Personal Conversion: An Indispensable Key in Personal and Parish Evangelization

"The Triune God wants you and me to be saints"

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SYDNEY, Australia, AUG. 29, 2012 (Zenit.org).- Here are the notes from the keynote address given by Martha Fernández-Sardina at the "Proclaim" conference held earlier this month in Sydney. 

The conference was organized by the Office for Evangelization and Catholic Mission on behalf of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference and was Australia's first national conference on the new evangelization.

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“Holy Lord! Me… a saint?!”That is what I titled a talk I delivered at the Bosco Catechetical Conference at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio in 2010. I addressed the topic of personal conversion and personal holiness a week earlier at the National Catholic Bible Conference in Denver, Colorado. I spoke about ‘The Making of a Modern-Day Saint” to young adults at a pub, between beers, at one of our archdiocesan “Theology on Tap” sessions. The universal call to holiness is on my mind constantly. I find myself saying over and over again: “Holy Lord! Me… a saint?!”

I don’t mean it in a flippant manner. It is indeed a prayer – a prayer to the thrice-holy God: “holy, holy, holy, Lord God of hosts.” It is a prayer-question to the One who calls you and me to share in His divine life, that is, to become holy as the Lord your God is holy. The universal call to holiness so clearly and beautifully ratified in the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, Chapter 5, can be found time and again in Sacred Scripture, from beginning to end.

In the Book of Genesis, we are made holy – in the image and likeness of God! It does not get better than that! Pure. Holy. Unblemished. Unstained. Unsullied. Brand new. New creation. Of course, in no time, we mess it up.

In the Book of Exodus, we are taken from slavery and death to a Promised Land through a long journey through the desert – God’s way of, not only getting us out of Egypt, but getting Egypt out of us! The pagan ways of thinking and feeling and judging and behaving… the ways on unbelievers that have conditioned and influenced us while away from home. It was necessary to make them understand that “we are but travelers here.” (St. Mary MacKillop)

In the Book of Leviticus we see the universal call to holiness clearly stated – and the reason why holiness is crucial, essential, necessary, mandatory:Leviticus 11:44-45: “For I, the Lord, am your God; and you shall make and keep yourselves holy, because I am holy. You shall not make yourselves unclean… Since I, the Lord, brought you up from the land of Egypt that I might be your God, you shall be holy, because I am holy.”Leviticus 19:1-2: “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Speak to the whole Israelite community and tell them: Be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.’”Leviticus 20:7-8, 26: “Sanctify yourselves, then, and be holy; for I, the Lord, your God, am holy. Be careful, therefore, to observe what I, the Lord, who make you holy, have prescribed.”

Jesus repeats this admonition, this call, this mandate at the beginning of His public ministry. In the Sermon of the Mount, Jesus clearly spells out for His listeners what is expected of them… of us… of His followers… of anyone who wishes to come after Him. He raises the bar. Referring to what “you have heard “ several times, alluding to the Torah and the prescriptions familiar to the Jewish audience, Jesus contrast those commandments with His own, new commandments, presenting the “new law” (what the Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI calls the “new Torah”.) “You have heard” is followed by “but what I say to you” and “My command to you is” – raising the bar higher and higher each time until, at the end of chapter 5 of the Gospel according to St. Matthew 5, He finally clearly states the type of life and love He expects from each of us, summarizing it all in this ‘mission impossible’: “In a word, you must be made perfect as your heavenly father is perfect.” (Mt 5:48)Really? Seriously, Lord? Holy?! Me?! Me, a saint?! Holy, Lord…!

“Holy Lord! Me… a saint…?”Yes, you, a saint. The Lord wants us to share in His very life. He wants us to share fully and perpetually in His image and likeness. He wants us to be just like Him. He wants us to have our Father’s eyes, as one Christian artist used to sing. He wants the world to know whose child we are, what family we belong to, whose name we bear, where we come from… and where we are headed.

