Reflections on Retreat
It is the day after my annual retreat at St. Joseph Abbey, a monastery of the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance (Trappists) nestled in the hills of Spencer, Massachusetts. I arrived at the abbey a few days after returning from Washington, D.C. where I was privileged, along with 250 of my brother bishops, to share in Pope Benedict XVI’s pastoral visit to the United States.
To be on retreat while basking in the afterglow of the papal visit, with the Pope’s words still echoing in my mind and heart, allowed my precious time of solitude and silence to be nourished with rich food for reflection and prayer. I sit down to write this essay for catechetical ministers in that spiritual light.
‘Tue es Petrus,’ the choirs sang as the Successor of the Apostle Peter walked among us. He was coming, he declared at the White House welcome ceremony, as a preacher of the gospel. And preach the gospel he did! In the liturgical celebrations and other events, the compelling witness of St. Peter and the evangelizing intensity of St. Paul resounded brightly and serenely in the Holy Father’s every word and gesture.
Conversion and Hope
Like Peter did with the apostles, Benedict had come to the United States to confirm us, the Catholic people, in our faith in Jesus Christ, our crucified and risen Lord. The central theme of the pope’s visit was ‘Christ our Hope,’ a most positive and, as one commentator put it, ‘upbeat’ message. Who, I wondered, would not be attracted to that title of Christ? Who would not choose to turn to him if he is the sure source of hope in a world that sometimes seems to teeter on the precipice of despair? Who would not rush to claim the gift of hope that Jesus offers?
But it is not nearly so simple, because to choose Christ, and to receive the gift of hope that he promises, calls for the radical surrender of conversion. The Christian faith, after all, is a matter of lifelong conversion to Christ. No conversion, no real hope.
The life of every saint is a story of conversion. Saint Augustine of Hippo comes immediately to mind. One can surely argue, though, that the patron saint of conversion par excéllence is Saint Paul of Tarsus, the bimillennium of whose birth we celebrate during this special Pauline jubilee year (June 28, 2008 – June 29, 2009).
Paul’s story is familiar to us all. Prior to his initial and dramatic conversion on the Damascus Road, Saul was a notorious persecutor of Christians. New Testament scholar N.T. Wright [i] asserts that Saul was a Shammaite Pharisee so zealous for Yahweh and the strictest observance of the Torah that he would not hesitate to use violence to force other Jews – including those in the nascent renegade ‘Jesus movement’ – to keep torah in the way he believed it should be kept. Saul was on that road to Damascus for the express purpose of capturing Christians and throwing them in prison. And then . . .
As he traveled along and was approaching Damascus, a light from the sky suddenly flashed about him. He fell to the ground and at the same time heard a voice saying ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ ‘Who are you sir?’ he asked. The voice answered ‘I am Jesus, the one you are persecuting. Get up and go into the city, where you will be told what to do.’ (Acts 9: 3-6)
Struck blind and unable to eat or drink for three days, Saul was in need of the intervention of Ananias who was sent by God to minister to him. Ananais laid hands on Saul and said ‘Brother Saul, I have been sent by the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, so that you may recover your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit’ (Acts 9:17).
After Saul’s encounter with Ananias, ‘…something like scales fell from his eyes and he regained his sight. He got up and was baptized and his strength returned to him’ (Acts 9: 18-19a). And then, we see the first evidence of the profound change of Saul’s heart and mind as he took up his mission: ‘Saul stayed some time with the disciples in Damascus, and soon began to proclaim in the synagogues that Jesus was the Son of God. (Acts 9:19b–20). Saul the persecutor had become Paul the evangelizer.
