By Fr Donald Chambers
As the Synod Assembly in Rome ended, the pertinent question resting on my mind was: what is the biggest challenge facing the fruitful outcome of the synodal journey in dioceses, parishes, and religious and ecclesial communities? Like an annoying buzzing mosquito, the answer is resistance to the silent invitation to conversion.
The Synod invites the People of God with diverse opinions and from diverse religious, social and intellectual backgrounds to sit around the proverbial roundtable to listen, discern, and make decisions.
The response to this synodal invitation varies. Some persons refuse to participate. Some participate but are unwilling or find it challenging to relinquish their preferred positions and team up with like-minded participants. Some join but wish to dominate or manipulate the conversation, like a parliamentary debate, to ensure they win.
Some participate but only listen logically; they leave the conversation if it does not make sense. Others participate but only pay lip service. Still, others grapple with their intolerance and resistance but hope for a fruitful outcome.
In a colony of bees, the fruitful production of honey depends on the principle of cooperation. Since humans can choose against this basic instinct, as in the animal world, they need to learn conversion to achieve the common good.
What is religious conversion?
A beautifully crafted, romantic story in the Book of Genesis narrates the beginning of the relationship between the shepherdess, Rachel, and the shepherd, Jacob, by a well.
It reads, “As soon as Jacob saw Rachel. . .he came up and, rolling the stone way from the mouth of the well, he watered the sheep of his uncle Laban. Jacob kissed Rachel and burst into tears” (Gen 29:10–11).
Author Estelle Frankel suggests the stone that Jacob removes from the mouth of the well symbolises the “heart of stone” that usually covers our soft and vulnerable side.
She writes, “. . . to love, we must gain access to this soft inner core by removing the unfeeling (invulnerable) protective shields we ordinarily wear.”
On the synodal journey, this “heart of stone” prevents fruitful listening, discerning and decision-making because it calls us to be vulnerable. The gradual removal of the respective hearts of stone is called conversion.
The synodal journey fundamentally involves establishing and nurturing relationships to facilitate transformative conversations for the greater good.
Most theologians would agree that conversion is an overall personal transformation of one’s (1) desires (heart), (2) thought processes (mind), (3) actions (behaviour), and (4) the social structures in society.
According to the gospels, the first challenge given by Jesus in His public ministry is “Be converted” or “repent” (Mt 4:17 and Mk 1:15). In the New Testament, the Greek words for conversion or repentance are metanoia and epistrophe.
Metanoia stresses the processes of thinking and will that inspire actions. For example, Luke gives a hint to the thinking processes and will of Zacchaeus when he writes, “… if I have cheated anybody…” (Lk 19:8b).
Epistrophe emphasises the visible characteristics of an external act. Implied in Zacchaeus’ words, “I am going to give half my property to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody, I will pay him back four times the amount” (Lk 19:8) is Zacchaeus’ behaviour that aims to transform his society.
It is clear from the Gospels that Jesus uses the synodal approach to facilitate the conversion of the persons with whom He encounters. Conversion is understood as developmental, that is, a movement towards holiness (becoming like Jesus) with the assistance and sustenance of others.
In John’s narratives of the Samaritan woman at the well (Jn 4: 1–19) and Luke’s narrative of the Emmaus’ disciples (Lk 24:13–35), we notice Jesus’ synodal approach of walking together. At the end of each narrative, personal transformation allows each to engage in a new relationship with Christ and the community.
In the case of Saul, there is an initial conversion experience that gradually grows with the accompaniment of Ananias (Acts 9:10). In the case of Jesus, His conversion was sustained and assisted, for example, by His obedience to His mother’s instruction at 12 years of age in Jerusalem (Lk 2: 51–52), the wedding at Cana (Jn 2:1–12), and His disciples in the narrative of the healing of the Canaanite woman’s daughter (Matt 15:21–28).
Conversion, the removal of the “heart of stone”, is critical on the synodal journey in preparation for the mission of evangelisation. In the selection of a replacement for Judas Iscariot in the Acts of the Apostles, the primary criterion is that the person must have been “with us the whole time that the Lord Jesus was travelling around with us” (Acts 1:21). Walking together with Jesus, Matthias would have experienced an ongoing conversion to be chosen.
We must be open to conversion as we engage in the synodal journey. Without conversion, there can be no synod. We must be open to moral conversion (conversion of the conscience), affective conversion (how we see), and religious conversion (conversion of hearts and minds).
Fr Donald Chambers of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Jamaica is the General Secretary of the Antilles Episcopal Conference.