The Triune God wants you and me to be saints, to be holy as He is holy because He is holy! We are to be made holy (and we are – by virtue of our Baptism) and to remain holy (and we must – by means of our cooperation with grace.) God deserves it and wants it. As St. Paul clearly states in 1 Thessalonians 4:3, “For this is the will of God, your sanctification” (“It is God’s will that you grown in holiness…”), praying just a few verses earlier for the Thessalonians: “May He strengthen your hearts, making them blameless and holy before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his holy ones.” (1 Thess 3:13), praying again for them at the end of his first letter (1 Thess 5:23-24): “May the God of peace make you perfect in holiness. May he preserve you whole and entire, spirit, soul and body, irreproachable at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” adding the great promise on which I depend and trust, “He who calls us is trustworthy, therefore he will do it.”

He will do it! He wants it! He wants it “badly” (or “goodly”, I suppose.) The Lord wants your sanctification, your “holification” with all His being. How about you…? How “badly” (or “goody”) do you want it…? The spotless lamb, Jesus Christ, paid the ultimate price to acquire you, to pay for your ransom, to cancel your debt, to present you unblemished before His Father… As St. Peter, the first pope, a man who knew his weakness and limitations, but knew in Whom he has trusted states: “Realize that you were delivered from the futile way of life your fathers handed onto you, not by any diminishable sum of silver or gold, but by Christ’s blood beyond all price: the blood of a spotless, unblemished lamb.” “Since this is so”, he states a verse earlier, “conduct yourselves reverently during your sojourn in a strange land.” (1 Peter 2:17-19)

St. Paul puts it more bluntly when he not only points out the price paid by Christ (“death, death on a cross – Phil 3:8), but he points out what happened to us as a result of being ransomed by and for Christ: “We have died with Christ…we are also to live with Him.” (Rom 6:8) And as one Eucharistic Prayer says, we are given the gift of the Holy Spirit “that we might no longer live for ourselves but for Him who died and rose for us”. That’s the call, the expectation, the mandate: that we die with Christ and rise to a new life, that we die to the old self and live as a new creation.

Blessed John Paul II reminded us as we began the Third Christian Millennium that to carry out a new evangelization ever more effectively we must be saints. In his Apostolic Letter Novo Millennio Ineunte, At The Close of The Great Jubilee of the Year 2000, No. 30, he dedicated a section to the universal call to holiness in which he states: “First of all, I have no hesitation in saying that all pastoral initiatives must be set in relation to holiness… One the Jubilee is over, we resume our normal path, but knowing that stressing holiness remains more than ever an urgent pastoral task. It is necessary”, he added, “to rediscover the full practical significance of chapter 5 of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium, dedicated to the ‘universal call to holiness.’ The Council fathers laid such stress on this point, not just to embellish ecclesiology with a kind of spiritual veneer, but to make the call to holiness an intrinsic and essential aspect of their teaching on the Church… a rediscovery of the basic sense of belonging to Him who is in essence the Holy One, the ‘thrice Holy’ (cf. Is. 6:3)” Pope John Paul II continues, “To profess the Church as holy means to point her to her as the Bride of Christ, for whom He gave himself precisely in order to make her holy (cf. eph.5:25-26). This”, the Pope said, “objective gift of holiness is offered to all the baptized. But the gift in turn becomes a task, which must shape the whole of the Christian life: ’This is the will of God, your sanctification.’ (1 Thes 4:3) It is a duty which concerns not only certain Christians: ‘All the Christian faithful, of whatever state or rant, are called to the fullness of the Christian life and to the perfection of charity.” (LG, 40)

There it is! There’s the call. That’s the expectation. That’s the mandate from Genesis to Jesus to today. How “badly” do you want holiness? How deeply do you desire to share in God’s image and likeness? How desirous are you of being a spotless mirror reflecting God to the world? How much do you care whether or not the Lord sees His own image in you as in a mirror, and how well or poorly the world sees God in you, His icon, His image on earth?

