Conversion To Christ

With a view to the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000 and the start of the third millennium, special assemblies of bishops from each of the five continents took place in Rome: the Assembly for Africa (1994), America (1997), Asia (1998), Oceania (1998), and Europe (1991 and 1999).250 These assemblies, along with the 'apostolic exhortations' that Pope John Paul II published later on the basis of their work and recommendations, mirror the present state and future hopes of the Catholic Church around the world. The bishops, like committed Christians everywhere, wanted above all to promote among believers, and in particular among Catholics, a more vital encounter with the living Christ.

Ecclesia in America ('The Church in America') of 22 January 1999, the exhortation in which the Pope drew together the proceedings of the 1997 Assembly for America, highlighted the encounter with the living Jesus Christ as the path to a radical conversion for the Catholics of North, Central, and South America. Through the powerful presence of their risen Lord, Catholics will be enabled to maintain their Christian identity. Thus they will be guided through the Holy Spirit to renewed fellowship in the life of the Church, which will strengthen them to work in solidarity for the good of all human beings and to bring to the world the good news that is

249 U. Eco and C. M. Martini, Belief or Nonbelief? (New York: Arcade Publishing, 2000), 21, 30.

250 No document was issued after the 1991 Synod of Bishops for Europe; the apostolic exhortation Ecclesia in Europa ('The Church in Europe') to follow the 1999 assembly has not yet (in April 2002) been issued.

Jesus himself. What shows clearly through Ecclesia in America is that the road to evangelization and social action leads through a radical conversion to Jesus and a life nourished by ecclesial communion and, above all, by the celebration of the Eucharist. This apostolic exhortation proposes to Catholics a style of life totally centred on Jesus, experienced and known through a prayerful commitment to the scriptures and the Eucharist, 'the outstanding moment of encounter with the living Christ' (no. 35).

Much of the language of Ecclesia in America matches that of evangelical Christians, who have found in Jesus their 'personal Saviour' and whose deeply felt moment of conversion continues to support their adherence to one of the Protestant Churches. The language differs markedly from positive assessments of Christianity that one sometimes reads elsewhere. Take, for example, the following confession of faith, which Charles Davis composed in the 1970s:

I am a Christian because the Christian tradition, with its symbols, doctrines and values, with its communities and institutions, has in fact mediated for me an experience of transcendent reality and has opened for me a level of consciousness and way of living I recognize as valuable and liberating. I find much truth and value in it.251

Here Davis wrote of Christianity's 'symbols, doctrines and values', of an 'experience of transcendent reality (lower case!), and of his own new 'level of consciousness' and liberating 'way of living'. It is not that all this was false, but recognizing 'much truth and value' simply did not reach the heart of the matter. A confession along the lines of Ecclesia in America would state: 'I am a Catholic because, through the scriptures, sacramental life, and fellowship of the Catholic Church, I have experienced deeply Jesus Christ, and through receiving his Holy Spirit have received the light and strength to share this good news and work in solidarity with a suffering world.' Davis's confession was incompletely personalist, in that it included 'I am', 'for me' (twice), 'I find', and a nod towards other believers, those 'communities' and 'institutions' which hand on 'the Christian tradition'. One missed a robustly personalist and communitarian faith, which would follow the apostolic exhortation in bringing repeatedly into the picture the living Jesus, his Holy Spirit, the Virgin Mary, and the wide range of human beings who make up the Catholic Church and the world in which Catholics live.

