Wednesday, October 24, 2007
A few years ago, while I was at work, I met a friendly Monsignor, whose name I will leave out since he's well-known around these parts, and somehow I mentioned that I had not been Catholic my whole life, and that I converted at the age of 18. With an endearing smile he lightly corrected me and said, "You joined the Church." I nodded with a compliance that tried to hide the discussion in my mind. Yes, technically, since I was christened as a baby and, at least, categorically, grew up in a Christian home, I didn't "convert" in the denotative meaning of one being baptized into Christianity from some other faith. I would think that, sacramentally, one being a catechumen and being baptized would be enough to account for a "conversion," whether or not I attended a Christian church in my youth.
And this was not the first time I had had this conversation with a priest or lay person. I can understand the desire to rely heavily on the more narrow meaning of the word conversion in order to foster a sense of ecumenism, but I fear that this is done at the expense of minimizing a person's particular experiences. This limited use of the word might have been more helpful in earlier times when those who sought to join the Church were either pagan, Jewish, or Muslim and were "converting" to Christianity. Now we have a very wide range of Protestant Christians who come to the Church and while they do have a religious knowledge of Jesus, that understanding isn't always just a few tweaks away from Catholic teaching.
In my experience, my whole worldview was changed. How I viewed my self, the human race, soteriological and eschatological views, you name it. It was very much a "conversion," including the sometimes accompanying condemnation or ostracizing by family or community members. I went from knowing God as a distant, loving person, much like any acquaintance, to knowing him intimately, as a spouse. This is so dramatically different of an experience, that when it happens between 2 people, we have an elaborate ceremony for it and call it a marriage. I consummated my relationship with Jesus with the Sacraments. I didn't just change my membership from one church to another.
So, I am in favor of using the word conversion more freely, whether we mean a particular, distinct moment in time or the on-going conversion we are all called to, where day by day we are actively striving to grow and mature and experience God on a deeper level. Maybe more verbal support for these changes would lend to them happening more frequently, more openly, and having a more lasting impact.