10.Well, I hope you want is as much as the Lord does… because, whether you want it or not, it’s going to happen! Yes… either here and now or there and later… you will be sanctified… you will be made holy as the Lord our God is holy. It reminds me of a commercial on television in the United States: the man comes to fast food restaurant counter and asks for #4. The gal at the counter asks in matter-of-factly tone: “Do you want heartburn now or later?” The man look back at her confused, while a large man behind her says, “Sir, it’s a simple question: do you want heartburn now or later?” The commercial is for a heartburn medication. J I ask you the same question today: Do you want heartburn now or later…?” “Holification”, the process of making you saint by setting your heart ablaze with the fire of God’s love until you are purified from all sin and dross and impurities through and through, “holification”, sanctification will happen at one time or another – it’s simply a matter of choice: now or later… Those who have seen or been to purgatory highly recommend now versus later. I prefer now rather than later – and not because the “mañana is good enough for me” mentality of lazy procrastination is immature to say the least, but because it appears that the consuming fire of purification in purgatory is far hotter than God’s purification of our souls here on earth. I prefer heartburn now rather than later. Besides, the holier I am now the less dross to eliminate later, the less the stains have set in, the less I become habituated to sin and selfishness, to my ways versus God’s way. The sooner the better if you ask me! Holier today than yesterday and holier tomorrow than today!

11.Now, there is no holiness without personal conversion. Conversion is necessary. It is crucial. It is at the heart of growth in holiness. Without conversion, without change, there is no true growth in holiness, in godliness. And, yes, there is a price to be paid... In fact, not a single price, but a series of steps must take place. It’s what happens when you decide to leave your known world and journey with God into the Promised Land. I just went through this a few days ago… at the airport upon my arrival…

12.No Australian dollars in my pocket unless I convert, give up, exchange, leave behind my American dollars. Yes, it wasn’t easy: my dear dollars were being handed over to a nice lady, but a stranger nonetheless. And she was given me some very beautiful and colorful Australian dollars in exchange for my one-colored American dollars, but, as beautiful as they were, mine were known to me. And to make matters more challenging, she was handed me less than I was giving her! In fact, not only was I “losing” 0.16 for every American dollar I gave her, but she also made me pay her a fee of $6.00 dollars – Australian dollars, mind you, which makes that almost $7.00! In the end, my conversion that day cost me $25.00 hard-earned American dollars…! But what was I to do? Yes, of course, I could have waited until I was in the city and shopped around and bargained until I found a better rate… or simply held on to my American dollars and to the security the “dull but known”… but then I would not have been able to quickly enjoy the things my conversion process now allows me to do and make my own.

13.Such is the case with the conversion of the heart, with the process of deep conversion for holiness sake: those who want the pearl of great price must sell, trade, and give up all else to get it.

We must be willing to undergo…

A heart transplant…

A blood transfusion…

A total make-over…

A re-call and repair…

14.Those who wish to embrace conversion, change deep within, must be willing to leave behind their “dollars” oftentimes in exchange for something less familiar, little known, and at times less attractive or, at first site, of lesser value. But we do so knowing in whom we have placed our trust, as St. Paul would say to his young disciple Saint Timothy: “I know in whom I have believed.” (2 Tim 1:12)

15.Holiness is what we were made for! A total share in the divine life!

TMA, 7, 8 – Blessed John Paul II speaks of how God pursue us down the centuries to give us a share in Himself, in the divine life… we, His special possession… so that we might enjoy the indwelling of God!

16.No conversion, no holiness.

No holiness, no credible witness.

No credible witness, no effective implementation of the new evangelization.