251 C. Davis, Temptations of Religion (New York: Harper & Row,1973), 23—4.

The conversion to Christ entails experiencing and believing in him as fully human and truly divine. Anything less, such as the deconstructed versions of Jesus offered by Richard Holloway and others,252 cannot sustain a living faith, still less the kind of conversion Ecclesia in America and mainstream evangelical Christians want to encourage. To answer the utterly key question Who do you say that I am?' (Mark 8: 29) by presenting Jesus as an outstanding prophet who little by little was posthumously deified not only betrays the common creed that Christians recite every Sunday but also does not correspond to the data we summarized in Ch. 4. Jesus made some astonishing claims for his own personal authority and identity; a theological understanding about him as divine Lord and Son of God developed very early, even before Paul wrote his letters. Bishop Holloway calls on his readers to follow the way of Jesus. But following Jesus finds its power in our beliefs about him. Here the Bishop is simply out of touch with dedicated Anglicans, Catholics, and other Christians. Their faith in the crucified and risen Son of God supplies the strength to serve and, sometimes, to die for Jesus' brothers and sisters. Having visited South Africa and El Salvador, the Bishop should have known better. Who would risk death on the basis of his and others' deconstructed version of Christ and Christianity?

Belief and behaviour work vigorously together. Integrity in everyday life and faithful responsibility in human relationships draw their strength from faith in Christ and the God whom he revealed. The moral courage of Catholics and, indeed, of all Christians depends upon their belief in the tripersonal God revealed through Jesus' life and death and the coming of the Holy Spirit. Hence we share the dream of Ecclesia in America—that more and more Catholics and others will let themselves be drawn into a deep, life-transforming experience of Jesus. That kind of experience of him in prayer and community will give great vigour to their faith, which will then radically reshape their behaviour.

Here Catholics share common ground with many Methodists, Pentecostals, and other evangelical Christians. John Wesley (1703—91), the founder of Methodism, cherished his May 1738 conversion experience, when his 'heart was strangely warmed' and he began an intense missionary life thirsting for holiness and proclaiming the saving love of Jesus. In

252 See R. Holloway, Doubts and Loves: What Is Left of Christianity (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2001); see the review by G. O'Collins, The Tablet , 27 October 2001, 1529—30.

spreading the good news to others and revitalizing the faith of their fellow believers, evangelical Christians of every kind emphasize personal conversion and a deep experience of Christ's presence and power. Pentecostal Christians, as the name indicates, highlight their experience of the Holy Spirit and the 'charisms' or gifts of the Spirit celebrated by St Paul (e.g. 1 Cor. 12: 1—11; 14: 1—40). The Charismatic Renewal, which Vatican II encouraged (Lumen Gentium, 12) and which from 1967 spread from Catholic groups on a number of university campuses in the United States, has shown deep affinity with Pentecostals, not least in the pursuit of personal holiness fostered by the Spirit.

Chapter 2 of this book recalled some of the medieval and later developments that invigorated a fresh attachment to Christ: the rosary; the Stations of the Cross; the devotio moderna ('modern devotion') of Thomas a Kempis; the spiritual teaching of Carmelites, Dominicans, Franciscans, Jesuits, and other male and female institutes of religious; devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus; the encouragement Pope Pius X gave to frequent Holy Communion; and the rest. Many of these aids to a Christ-centred life remain as strong as ever. But there are also such new developments as the Latin American 'base communities', local groups of Catholics (and other Christians) who worship and study the scriptures, seek a communal encounter with the risen Christ, and aim to revitalize the life of the Church and use their gifts in the service of others. The Second Vatican Council hoped, as we saw in Ch. 3, that a prayerful and constant contact with the scriptures would give new life and light to Catholics everywhere. Adopting the language of St Paul (Phil. 3: 8), the Council exhorted all the faithful to 'learn the surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ by frequent reading of the divine scriptures' (Dei Verbum, 25).

What we read can feed a Christ-centred prayer. So too can what we see. And here we wish to express our hope that the Catholic faithful and, especially, Catholic families might once again put sacred images back on the walls of their homes. One can well understand what fuelled a certain dislike for such images: much popular religious art was sentimental kitsch. But many tasteful and moving crucifixes, statues, icons, and other religious pictures are now available around the world. Graceful images of Christ and his saints recall his presence and foster love for him. Western Catholics could well follow the example of Orthodox (and Eastern Catholics) who bring icons into their homes and thus create a 'beautiful corner' or 'holy place' in their lives.

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