The power of conversion stories

Ever wonder why the Son of God opted not to just write down his message to us in his own words?

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Shea

The answer, I think, is that the great power of the Gospel lies in watching the impact Jesus has on those who follow him. The Gospels, in their own ways, are all conversion stories. They chronicle the journeys of the apostles from onlookers, to people who experienced trust in, curiosity about, openness toward, seeking of and, finally, intentional discipleship to Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God. We see Jesus in the Gospels through their eyes. Their questions, incredulity, confusion, astonishment, admiration and amazed adoration become our own as we grapple with his question: “Who do you say that I am?”

Shaky, sublime steps

Conversion can be a seesaw affair: two steps forward and one step back. One minute you are asking, “Who is this that even the wind and sea obey him?” The next minute you are wondering why he does not help Lazarus. You announce, “Though everyone else deny you, I will never deny you!” and the next minute you are weeping for cowardice as the cock crows. An adult convert in this country nearly always is somebody who feels as though they have embarked on a journey of discovery that puts them at odds with everything they thought they knew, but also somebody who has a profound sense of coming home, of a bone that was out of joint being set right, of losing everything and finding everything.

On the other hand, conversion can be a stunning revolution and fulfillment full of peace. Some converts, like St. Paul, can be nagged by doubts about Jesus, only to find that their “kicking against the goads” provides fuel for their passion for him when the light dawns.

Roy Schoeman, for instance, was an orthodox Jew raised to detest Christianity. But when he had a mystical encounter with the Blessed Virgin Mary, he was conquered by her sweetness and goodness. Very simply, he loved her. And when he sought to know who she was, he greatly feared that she would turn out to be the Mother of Jesus. But love overcame the fear, and he came to see who she and her Son truly were: not the abolition of the Law and the prophets, but their fulfilment. Now he bears witness to Jesus as St. Paul did.

Seeking answers

My own conversion to the Faith came in two phases: discovering Jesus and discovering the Church. I discovered Jesus in college thanks to the witness of a little nondenominational Bible study group. They taught me the basics of the Faith: prayer, Scripture, community, corporal and spiritual works of mercy. I owe them a debt I cannot repay. But eventually I hit the point where I realized that I had questions that a group of 30-odd 20-somethings could not answer.

Quite by accident, I found that when I thought those questions through, I kept discovering that the Catholic Church had already answered them a long time ago. Eventually, when I looked at the Faith, I found that my questions shifted from “Why be Catholic?” to “Why not be Catholic?” and that I not only had no good rejoinder but that the freedom, depth and beauty of the Faith attracted me profoundly. Since entering the Church in December 1987, I have, like many a convert, faced many difficulties but no doubts. I have never looked back.

The gifts of converts

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Grace builds on nature, and that is no exception with converts. They bring to the Faith what God built into them. One of the most famous converts of my generation is Scott Hahn, the biblical scholar who teaches at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio. A thoroughly convinced convert, his content is all Catholic, but his delivery is deeply influenced by his formative years as a Protestant teacher and pastor. This is one of the reasons for his powerful impact on people. Like St. Paul, the Jew who understood both Torah and the thought habits of the Greeks, Hahn can speak Catholic truth in “evangelicalese” and has helped many a Protestant swim the Tiber.

Sherry Weddell, founder of the Catherine of Siena Institute, is another convert (in fact, she and I entered the Church at the same Mass). Her book “Forming Intentional Disciples” (Our Sunday Visitor, $16.95) has detailed the stages (trust, curiosity, openness, seeking and intentional discipleship) by which people move to becoming committed followers of Jesus Christ in his Church. A committed disciple herself, her work has had a powerful impact around the world.

Our continual conversion

The stages of discipleship are not something that affect only those coming into the Church from the outside, but can also be the experience of nominal Catholics as well. For instance, both St. Teresa of Ávila and St. Ignatius of Loyola had conversion experiences in which Jesus Christ and his claims on us became living realities for them instead of mere conventional religious duties. This has happened many times to baptized Catholics and can send out ripples that change lives.

For example, Jeff Cavins tells the story of his transformation from a nominal Catholic to a passionate evangelical — and to a still more passionate Catholic after his rediscovery of the Church — in his book “My Life on the Rock” (Ascension Press, $14.99). Cavins has gone on to create the Great Adventure Bible study that has brought thousands to a profound encounter with Scripture. As with Israel wandering the desert for 40 years, God can sometimes take his wayward children on a circuitous voyage back to himself. But what marks the convert is exactly that burning desire to know and follow Jesus — and share him with others.

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Every year, thousands of people undergo this astonishing transformation of conversion. Often, it is a quiet process. Other times, it can be as tempestuous (and as consequential to history) as the conversion of Augustine. But however it happens, it has, since the day Thomas said, “My Lord and my God!” to the risen Christ, enriched and nourished the Church by the power of the Spirit.

Mark Shea writes from Washington.