This is what the recent Popes have been telling us time and again. Pope Paul VI said it well: “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses”, adding, “It is therefore primarily by her conduct and by her life that the Church will evangelize the world, in other words, by her living witness of fidelity to the Lord Jesus - the witness of poverty and detachment, of freedom in the face of the powers of this world, in short, the witness of sanctity.” (Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi – On Evangelization in the Modern World, No. 41)

17.The witness of sanctity is impossible without deep conversion of outlook and a radical conformity to Christ, and it is absolutely necessary to effectively counter what Pope Benedict XVI calls a “profound crisis of faith” (Apostolic Letter Porta Fidei for the Indiction of the Year of Faith, No. 2), alluded to by Blessed Pope John Paul II when he stated that “even in countries evangelized many centuries ago, the reality of a ‘Christian society’ which, amid all the frailties which have always marked human life, measured itself explicitly on Gospel values, is now gone”, an alarming situation calling for a new evangelization. (Apostolic Letter Novo Millennio Ineunte – At the Close of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000, No. 40)

18.Do you wish to reverse this trend and gain lost ground? Do you want to make an eternal difference in someone’s life by becoming an effective agent of the new evangelization in the Third Christian Millennium? Convert deeply, for as Pope Benedict XVI has said: “What the world is in particular need of today is the credible witness of people enlightened in mind and heart by the word of the Lord, and capable of opening the hearts and minds of many to the desire for God and for true life, life without end.” (Pope Benedict XVI: Apostolic Letter Porta Fidei for the Indiction of the Year of Faith, No. 15)

19.If we want an effective new evangelization to transform the world for centuries to come–and we do!–, we must become genuine witnesses of Christ. And to become and remain powerful and credible witness we must pursue holiness. And to grow in holiness daily, we need daily personal conversion.

No conversion, no holiness.

No holiness, no credible witness.

No credible witness, no effective new evangelization.

But… the opposite is also true!

Conversion leads to holiness.

Holiness leads to a credible witness.

Credible witness leads to an effective new evangelization.

20.What does conversion entail?

It entails dying to self and being born into Christ. It entails leaving the old self behind and acquiring a new self. It means taking on the mind of Christ, a fresh outlook, His way of seeing and judging and loving and living. It means becoming more Christ-like, embracing Him and all He is about. It entails some effort: “This kingdom and this salvation, which are the key words of Jesus Christ's evangelization, are available to every human being as grace and mercy, and yet at the same time each individual must gain them by force - they belong to the violent, says the Lord, through toil and suffering, through a life lived according to the Gospel, through abnegation and the cross, through the spirit of the beatitudes. But above all each individual gains them through a total interior renewal which the Gospel calls metanoia; it is a radical conversion, a profound change of mind and heart.” (Evangelii Nuntiandi, 10)

It means changing the old self for a new self, becoming a new creation, growing in the full stature of Christ, becoming saints – the end goal of deep conversion.

21.And :holiness…is the loving reflection of the face of Christ”, Blessed John Paul II said in 2001, in his Apostolic Letter Novo Millennio Ineunte – At the Close of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000, No. 7.

In 1994, in preparation for the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000, he has already so beautifully pointed out the uniqueness and novelty of Christianity – a uniqueness which must be professed and proclaimed afresh today – and he spoke of the desire for us found in the God who searches for us – and dwells within us that we might share in His very life.

Tertio Millennio Adveniente, 7

 Tertio Millennio Adveniente, 8

22.How it is achieved?

Blessed Pope John Paul II in Novo Millennio Ineunte, 31 asked, “Can holiness ever be ‘planned’? What might the word ‘holiness’ mean in the context of a pastoral plan?” He reflected and answered: “In fact, to place pastoral planning under the heading of holiness is a choice filled with consequences. It implies the conviction that, since Baptism, is a true entry into the holiness of God through incorporation into Christ and the indwelling of his Spirit, it would be a contradiction to settle for a lifeof mediocrity, marked by a minimalist ethic and a shallow religiosity. To ask catechumens: ‘Do you wish to receive Baptism?’ means at the same time to ask them: ‘Do you wish to become holy?’ It means to set before them the radical nature of the Sermon of the Mount: ‘be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect.’ (Mt. 5:48)”

Mediocre… radical… These seem like two extremes to be avoided, though for some “mediocre” is less an extreme and more of a “happy medium.” It is not! It is a tragedy to live a less than full Christian life! As for living a “radical Christian life”, truly understood that simply means living a “rooted Christian life” – a life rooted in Christ, a life that is cemented, anchored in He who claimed to be The Way, The truth and The Life, the Door of Heaven, the Savior of the world, the light of world who calls us to be the light of the world.

