ECCLESIA IN AMERICA


CHAPTER III
THE PATH OF CONVERSION
"Repent therefore and be converted" (Acts 3:19)

The urgency of the call to conversion

26. "The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is close at hand: repent and believe the Good News" (Mk 1:15). These words with which Jesus began his Galilean ministry still echo in the ears of Bishops, priests, deacons, consecrated men and women and the lay faithful throughout America. Both the recent celebration of the fifth centenary of the first evangelization of America and the commemoration of the two thousandth anniversary of the birth of Jesus, the Great Jubilee we are preparing to celebrate, summon everyone alike to a deeper sense of our Christian vocation. The greatness of the Incarnation and gratitude for the gift of the first proclamation of the Gospel in America are an invitation to respond readily to Christ with a more decisive personal conversion and a stimulus to ever more generous fidelity to the Gospel. Christ's call to conversion finds an echo in the words of the Apostle: "It is time now to wake from sleep, because our salvation is closer than when we first became believers" (Rom 13:11). The encounter with the living Jesus impels us to conversion.

In speaking of conversion, the New Testament uses the word metanoia, which means a change of mentality. It is not simply a matter of thinking differently in an intellectual sense, but of revising the reasons behind one's actions in the light of the Gospel. In this regard, Saint Paul speaks of "faith working through love" (Gal 5:6). This means that true conversion needs to be prepared and nurtured though the prayerful reading of Sacred Scripture and the practice of the Sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist. Conversion leads to fraternal communion, because it enables us to understand that Christ is the head of the Church, his Mystical Body; it urges solidarity, because it makes us aware that whatever we do for others, especially for the poorest, we do for Christ himself. Conversion, therefore, fosters a new life, in which there is no separation between faith and works in our daily response to the universal call to holiness. In order to speak of conversion, the gap between faith and life must be bridged. Where this gap exists, Christians are such only in name. To be true disciples of the Lord, believers must bear witness to their faith, and "witnesses testify not only with words, but also with their lives".68 We must keep in mind the words of Jesus: "Not every one who says to me, "Lord, Lord!' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven" (Mt 7:21). Openness to the Father's will supposes a total self-giving, including even the gift of one's life: "The greatest witness is martyrdom".69

The social dimension of conversion

27. Yet conversion is incomplete if we are not aware of the demands of the Christian life and if we do not strive to meet them. In this regard, the Synod Fathers noted that unfortunately "at both the personal and communal level there are great shortcomings in relation to a more profound conversion and with regard to relationships between sectors, institutions and groups within the Church".70 "He who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen" (1 Jn 4:20).

Fraternal charity means attending to all the needs of our neighbor. "If any one has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him"" (1 Jn 3:17). Hence, for the Christian people of America conversion to the Gospel means to revise "all the different areas and aspects of life, especially those related to the social order and the pursuit of the common good".71 It will be especially necessary "to nurture the growing awareness in society of the dignity of every person and, therefore, to promote in the community a sense of the duty to participate in political life in harmony with the Gospel".72 Involvement in the political field is clearly part of the vocation and activity of the lay faithful.73

In this regard, however, it is most important, especially in a pluralistic society, to understand correctly the relationship between the political community and the Church, and to distinguish clearly between what individual believers or groups of believers undertake in their own name as citizens guided by Christian conscience and what they do in the name of the Church in communion with their Pastors. The Church which, in virtue of her office and competence, can in no way be confused with the political community nor be tied to any political system, is both a sign and safeguard of the transcendent character of the human person.74 Continuing conversion

28. In this life, conversion is a goal which is never fully attained: on the path which the disciple is called to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, conversion is a lifelong task. While we are in this world, our intention to repent is always exposed to temptations. Since "no one can serve two masters" (Mt 6:24), the change of mentality (metanoia) means striving to assimilate the values of the Gospel, which contradict the dominant tendencies of the world. Hence there is a need to renew constantly "the encounter with the living Jesus Christ", since this, as the Synod Fathers pointed out, is the way "which leads us to continuing conversion".75

The universal call to conversion has special implications for the Church in America, involved as she is in the renewal of faith. The Synod Fathers expressed this very specific and demanding task in this way: "This conversion demands especially of us Bishops a genuine identification with the personal style of Jesus Christ, who leads us to simplicity, poverty, responsibility for others and the renunciation of our own advantage, so that, like him and not trusting in human means, we may draw from the strength of the Holy Spirit and of the Word all the power of the Gospel, remaining open above all to those who are furthest away and excluded".76 To be Pastors after God's own heart (cf. Jer. 3:15), it is essential to adopt a mode of living which makes us like the one who says of himself: "I am the good shepherd" (Jn 10:11), and to whom Saint Paul points when he writes: "Imitate me as I imitate Christ" (1 Cor 11:1).

Guided by the Holy Spirit to a new way of living

29. The proposal of a new style of life applies not only to the Pastors, but to all Christians living in America. They are asked to know more deeply and to make their own a genuine Christian spirituality. "In effect, the term spirituality means a mode or form of life in keeping with Christian demands. Spirituality is "life in Christ' and "in the Spirit', which is accepted in faith, expressed in love and inspired by hope, and so becomes the daily life of the Church community".77 In this sense, by spirituality, which is the goal of conversion, we mean "not a part of life, but the whole of life guided by the Holy Spirit".78 Among the many elements of spirituality which all Christians must make their own, prayer holds a pre-eminent place. Prayer leads Christians "little by little to acquire a contemplative view of reality, enabling them to recognize God in every moment and in every thing; to contemplate God in every person; to seek his will in all that happens".79