John Henry Cardinal Newman reflects on the stunning transformation that launched St. Paul on his newly received vocation as apostle to the Gentiles:
. . . his awful rashness and blindness, his self-confident, headstrong, cruel rage against the worshipers of the true Messiah, then his strange conversion, then the length of time that elapsed before his solemn ordination, during which he was left to meditate in private on all that had happened, and to anticipate the future – all this constituted a peculiar preparation for the office of preaching to a lost world, dead in sin. It gave him an extended insight, on the one hand into the ways and designs of Providence, and, on the other hand, into the workings of sin in the human heart, and the various modes of thinking in which the mind is actually trained.[ii]
Often enough, when reference is made to Paul’s conversion, the focus is put exclusively on his Damascus Road encounter with Christ. While this is understandable considering the high drama of that experience, it is important to recognize that the Damascus event launched Paul on a trajectory of lifelong personal conversion. While the evidence for this assertion is abundant throughout Paul’s letters, one need only consider as an example the description of his well known struggle with the ‘thorn in the flesh’ that so tormented him.
‘Three times I begged the Lord that this might leave me. He said to me, “My grace is enough for you, for in weakness power reaches perfection.” And so I willingly boast of my weaknesses instead, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.’ (2 Cor. 12: 8-9)
For Paul to become convinced that accepting the powerlessness that accompanies weakness, mistreatment and difficulties for the sake of Christ is his true source of strength, is vivid proof of a life being lived in the transforming radiance of the Paschal Mystery. What better evidence could there be of Paul’s surrender to a conversion that was ongoing? Paul’s lifelong conversion was the heartbeat of his ministry. The one who ceaselessly called others to conversion to Christ embraced that same transformation throughout his own life.
Our own conversion
The work of evangelization and catechesis is in a very real sense ‘conversion ministry.’ (I make this assertion fully recognizing that, ultimately, it is only the Holy Spirit who is the Conversion Minister. We are cooperators with the Spirit.) Evangelization - the proclamation of the person of Jesus Christ, his teaching and his promises - is aimed at bringing about faith and conversion. The act of faith requires a profound change of mind and heart, a change of life, in Hebrew, teshuvah - 180° turn around. In St. Paul’s words, ‘Yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me’ (Gal 2: 20),
To live ‘in Christ’ entails such profound conversion of mind and heart that the believer undergoes radical transformation. ‘This conversion is the acceptance of a personal relationship with Christ, a sincere adherence to him, and a willingness to conform one’s life to his’.[iii]
Catechesis, whose object is communion with Jesus Christ, is aimed at the maturation of initial conversion so that the seed sown by the Holy Spirit might blossom into a faith that is loving, explicit and fruitful. While catechists are in need of, and eager for, the skills and resources that will assist them in their ministry of evangelizing and catechizing others, I want to conclude these reflections with a thought about the ongoing conversion of the catechists themselves. ‘Like all Christians, catechists are called to continual conversion and growth in their faith and, for this reason, are called to ongoing spiritual formation.’ (NDC, 236)
Pastors, with the support of their diocesan catechetical offices, need to make it a priority to encourage and assist their parish catechists in their spiritual formation. Retreats and days of prayer will help them deepen their own personal conversion to Christ. An immersion in sacred scripture and church teaching will draw them more deeply into the sacred story that they are commissioned to hand on to others. Regular worship of God at Sunday Eucharist and frequent reception of the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation will nurture their lives of ecclesial faith and enliven their discipleship. A lively prayer life will keep their hearts open to the inspiration that they can be assured will be granted them by our Lord.
May each of us in the catechetical ministry go personally to our Risen Savior to beg the graces of spiritual discernment and conversion!
In the end, of course, it is the responsibility of every man and woman in catechetical ministry to go personally to our Risen Savior to beg the graces of spiritual discernment and conversion. And we should accompany one another on this journey. May there be an Ananais in each of our lives to help us recover our sight when it blurs and be refreshed with the grace of the Holy Spirit when we are tepid or tired. May each of us be Ananais to one another, so that like Paul, we will be ready to set out and proclaim to the all the world that Jesus Christ, our hope, is Lord! Only he, Paul reminds us, is the ‘hope that does not disappoint’ (Romans 5: 5).
[i] What Saint Paul Really Said, Wm. B Eerdmans, 1997
[ii] Parochial and Plain Sermons, Sermon 9, ‘Saint Paul’s Conversion Viewed In Reference to his Office, The Conversion of St. Paul’, Ignatius Press, 1997, 290 – 291
[iii] National Directory for Catechesis, USCCB, 2005, p.48
This article is originally found on pages 14-15 of the printed edition.