And as Blessed John Paul II states, the radical nature of the call to holiness as part of the new Covenant, this “ideal of perfection must not be misunderstood as if it involved some kind of extraordinary existence, possible only for a few ‘uncommon heroes’ of holiness. The ways of holiness are many”, he continues, “according to the vocation of each individual.” The paths are many and varied, but we must all walk down a path toward the one common goal, living the ordinary in extraordinary ways: “The time has come to repropose wholeheartedly to everyone this high standard of ordinary Christian living: the whole life of the Christian community and of Christian families must lead in this direction” knowing that “the paths to holiness are personal and call for a genuine ‘training in holiness’ adapted to people’s needs.”

23.What can be expected as we grow in holiness?

We will glow in the dark! We will become “glow in the dark saints” as we prove ourselves “innocent and straightforward, children of God beyond reproach in the midst of a twisted and depraved generation – among whom you shine like the stars in the sky while holding fast to the word of life.” (Phil 2:16-17)

Ours is the wonderful and demanding task of becoming the reflection of Christ’s light, Blessed John Paul II said, the mysterium lunae of which the Church Fathers spoke to show our dependence on Christ, the Sun whose light the Church reflects, as the moon reflects the sun, as she has no light of her own apart from that of the Son of God, as St. Augustine said.

24.We undergo this process of conversion and exchange of our ways for God’s ways, and our plans for God’s plans, and our projects for the project of God, together, as a family of faith. As Pope Paul VI said in Evangelii Nuntiandi – On Evangelization in the Modern World, 15, 1975: “The Church is an evangelizer, but she begins by being evangelized herself. She is the community of believers, the community of hope lived and communicated, the community of brotherly love, and she needs to listen unceasingly to what she must believe, to her reasons for hoping, to the new commandment of love. She is the People of God immersed in the world, and often tempted by idols, and she always needs to hear the proclamation of the "mighty works of God" which converted her to the Lord; she always needs to be called together afresh by Him and reunited. In brief, this means that she has a constant need of being evangelized, if she wishes to retain freshness, vigor and strength in order to proclaim the Gospel. The Second Vatican Council recalled and the 1974 Synod vigorously took up again this theme of the Church which is evangelized by constant conversion and renewal, in order to evangelize the world with credibility.”

25.The Church semper reformanda, always in need of reform, of renewal, embarks on an exciting deep sea fishing expedition with Jesus, ready to let Jesus “rock our boat” and calm our fears; ready to have Jesus show His glory as he walks on water and causes us to do the same; ready to have our faith strengthened, our obedience tested, our outlook changed from the inside out.

26.Pope Benedict XVI is calling us to embark of a new and exciting deep sea fishing expedition with Jesus during the 13-month Year of Faith (10/11/12 – 11/24/13):

“The Year of Faith…is a summons to an authentic and renewed conversion to the Lord, the one Saviour of the world. In the mystery of his death and resurrection, God has revealed in its fullness the Love that saves and calls us to conversion of life through the forgiveness of sins (cf. Acts 5:31). For Saint Paul, this Love ushers us into a new life: “We were buried ... with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom 6:4). Through faith, this new life shapes the whole of human existence according to the radical new reality of the resurrection. To the extent that he freely cooperates, man’s thoughts and affections, mentality and conduct are slowly purified and transformed, on a journey that is never completely finished in this life. “Faith working through love” (Gal 5:6) becomes a new criterion of understanding and action that changes the whole of man’s life (cf. Rom 12:2; Col 3:9-10; Eph 4:20-29; 2 Cor 5:17).” (Pope Benedict XVI: Apostolic Letter Porta Fidei for the Indiction of the Year of Faith, No. 6)

27.So…

Are you convinced? (that it is necessary, expected, mandated, possible, rewarding?)

