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Lent is a season for conversion

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It’s time to decide to ‘turn your heart around’ in imitation of the saints

 

Lent is here and it is during this season that, in addition to praying and fasting, we are called to turn ourselves back to God. It is a time of conversion.

 

Take me to your liter

There are lots of conversions we experience in life, like when we convert measurements from imperial measure (inches, feet) to that of the metric system (centimeters, meters). In the format wars of the early video era, there were people who converted from BetaMax to VHS. In the cell phone carrier battle, conversion from AT&T to Verizon to Sprint to Nextel happens all the time. There are other conversions, too: Moving from caffeinated to decaf, from PCs to Macs, and even betraying the logic of the universe and moving from McDonalds to Burger King.

However, having a conversion or change of heart in the realm of faith is a little tougher than going from a Big Mac to Whopper. (Although for me, it might be a comparable challenge.) But, tough though it may be, we are called to conversion.

 

Conversion and all that jazz

In 1981, jazz guitarist George Benson hit the top 10 of the pop charts with a song with a conversion title, “Turn Your Love Around.” That title sums up a key to conversion; we have to turn our love around. If God is not the center of life, we have to turn things around. Benson sang, “You’ve got the love, you’ve got the power, but you just don’t understand.”

Indeed, we sometimes don’t understand the place of primacy that God is to have in our lives. But we have the love and the power to make the need change.

 

God vs. Gold

Conversion is always called for because people are fickle at times when it comes to faith.

The Conversion of St. Paul  by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. (Wikimedia Commons)
The Conversion of St. Paul
by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. (Wikimedia Commons)

What do I mean? Let’s step into the Wayback Machine and set the dial to the 12th century B.C. We find the Jewish people, at the time of Moses, after having been rescued by God from slavery to the Egyptians, began to forget about what God did for them. They started worshipping a golden calf. Moses was pretty ticked by this. He chastised his people, calling them to turn their love around. Are we like that? Well, when we put other things in our life before the God, we are creating our own idols.

So, turn back to God. That is what we are called to do during Lent and always. We are called, using Ash Wednesday language, to repent and believe in the Gospel.

You might say, well, that’s easier said than done. And that’s true! But, we are blessed, because in our Catholic faith, there have been many conversions that we can look to, to inspire us. Some of these conversions did not just change the person making the conversion, but changed the world.

To this end I present you game-changing conversions in Catholic Church history:

 

Conversion of St. Paul

Saul of Tarsus was a persecutor of Christians; he hated them. He saw Christianity as upending the way of life of the Jewish peoples, and causing divisions. He sought out to arrest, persecute and even kill Christians. As tradition and Scripture relate, one day on the road to Damascus, Saul was traveling to torment some more Christians. He was suddenly, in the words of the 1977 hit song, “blinded by the light.” There was a flash; he was thrown from his horse. Unable to see, he lay on the ground and the voice of Christ spoke to him.

That encounter with Christ, change his life. When he got his sight back in three days, he saw the world differently; soon he was baptized and became known as Paul.

St. Paul went from being an enemy of Christianity to its biggest evangelical agent. He spread Christianity to the Gentiles (non-Jews) bringing it from Jerusalem throughout Mediterranean Europe and into to Rome. He was ultimately beheaded, in Rome, for his faith.

 

Conversion of St. Augustine

Young St. Augustine had many question about life, and he followed various philosophers looking for answers. None filled his soul with the answers he wanted. Up until his early 30s, Augustine also lived a raucous, promiscuous lifestyle. He was lookin’ for love in all the wrong places. One day, he heard St. Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, preach, and he heard the beginnings of the answers to his questions. St. Ambrose would guide him in learning the faith. He was inspired to conversion by a verse of Scripture. (Romans 13:13-14. Go ahead, look it up.)

That led him to be baptized in the faith of his mother, St. Monica, who had prayed for his conversion for many years. In the years after converting, Augustine became a bishop and one of the greatest philosophers and theologians of Catholicism.

 

Conversion of Constantine

Roman Emperor Constantine, who in the religion of Rome was deemed to be a god, one day had a conversion experience that not only brought him to Christianity, but made him cast aside any illusion that he was a god. Shortly before a battle had a vision, recounted by early Christian writer, Lactantius: “Constantine was directed in a dream to cause the heavenly sign to be delineated on the shields of his soldiers, and so to proceed to battle. He did as he had been commanded, and he marked on their shields the letter X, with a perpendicular line drawn through it and turned round thus at the top (P), being the cipher [initials] of Christos. Having this sign, his troops stood to arms.” And Constantine won that battle using the sign from his vision.

Constantine’s conversion marked the end of pagan Rome and the rise of Christianity. In 313 A.D., Constantine legalized Christianity throughout the Empire. While not a saint in the Western church, in the Eastern church and amongst the Orthodox churches, he is dubbed “St. Constantine, equal of the Apostles” as he, like the Apostles, spread the faith throughout the known world.

 

Conversion of St. Francis

St. Francis was a young man seeking glory and knighthood in battle. He had a conversion made up of several life-changing experiences. While earlier experiences moved him away from seeking the glories of this world, a key moment occurred one day when St. Francis came upon a leper. His first impulse was of revulsion; to look away and move on. Instead, Francis was moved by love of God to embrace the leper.

On his deathbed he recalled the encounter as the crowning moment of his conversion: “What seemed bitter to me was changed into sweetness of soul and body.”

By the power of this moment of conversion, and by God’s later call to him to “rebuild my church,” St. Francis started the Franciscan order, which to this day serves the church and the world with the inspiration that drove his conversion.

 

Conversion of St. Kateri

A member of the Mohawk tribe, St. Kateri Tekakwitha was a sickly young girl. Listening to the preaching of Jesuit missionaries, St. Kateri moved away from the religious practices of her people, and converted to Catholicism as a teenager and was baptized at 20. As a result of her conversion, her family and her people shunned St. Kateri. But she remained firm in faith. By her example other tribesmen converted and joined her in a Christian Indian colony.

Kateri had a deep devotion to the Blessed Sacrament and to Christ crucified. Inspiring many, she died at age 24, in 1680.

 

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton

Following the death of her husband, Elizabeth Ann Seton, an Episcopalian with five children, found solace in the Catholic faith. She had a belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist and in the truth that the Catholic Church was the one true church. She converted to Catholicism, which alienated her family, who cut her off from any assistance she may have needed. To help care for her kids she opened a school in Boston which was a great success.

She was soon approached by the Archbishop of Baltimore to open a Catholic school for girls. She accepted the request, and thus began the beginnings of the parochial school system in the United States. She also founded the Sisters of Charity to staff the schools. A school system and a religious order all came to be because of the conversion of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton.

By reflecting on these great conversion in faith history, and perhaps after listening to the jazzy sound of George Benson, make this Lenten season a time to turn your love around. Answer God’s continuing call to conversion.

 

Father Lentini is pastor of Holy Cross Church in Dover and Immaculate Conception Church in Marydel, Md.