Not every Catholic can name a precise moment when he or she decided to follow Jesus wholeheartedly. But most any Catholic who’s in love with the Lord can describe a “conversion experience” somewhere along their proverbial “Road to Damascus.”
That term, of course, refers to Acts 9:1-5, which tells how Saul, “still breathing murderous threats against the disciples of the Lord,” and on his way to do his dirty work against the Church, was literally knocked to the ground by Christ himself. Christianity’s greatest conversion followed, and Saul the persecutor of Christians became St. Paul, the Church’s greatest convert and evangelist.
For most evangelical Protestants, the conversion experience is a one-time deal. You answer an altar call, confess with your mouth and believe in your heart that Jesus Christ is your personal Lord and Savior, and you are “once saved, always saved.”
Many evangelical groups teach that, once you’ve taken this step, you have a “ticket to heaven” that you can never lose or forfeit — no matter what you do (or don’t do) with your professed faith in the weeks, months and years that follow.
The Catholic Church teaches a different kind of Christian conversion.
Catholic apologist David Currie, a convert from evangelical Protestantism and author of Born Fundamentalist, Born Again Catholic (Ignatius, 1996), knows the terrain on both sides of the Tiber.
“We didn’t talk about conversion. We were into heaven. It was done,” he says, recalling the “born again” experience he had as an evangelical. “As Catholics we believe in that first initial conversion, as St. Paul had. After that we see the need for continual conversion. Paul makes clear in his writings that he is in the process of converting on a daily basis.”
Legionary Father John Bartunek, author of The Better Part (Circle Press, 2007) and the best-selling Inside the Passion (Ascension Press, 2005), also understands the distinction from first-hand experience.
The young priest grew up in a home without any kind of religion “except sports,” he says. That began to change when his older sister got involved with an evangelical group and encouraged him and his younger sister to come along. He enjoyed the atmosphere, he says, but didn’t believe what was preached.
Then a “Paul” experience flashed for him while he was at a youth concert singing a praise song called “Let There Be Light.”
“During that song, from one moment to the next, I started to believe,” he recalls. “It was a moment of grace. That was when I was ‘born again,’ when Jesus Christ became real to me. From that moment, I became aware of Christ’s presence, the reality of his love for me. I wanted to know him better, to know the Bible, to pray.”
He went further, becoming a Catholic in 1991 and a priest in 2003.
“When someone becomes aware of Jesus Christ as a real person and accepts his offer of friendship, that’s the basic concept of conversion from an evangelical standpoint — and I would also say from a Catholic standpoint,” says Father Bartunek. “They change the direction of their life. It’s an experience of the person of Christ that makes me turn around and start going toward Christ and the Kingdom instead of to myself.”
The question is: What then?
Father Bartunek points to the writings of St. Paul in the New Testament. “Fight the good fight of faith and win the eternal life to which you were called” (Timothy 6:12) … “I punish my body and bring it under control, to avoid any risk that, having acted as herald for others, I myself may be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:27). … “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12).
In February 2007, Pope Benedict XVI told seminarians to recognize that “we need an ongoing conversion, that we are simply not there yet. St. Augustine … had to understand that the journey after conversion is still a journey of conversion … through which we must wend our way with trust, relying on the goodness of the Lord.”
‘Gestures of Reconciliation’
As with all the finer points of Catholic doctrine, the Church’s teaching on conversion is simple — but not automatically grasped by children. How can families live the doctrine and make sure each member “gets it”?
One thing Currie has done with his eight children, who range in age from 8 to 28, is talk about the sacrament of reconciliation. He points out that the Catechism, in No. 1423, names it “the sacrament of conversion” (emphasis added).
Currie and his co-convert wife, Colleen, who live in the Chicago area, made it a point to take their children to confession one Saturday a month from their first reconciliation through sixth or seventh grade. Afterwards they’d talk about the joy of the sacrament.
“Giving them the opportunity to go to reconciliation and convert is one of the reasons my kids still are practicing Catholics,” he states.
What’s more, his family has always made it a habit to apologize if one hurts another. He says it’s a small act of conversion that has to be trained into youngsters and modeled for them.
“When Dad does something to offend his 13-year-old son, he goes back and apologizes. That’s not easy for Dad to do, but it teaches the child a principle of conversion: My pride is not important. Living the way God wants us to live — that’s important.”
That principle is in step with the Catechism’s No. 1435, which begins: “Conversion is accomplished in daily life by gestures of reconciliation …”
Dan and Pat Cheely, parents of nine children between 13 and 29 years old in greater Chicago, do their best to attend Mass as well as pray the Rosary, often while driving, with their children. (Their four college grads kept their faith through their school years and remain active Catholics.)
“The idea is to show the children that we see the Mass as so important, it’s worth the sacrifice,” says Dan. “They see it has value and want to the do the same.”
Cheely also brings in what the great French novelist and essayist George Bernanos said about the Catholic faith: It’s the greatest adventure in the world. It’s difficult, dangerous and heroic; it means love and sacrifice.
Currie concurs. “The key to get your kids to turn out good,” he says, “is to have them learn about conversion.”
In the process, with the help of God’s grace, they — and their parents — may find their way to life-changing sanctification and eternal salvation.
Staff writer Joseph Pronechen
is based in Trumbull, Connecticut.