Are you interested?

Are you ready for a new and exciting deep sea fishing expedition?

Are you willing to pay the price, make the sacrifice, leave the rest behind?

28.It will not happen overnight.

St. Paul says it takes effort, discipline, self-denial, and a fierce Olympian attitude and mindset. After all, you want to “run so as to win” (1 Cor 9: 24) Ask Sally Pearson!

It requires getting up and going at it every day. But if we want to, we too can be Olympians and medalists. As Fr. Benedict  Groeschel says: Saints are people like us who simply tried harder.”

Apparently, Olympians are too…

Video

We do it! We can achieve deep conversion and personal holiness if we set our minds to it and sign up for some “training in holiness” in “genuine ‘schools’ of prayer”, as Pope John Paul II saidin NMI, 31 and 33.

The Olympic Motto applies us to us as well:

Citius. Altius. Fortius. Faster. Higher. Stronger.

Powerpoint slides

29.So… I ask you again…

Are you convinced? (that deep personal conversion and holiness are necessary, expected, mandated, possible, rewarding?) I am – since the age of 19.

Are you interested? I am – since the age of 19.

Are you ready for a new and exciting deep sea fishing expedition? I am – since the age of 19… even if there’s not much to show in my oftentimes empty nets.

Are you willing to pay the price, make the sacrifice, and leave the rest (all non-holiness and all old ways) behind? I am – since the age of 15… and more decidedly and definitively since the age of 19.

30.Marita asked me to share briefly my personal testimony which I will do in closing to encourage you to do the same:

Having been born into a nominal Catholic family, I didn’t go to Church much as a child. My mom had been a daily Communicant and my father says he even considered becoming a priest at one point. But, when they married, they did not marry in the Church and did not practice the Faith fully. Nonetheless, my Mom did teach us to ray and sought occasions to provide some faith formation. I recall having been in a Presbyterian Sunday School for some time – and I loved it! I loved hearing about Jesus in Scripture. (The chocolates and donuts were good too! J) My moved from Miami to the Dominican Republic in the Caribbean and my brothers and I were placed in catechesis for First Communion… I loved it! I read the First Reading at Mass that glorious day: Acts 1:1-8 (“to the ends of the earth”!) we moved again, and I was placed in a Catholic school for the first time ever: I was intrigued, questioned, and sought the truth. I sought and I found. I committed my life to Christ at the age of 15. I walked with Him for 3 years, and walked away at age 18 for one year. And I returned in full force a month before my 19thbirthday. To this day! By the grace of God. No merit of my own. Am I a saint yet? I’m afraid not? Do I want to become a saint, that is, salt and light to the world? Yes! Am I working at it? Daily. It’s the only way to do it. I get up and go to work! Prayer, Adoration, Scripture, lectio divina, daily Mass, spiritual reading, association with strong Catholic Christians, accountability, custody of the senses, intimacy with Christ, frequent Confession… the usual means we have been given, tested means for growth in love of Christ and conformity to Christ.

31.Are you convinced… interested… ready… and willing to pay the price, make the sacrifice, and leave the rest (all non-holiness and all old ways) behind?

If so, I invite you to sing with me a beautiful sing that summarizes the prayer and the process that will make us saints: “Refiner’s Fire” – the words of which say it all: we need fire within to burn the chaff and purify us; we need heartburn now, not later; our sole desire must be to be holy, as the Lord, our God, is holy… because the Lord, our God, is holy.

Will you sing with me? “Refiner’s Fire”

CONCLUSION (after song):

You can find some of my talks, TV shows, articles, blogs, and new evangelization resources online at iEvangelize.wordpress.com, Viemo, YouTube, and archsa.org/Evangelization.

Let’s be disciples!

Let’s be new evangelizers!

Let’s be saints!