Prayer, both personal and liturgical, is the duty of every Christian. "Jesus Christ, the Good News of the Father, warns us that without him we can do nothing (cf. Jn 15:5). He himself, in the decisive moments of his life, before doing something, used to withdraw to an isolated place to give himself to prayer and contemplation, and he asked the Apostles to do the same".80 He tells his disciples without exception: "Go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret" (Mt 6:6). This intense life of prayer must be adapted to the capacity and condition of each Christian, so that in all the different situations of life each one may be able "to drink of the one Spirit (cf. 1 Cor 12:13) from the wellspring of their encounter with Christ".81 In this sense, contemplation is not a privilege reserved to the few; on the contrary, in parishes, in communities and movements there is a need to foster a spirituality clearly oriented to contemplation of the fundamental truths of faith: the mysteries of the Trinity, the Incarnation of the Word, the Redemption of humanity, and the other great saving works of God.82

Men and women who are dedicated exclusively to the contemplative life accomplish a fundamental mission in the Church in America. As the Second Vatican Council put it, they are "a glory of the Church and a source of heavenly graces".83 Therefore, the monasteries which exist throughout the continent must be "especially loved by the Pastors, who should be deeply convinced that souls dedicated to the contemplative life obtain an abundance of grace, through the prayer, penance and contemplation to which they have given their lives. Contemplatives must know that they are part of the Church's mission in the present and that, by the witness of their lives, they work for the spiritual good of the faithful, and help them to seek the face of God in everyday life".84

Christian spirituality is nourished above all by a constant sacramental life, since the Sacraments are the root and endless source of God's grace which believers need to sustain them on their earthly pilgrimage. The sacramental life needs to be complemented by the values of popular piety, values which will be enriched in turn by sacramental practice and saved from falling into the danger of routine. It should also be noted that this spirituality is not opposed to the social responsibilities of the Christian life. On the contrary, in following the path of prayer, believers become more conscious of the Gospel's demands and of their duties towards others. Through prayer, they are strengthened with the grace they need to persevere in doing good. In order to mature spiritually, Christians do well to seek the counsel of the Church's ministers or of other persons expert in the field of spiritual direction, which is a traditional practice in the Church. The Synod Fathers felt that it was necessary to recommend to priests this important ministry.85

The universal call to holiness

30. "Be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy" (Lev 19:2). The Special Assembly for America of the Synod of Bishops has wished to offer a forceful reminder to all Christians of the importance of the doctrine of the universal call to holiness in the Church.86 This is one of the key points of the Second Vatican Council's Dogmatic Constitution on the Church.87 Conversion is directed to holiness, since conversion "is not an end in itself but a journey towards God who is holy. To be holy is to be like God and to glorify his name in the works which we accomplish in our lives (cf. Mt 5:16)".88 On the path of holiness, Jesus Christ is the point of reference and the model to be imitated: he is "the Holy One of God", and was recognized as such (cf. Mk 1:24). It is he who teaches us that the heart of holiness is love, which leads even to giving our lives for others (cf. Jn 15:13). Therefore, to imitate the holiness of God, as it was made manifest in Jesus Christ his Son, "is nothing other than to extend in history his love, especially towards the poor, the sick and the needy (cf. Lk 10:25ff.)".89

Jesus, the one way to holiness

31. "I am the Way, the Truth and the Life" (Jn 14:6). With these words, Jesus presents himself as the one path which leads to holiness. But a specific knowledge of this way comes chiefly through the word of God which the Church proclaims in her preaching. Therefore, the Church in America "must give a clear priority to prayerful reflection on Sacred Scripture by all the faithful".90 This reading of the Bible, accompanied by prayer, is known in the tradition of the Church as lectio divina, and it is a practice to be encouraged among all Christians. For priests, the lectio divina must be a basic feature of the preparation of their homilies, especially the Sunday homily.91

Penance and reconciliation

32. Conversion (metanoia), to which every person is called, leads to an acceptance and appropriation of the new vision which the Gospel proposes. This requires leaving behind our worldly way of thinking and acting, which so often heavily conditions our behavior. As Sacred Scripture reminds us, the old man must die and the new man must be born, that is, the whole person must be renewed "in full knowledge after the image of the Creator" (Col. 3:10). Strongly recommended on this path of conversion and quest for holiness are "the ascetical practices which have always been part of the Church's life and which culminate in the Sacrament of forgiveness, received and celebrated with the right dispositions".92 Only those reconciled with God can be prime agents of true reconciliation with and among their brothers and sisters.

The present crisis of the Sacrament of Penance, from which the Church in America is not exempt and about which I have voiced my concern from the beginning of my Pontificate,93 will be overcome by resolute and patient pastoral efforts.

On this point, the Synod Fathers rightly asked "that priests give the necessary time to the Sacrament of Penance, and strongly and insistently invite the faithful to receive the Sacrament, without the Pastors themselves neglecting frequent confession in their own lives".94 Bishops and priests personally experience the mysterious encounter with the forgiving Christ in the Sacrament of Penance and they are privileged witnesses of his merciful love.

The Catholic Church, which embraces men and women "of every nation, race, people and tongue" (Rev 7:9) is called to be, "in a world marked by ideological, ethnic, economic and cultural divisions", the "living sign of the unity of the human family".95 In the multiplicity of nations and the variety of ethnic groups, as in the features common to the entire continent, America presents many differences which cannot be ignored and which the Church has the duty to address. Thanks to effective efforts to integrate the members of the People of God within each country and to unite the members of the particular Churches of the various countries, today's differences can be a source of mutual enrichment. As the Synod Fathers rightly affirmed, "it is most important that the Church throughout America be a living sign of reconciled communion, an enduring appeal to solidarity and a witness ever present in our various political, economic and social systems".96 This is a significant contribution which believers can make to the unity of the American continent.

 

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