devotion to parties. As English author
Hilaire Belloc put it in the 1930's, "Where e'er the Catholic sun
does shine, there's music and laughter and good red wine. At least
I've always found it so, 'Benedicamus Domino.'"
Catholics take the incarnation, the enfleshment
of God, more seriously. We never came closer to God than we did
in the flesh of Jesus. But his Spirit has been poured forth on all
flesh. Wherever "two or three gather in his name" to "do things
in memory of him," God in Christ Jesus is in our midst. For new
Catholics the most powerful experiences of God's presence in community
are usually the liturgies of the RCIA, especially the robust incarnation
of that presence in light, Word, water, oil, meal and community
at the Easter Vigil. For all Catholics a sign that they are entering
more deeply into a Catholic understanding of conversion is that
they are able to celebrate their lives as born again and again in
the liturgical year, brought through death to life in the galaxy
of Catholic liturgies.
Witness: conversion to mission
One of the exciting results of Vatican
II is the proclamation that all the baptized are called to Christian
witness and service. All are called to be missionaries. All vocations
are religious. The fundamental sacrament is Baptism. Members of
religious communities and the ordained simply live Baptism in a
certain way. Most of the baptized are missionaries in their family,
work, neighborhoods and civic communities.
Scripture scholar Eugene Laverdiere insists
that commitment to Christian mission is a sign of readiness for
adult initiation. It is the fourth sign of conversion in the RCIA.
Put negatively, if we aren't ready to witness actively to the gospel,
then we aren't ready for Baptism. That means that some of us baptized
as infants and raised on a passive diet of "pay, pray and obey"
may yet have a long way to go in activating our missionary vocation.
That does not mean that most live that
vocation in a formal Church ministry, for example, lector, eucharistic
minister, catechist. Too often we recognize, celebrate, even pay
for only those ecclesial ministries. The reason those specialized
ministries exist is to empower the baptized to live the gospel of
compassion, justice, peace and love in the world where the Reign
of God happens (or does not happen). All ministries of liturgy and
catechetics are there to launch and celebrate ministries of diakonia,
that is, ministries of broader service and witness in a broken
world crying for hope and healing.
Conversion: a joyful response
The Catholic version of conversion, therefore,
is that we are born again and again, through dying/rising again
and again. Conversion is the ongoing response of our whole person
turning in faith in the amazing grace of God's love, our response
of love in prayer and moral action, celebrating that love in a myriad
of liturgies, and witnessing to that love and justice in our world.
Another new Catholic, baptized on a Cherokee reservation, reveals
that she has taken that conversion journey. She prays:
"Will you take us now and make us useful?
Can we share these treasures? Water and wine for a thirsty timeBread
and roses for hungry hearts. As you gave life for life As life has
been shared with us for life So now we give our days and strength
To walk each gifted year around In joy."