During a trip to the Holy Land a few years ago, I had the possibility to speak with a German priest who had been working for some years with the Patriarch of Jerusalem. Something that he said remained impressed in my mind: “Christianity will be weak in society, if it is not founded upon events of personal conversion.” It seems to me that this judgment he offered can explain not only the fragility that we often see in our parish communities or in many experiences of youth groups, but also the statistics of Sunday mass attendance in entire countries or continents.
What is an “event of personal conversion”? Conversion happens when someone, coming into contact with a lively Christian experience, is struck to the point that he begins to assimilate, from this experience, the criteria for living and for thinking. He desires, in other words, to learn to judge and to act like the persons that he has come across. It can be a teacher at school, a parish priest, or a colleague who extends an invite to dinner with his friends. In every case, a true encounter takes place when a person decides to give a clear priority, in terms of value, to what he has learned from those he has met. In this way, he begins to give precedence to a certain voice in his life, which becomes the measure of comparison for all the others to which he listens. Many are the voices, in fact, that offer or impose responses to the fundamental questions of life. But when a man encounters Christ, he learns to recognize His voice. The same thing happened to those who followed Him two thousand years ago in Palestine. For many, hearing Jesus speak was a superficial experience, which did not truly make them question themselves or the state of their lives. Instead, for others, it was the beginning of an all-embracing adventure of attention, of listening, that interrogated every other precedent experience. They are the people of whom the Gospels often speak, amazed by the teaching of Jesus, who spoke as one having authority and not like the scribes.
In time, this profound experience of listening becomes belonging. Today, a man who converts freely chooses to belong to the Church, through the community that he has encountered, and considers this belonging as the first and most precious among those that define him. He has, by now, understood the qualitative difference between the Christian proposal and those of the surrounding world. Better, he has comprehended that Christianity contests the mentality of the environment that informs his way of thinking and of living, and in this way he has reached a decisive point in the journey of conversion. Only he who has begun to wrestle with himself thanks to the encounter with Christ can live the decision for Him as a dramatic event, a truly personal choice.
The passage that we call conversion cannot happen if not through a crisis, a rupture. This can happen even in traditionally Christian societies. For some, it can take the form of a radical change in lifestyle. For others, it can unfold while leaving the things of life apparently unchanged, as can happen to a young person who encounters a priest at his parish, or a group of Christian kids at a school. He continues to go to class every morning, to study, to play with his friends, but his life is changed. He has experienced the moment of crisis, which has brought him to a conscious, free and definitive choice, with which he said to himself: “I will follow the Church; I belong to Christ.”
In the picture, Vera Sofia, a Russian girl, a convert to Catholicism, on the day of her baptism. Here is the link to her testimony.