"Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit."
— Acts 2:38
The Gospels abound with stirring examples of repentance and conversion: Jesus gathering his first apostles and exhorting them to leave their former lives behind; his order that the woman caught in adultery "go and sin no more"; the parable of the prodigal son; and the confession of Dismas the thief, who repents to Jesus as both are being crucified.
Since biblical times, such revered figures as Augustine, Francis of Assisi and Ignatius of Loyola have undergone well-documented conversions that led them to sainthood. Today, people describe their own conversion experiences as having involved miraculous cures, pursuit of a religious vocation or desires to join the Catholic faith.
To what degree might we, also, be moved toward repentance and conversion?
It’s a question worthy of deep reflection during this Lenten season, from the moment of receiving ashes and the instruction to "turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel." Conversion also takes on special meaning this year due to the Catholic Church’s yearlong celebration (ending in June 2009) of St. Paul, who made the most renowned conversion of all — from an ardent persecutor of Christians to the greatest champion of the faith.
Yet, it doesn’t take being knocked to the ground and blinded — as Paul was — or some other dramatic event in order to have a conversion experience.
Dominic Salamida, for one, said his Lenten focus involves many small adjustments to his daily life, such as reading more Catholic publications and going to confession more frequently. He refers to Lent as the time of year when "I definitely feel conversion in overdrive" — an opportunity to take personal inventory and do whatever possible to deepen his relationship with Jesus.
Salamida, who serves as director of Christian formation at St. Leo Parish in Hilton, said that acts of repentance and conversion might be either "little steps I can take or big steps," provided they’re sincere attempts at erasing human imperfections for the sake of God’s son.
"The desire to be one with Christ changes it all. Then we answer not just with our minds, but our hearts and our wills," he said. "Do you really want to grow close to Jesus? What are you willing to do to change?"
Stretching the comfort zone
The Catholic Church teaches that Lenten repentance and conversion is linked to prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Salamida suggested that individual prayer can be augmented by such parish-based communal prayer offerings as Lenten missions, retreats or lectures, Stations of the Cross, penance services or Bible study. He added that fasting is equally important since it strikes at the heart of Jesus’ supreme sacrifice for us.
"You’re meditating on why God gave up his son for you and everything Jesus endured for you," he said. "In denying myself I’m embracing the cross. In our culture it’s all about what feels good. Fasting doesn’t feel good. Saying no to what you desire and yes to what God desires — it’s going to hurt to follow Jesus."
Meanwhile, almsgiving — at least in the traditional sense — involves supporting the needy through offerings of money, food or other charitable donations. However, the Second Vatican Council emphasized an additional layer of almsgiving: "During Lent penance should be not only internal and individual, but also external and social," states the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, No. 110.
"Who is our neighbor? How might we help?" asked Deacon David LaFortune, pastoral associate in the Schuyler Catholic Community. He suggested that visiting the homebound and residents of nursing facilities might be a good place to start, based on the loneliness he has seen these people endure.
"All you’ve got to do is take 10 minutes and stop awhile. They just want to know that someone cares," he said.
Deacon LaFortune’s wife observed that if you’re unaccustomed to performing such gestures, stretching your personal comfort zone may be more of a challenge than abstaining from candy and meat or saying extra Hail Marys and Our Fathers.
"It’s pretty easy not to eat something," noted Trish LaFortune, pastoral associate at All Saints Parish in Corning.
Yet the LaFortunes said that personal outreach also is the best way to move toward genuine conversion.
"It’s the act of doing something — maybe helping people who are in the midst of tragedy that is so life-changing they are wallowing in it," she continued.
"I think when I die and go before the Lord, he won’t say, ‘David, how many times did you go to Mass?’ He’ll want to know ‘How did you love people?’" Deacon LaFortune added.
Salamida said a good starting point for extra outreach may be right under your own roof. He plans during Lent to make an extra effort toward "living out my call as a husband and father," making schedule adjustments to create quality family time and striving to deepen communication with his wife.
"A lot of times in ministry you get so concerned about your (Lenten) outreach, but that’s not really great if you’re not taking care of things at home. I think it really starts at home," Salamida said.
An ongoing process
The LaFortunes observed that being sorry for one’s sins is only the beginning of the conversion process — that these feelings must be followed by positive action.
"It’s hard to do one without the other," Deacon LaFortune said. His wife added that "when people get bogged down in the repentance stuff, they never get to the conversion."
Rather than allow paralysis to set in, the LaFortunes emphasized the need to feel forgiven by remembering that God loves us and forgives our sins.
Additionally, Bishop Matthew H. Clark noted the importance not only of receiving God’s forgiveness, but also forgiving each other.
"The movement to seek and accept forgiveness is a kind of spiritual conversion. It is a grace, a gift for which we pray," the bishop wrote in his "Along the Way" column of Oct. 3, 2008.
Further, conversion, in whatever form it takes, is ongoing — a process that might have been initiated during Lent but is manifested in actions that "hopefully become a habit 12 months of the year," Trish LaFortune noted.
The end results can potentially benefit all of mankind, according to Pope Benedict XVI. In a March 2007 address, the pontiff noted "the beauty of conversion" that marks the Lenten season.
"To do penance and correct our conduct is not simply moralism, but the most effective way to improve both ourselves as well as society," the pope said.