Three Moments of Conversion

“A different kind of conversion is provided for in each season of life. We are called to discern and identify the one that suits us right now.”

The gospel this Third Sunday of Lent recalls the story of Jesus in the temple, upset that the House of the Father has become a marketplace. In his anger, Jesus even implies that the temple will be destroyed while promising He will raise it up in three days. That anticipated the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ.

This gospel is a call for conversion which Cardinal Raniero Cantalamessa, O.F.M. Cap., Preacher to the Papal Household, equated with repentance. The new Cardinal mentions that repentance, or conversion, is mentioned in “three different moments and contexts” in the New Testament and that these correspond to different moments in our own lives.

According to Cantalamessa: “The first kind of conversion is the one that resounds at the beginning of Jesus’s preaching and is summed up in the words: “Repent and believe in the Gospel!” (Mk 1:15). Let us try and understand what the word ‘conversion’ means here. Before Jesus, converting always meant a ‘going back’ (the Hebrew word shub means reversing route, going back on one’s own steps). It defined someone’s course of action when, at a certain time in their life, they realize they are “off track.” Then they stop, to think it all over again; they decide to go back to observing the law and rejoining their covenant with God. Conversion, in this case, has an essentially moral meaning and suggests the idea of something painful to do, such as changing habits, stopping doing this or that.

He continues: “‘Repent and believe’ does not refer to two different and subsequent things, but to the same fundamental act: repent, that is believe! Prima conversion fit per fidem,” said St. Tomas Aquinas: The first conversion consists of believing. All this calls for a genuine act of ‘conversion,’ a deep change in the way of seeing our relationship with God. It requires a shift from the idea of a God that asks, orders and threats, to the idea of a God that comes to us with full hands to give us everything himself. It is the conversion from ‘the law’ to ‘grace’ that St Paul cherished so much.”

The second New Testament call to conversion happens when Jesus invites His disciples to “turn and become like children.” Here, according to the Papal Preacher, “‘Jesus puts forward a genuine revolution,’ calling them – and us – ‘to shift the centre from yourself, and to re-centre yourself on Christ.’” Becoming like children is a return to the time when we first truly encountered Jesus.

According to Cardinal Cantalamessa, “For us too going back to being children means going back to the time when we discovered we were called, to the time of our priestly ordination, of our religious profession, or to the time we first truly encountered Jesus. When we said: “God alone is enough!” and we believed it.”

The third moment is described in the book of Revelation. There, we see Jesus calling those who are neither hot nor cold to “be earnest… and repent.” According to Cantalamessa, “The focus here is on conversion from being mediocre and lukewarm. In the history of Christian holiness, the best-known example of the first kind of conversion, from sin to grace, is provided by Saint Augustine; the most instructive example of the second type of conversion, from being lukewarm to being fervent, is provided by St Teresa of Ávila. What she says of herself in her Life is surely exaggerated and dictated by the delicate nature of her conscience, but, in any case, it may help all of us to make a useful examination of our own conscience.”

Cardinal Cantalamessa also recalls the experience of the disciples when they were filled with the Spirit at the first Pentecost. He cites how the Fathers of the Church described this experience as an image of “sober drunkenness” – “the disciples were not drunk with wine, as the people imagined, but instead, having received the Holy Spirit, were spiritually inebriated.”

He asks: “How can we take up this ideal of sober drunkenness and embody it in the present situation in history and in the Church?” He calls on us to relive the experience of the apostles on the day of Pentecost through the “so-called ‘Baptism in the Spirit’,” described as “a renewal with fresh awareness not only of Baptism and Confirmation but also of the entire Christian life… the most important fruit is the discovery of what it means to have a ‘personal relationship’ with Jesus risen and alive.”

Finally, we will not necessarily experience all those three moments of conversion together or sequentially and with the same intensity. A different kind of conversion is provided for in each season of life. We are called to discern and identify the one that suits us right now, in this pandemic season of crisis, danger, and death, and also of hope and solidarity.

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