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Conversion is not a predictable path

By Lara Pickford-Gordon,

There are people with no interest in matters of faith who suddenly think of practising faith and even become fervent about it. Conversely there are faithful people who gradually or completely abandon their faith.

“The critical point in the life of faith is never fully passed, there is always the possibility it may slip and fall and shatter but that is one dimension of this mystery before us,” said Archbishop Patrick Pinder of Nassau, Bahamas.

He added, “Nevertheless, faith, in its most fundamental form is like falling in love when it comes, for as long as it lasts it takes over; it is described in the Letter to the Romans as God’s love flooding our hearts.”

Archbishop Pinder was the presenter October 4, the first day of the Pontifical Mission Society (PMS) Study Sessions (October 4–7) ‘From AEC Mission Congress to Synodality’.

Directress of the PMS Deborah de Rosia also addressed the session on the topic of evangelisation. Moderator was Fr Esteban Kross, of the Diocese of Paramaribo, Suriname, Director of the PMS in the Antilles.

Archbishop Pinder explained the nature of faith was too dynamic and “far too personal” to be fully communicated through theological ideas, religious imagery, and church doctrines. Expressions of faith can be seen in creeds, stained-glass windows, ceremonies, and music.

“Persons of faith include social activists as well as missionaries, in and of itself faith is a response of the whole person, mind and heart to the ongoing call to conversion.”

He went on to state that conversion—a completely new way of viewing ourselves, others and the world around us, had many facets. It has been said that in every human, the process of conversion is complex, ongoing and had overlapping elements.

“The dynamics of the spiritual pilgrimage of faith may be viewed as several different but related forms of conversion. So, conversion may be spoke of in different forms, as religious conversion, Christian conversion, ecclesial conversion, moral conversion, intellectual conversion.”


Types of conversion

Archbishop Pinder outlined the different forms of conversion to help participants get a better understanding of faith. “I believe the journey of synodality really requires conversion too,” he stated.

Religious conversion occurs when there is the realisation of the religious dimension at the basis of all human experience and activity. “It’s the gradual awakening to the realisation that there is purpose, meaning and graciousness in life.”

Religious conversion can happen even while the individual questions and doubts certain teachings and practices. According to Archbishop Pinder, “it is very possible for one to be religious in this basic sense but at the same time, be quite indifferent and opposed to elements of institutional religion.” He commented that Pope Francis may be very sensitive to this dynamic in his call for Catholics to reach out the peripheries.

Archbishop Pinder highlighted another contradiction, someone can be active in church and on the surface a faithful member of institutional religion but “lacking in the basic religious awareness”.   “Institutional loyalty does not automatically constitute religious conversion, nor does it constitute faith,” Pinder said.

He explained, “This conversion to God reveals some meaning in the riddle, paradox, and tragedy which life appears to be; it gives insight into the world of meaning.”

Christian conversion is not automatic; it does not happen at an infant’s Baptism, through ordination or studying theology. Archbishop Pinder said someone can experience Christian conversion without knowing any of the dogmatic issues of the history of the Church.

“Christian conversion, we are told, is the personal appropriation of the Paschal mystery. Jesus becomes not a stained-glass window figure, not a holy God image, not an emasculated statue on a pedestal, not a coherent doctrine but a living pulsating challenging brother and Lord who walks with you, talks with you, and tells you that He loves you.”

The Archbishop also spoke briefly on moral conversion, ecclesial conversion, and intellectual conversion. He said continuous and ongoing conversion does not follow a predictable path, moving from one level to another. The different conversions overlap and interpenetrate, and the process differs from person to person.

He exemplified, someone can manifest ecclesial conversion with a strong loyalty to Church but have little religious sense or be highly devoted to the Sacred Heart of Jesus but be “exclusive and privileged” to exclude community or be indifferent to social justice.

Someone can consider themselves agnostic or atheistic because of certain intellectual questions, have a highly refined sensitivity to fundamental moral values but, “there is little or no religious conversion”.


Conversion and Faith

Archbishop Pinder said it is important to understand the dynamics of conversion if the Church is to understand the spiritual journey of “the defiant teenager or even the most pious and devout person in the pew.” Another reason was the living faith—way of life, aspiration, hope, inspired by conversion.

“Nothing human is foreign to the person of faith; such a person lives in close communion with humankind…trying always to decipher the questions which agitate the innermost thoughts of his or her contemporaries. The person of faith strives to formulate the Christian answer in terms of these questions and these concerns.”

Archbishop Pinder said Church has to rid itself of lingering clericalism. “…it can be found anywhere in the Church, anywhere that people think that actually somehow or other the responsibility for Church is to clerics alone.”

On Day 2 of the study session focus was ‘Caribbean Families: you shall be my witnesses’; Archbishop Jason Gordon presented on ‘Missioning the Domestic Church’. Day 3 focus was ‘Caribbean Parishes: You shall be my witnesses’, Fr Kingsley Asphall from the Archdiocese of Kingston was the presenter.