Conversion has two elements for its completion. First, we need to rid ourselves of the things that hinder gospel living. That includes not only “stuff” but also habits, attitudes, mindsets, lifestyles etc. that hinder hearing and living the Gospel. Secondly, conversion calls us to commit our lives to Jesus and his gospel call. It calls for practicing charity, having hope, learning how to love all people. If we only clean out our lives, we create a vacuum into which all sorts of things can enter (cf. Luke 11:24-26). Our inner housecleaning ordinarily should open a path for the Holy Spirit to work in our lives.
The Rule requires Secular Franciscans to approach people with gentleness, care, and compassion – recognizing in them the image of God. We recognize our personal need for radical conversion and seek it with a willing spirit. By our lives we show how it looks to live a kingdom/gospel life. It must be attractive rather than boring; inviting rather than separating; welcoming instead of excluding; forgiving rather than vengeful; prayerful rather than domineering; with a passion for justice rather than allowing injustice to grow; seeking ways of peace rather than planning for war and violence; developing a spirit of community rather than individualism; recognizing a need for God rather than arrogant independence; finding hope and guidance in the Bible rather than dependence merely on human knowledge.
The term Penance in Franciscanism is equivalent to the biblical meaning of metanoia, understood as an intimate conversion of the heart to God, as a vital altitude, a continuous state of being. It is not a question of doing penance but of being penitent.
We know that St. Francis read and meditated upon the Word of God until it was integrated into his very being. In body and soul, St. Francis was altered by the Gospel. His identity changed as he became conformed to the likeness of Christ. St. Francis went beyond imitation. He became one with the beloved. Francis proved that the Gospel could be lived. It was a process for him. It continues to be a process for us. It is what our Rule calls ongoing conversion. If we wish to be changed in the process, we must become one with the Lord.
Dear Christ, what a poor thing I am! Deliver me from my imagination and my dumb desires and tastes, my likes and dislikes! Sanctify me by them!
Contemplation is understood in varied ways, but every perspective views contemplation as an ongoing process. To experience contemplation, Merton tells us that continual divesting of our ego, self-centeredness, and sinfulness is necessary to recognize that in our true poverty we are free to more perfectly follow Christ. This experience of humility beckons an awareness of the poverty and need of those around us. In turn, such a process of ongoing conversion, or contemplation, leads one upward to God and outward toward the rest of humanity.
This is the challenge that Pope Francis invites us all to take up. It is to convert the world through Love, not a cowardly sentimentality, but a burning, infinite Love that radiates directly from the Holy Spirit dwelling within us and leaps forth to set fire to the souls of each person we encounter. It is a Love that proceeds from lives lived in holiness, humility, and total dependency on Jesus and surrender to His Holy Will.
If we are to re-evangelize this world that has forgotten the face of Our Savior, we must begin not with catechesis (though that will come), but with charity and holiness of life. This can only come about through lives that are daily immersed in prayer and the sacraments of the Church, lives of continual interior conversion, penance, and true poverty of spirit. We must strive to live, by God’s grace and as near as we are able, in imitation of that of St. Francis of Assisi.
“This day is yours, Lord,” I say each day upon rising. Yet, before I even finish my first cup of coffee, the day has become mine. Hidden in the humor of that statement is the reason why daily conversion is so hard and so important: it is easy to forget God. It is easy to turn to God only when our backs are to the wall or we are facing grave danger. Sadly, God is often the last option. But God wants more than being our first option: God desires to be our only option. Only when God becomes our sole source of life is true human peace and joy possible.
The proclamation of the Word of God has Christian conversion as its aim: a complete and sincere adherence to Christ and his Gospel through faith. Conversion is a gift of God, a work of the Blessed Trinity. It is the Spirit who opens people’s hearts so that they can believe in Christ and “confess him” cf. 1 Cor 12:3; of those who draw near to him through faith Jesus says: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” Jn 6:44.
From the outset, conversion is expressed in faith which is total and radical, and which neither limits nor hinders God’s gift. At the same time, it gives rise to a dynamic and lifelong process which demands a continual turning away from “life according to the flesh” to “life according to the Spirit” cf. Rom 8:3-13. Conversion means accepting, by a personal decision, the saving sovereignty of Christ and becoming his disciple.
We do not simply just fall deeper and deeper into our faith after our baptism or initial conversion. We are called to keep jumping. We talk of that “leap of faith,” but our reality is one of multiple leaps, every day. Tiny jumps, or steps, even, sometimes just the distance it takes for our feet to go from the bed to the floor. It is that forward motion that keeps us going, that keeps saying that today will be better. Today I will try harder. Today I might fail. But I am still loved.