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Conversion and mission

Lent is the season when the insistent call to conversion echoes powerfully through the Scriptures, prayers and hymns of the Church’s liturgy. It is a season of grace and renewal.  Recently, I was deeply moved by the faith of the 800 or so individuals who participated in the three celebrations of the Rite of Election at Our Lady’s Cathedral.  These are men and women who are responding to the Lord’s call to conversion and preparing to enter the Church at the Easter Vigil.  They are a sign for the whole Church of the Lord’s continuing labors in our midst.

During the season of Lent, Jesus invites each of us to repent and believe.  Conversion is not a one-time event.  It is a lifelong process leading us deeper into the mystery of Christ, who reveals and shares the Father’s love for us in his death and resurrection. 

The journey of conversion draws us into the Heart of Christ.  But precisely from that interior space it also moves us outward to share the good news with others.  This is the work of evangelization. It is our work as missionary disciples to share what we have received.  As Pope Francis writes in The Joy of the Gospel, “The word of God constantly shows us how God challenges those who believe in him ‘to go forth.’  Each Christian and every community must discern the path that the Lord points out, but all of us are asked to obey his call to go forth from our own comfort zone in order to reach all the ‘peripheries’ in need of the light of the Gospel” (20).

Abraham, our father in faith, was the first to receive that call, as we heard in the first Scripture reading of the Second Sunday of Lent: “Go forth from the land of your kinfolk and from your father’s house to a land that I will show you.  I will make of you a great nation….  All the communities of the earth shall find blessing in you” (Gen 12:1-4).

Abraham was summoned beyond his comfort zone, as are we.  What are our comfort zones?  Last weekend, I was in Guymon for Mass and Confirmation.  I was struck by the ethnic diversity of the parish community. The promise to Abraham is being fulfilled dramatically in that community, which is a microcosm of our archdiocese and the whole Church.  The Church is a community of many nations, languages, races and peoples who are united by a common faith in Jesus Christ and his Gospel of salvation.  Father Wheelahan, pastor of Saint Peter the Apostle Parish in Guymon, told me that there are 26 languages spoken in that city on the Panhandle.  The parish is served by a priest from India, another from Colombia and one from Oklahoma.  The two principal languages of the parish are English and Spanish, but there is also a significant Guatemalan community, some of whose members speak only Quiche, their native Mayan language. 

In spite of the challenges, indeed the messiness, that all of these differences entail, the parish is flourishing.  They have not drunk the deadly Kool-Aid which resists adapting to new challenges by saying, “But we have always done it this way.”  It is flourishing because the conversion taking place in that parish, as in many other parishes and communities, is what Pope Francis calls a “pastoral conversion.”  It is a willingness to examine and adapt the ways we are willing to serve the needs of those we are sent to serve.  Pastoral conversion has to accompany personal conversion if we are to be effective as missionary disciples, that is, if we are to live out our Gospel mandate: Go make disciples.

The Holy Father writes in The Joy of the Gospel, “I dream of a ‘missionary option,’ that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, languages and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation.  The renewal of structures demanded by pastoral conversion can only be understood in this light: as part of an effort to make them more mission-oriented, to make ordinary pastoral activity on every level more inclusive and open, to inspire in pastoral workers a constant desire to go forth in this way to elicit a positive response from all those whom Jesus summons to friendship with him” (27).