Students of Pope Francis summarize his agenda with the phrase “pastoral conversion.” Lent is an especially suitable time to think and pray about conversion. But what is pastoral conversion?
Conversion is about a change of mind and heart that affects all the baptized. The source of this is our encounter with Jesus Christ and especially the experience of his forgiveness, love, and mercy. Pope Francis insists that the church—which means us, the people of God—must go out to encounter others and share the experience of God’s love. We do this not by pushing doctrines and morality, but by inviting people to personally encounter the living Christ.
The starting point is a matter of experience, an event, and not a proposition to subscribe to with the mind. Doctrine and morality certainly do count, but the church’s mission to evangelize does not start there.
Redirecting the church’s outreach to the invitation to experience Christ’s love brings with it an ability to engage in real dialogue. Pastoral conversion demands the capacity to encounter others and respect their views, even when they differ from our own. Openness to others is not just a nice gesture, being polite, or showing tolerance—it is a way to witness to God’s universal love. True dialogue reveals respect for the dignity of people, even one’s “enemies,” in a world where polarization, taking sides, and culture wars are so very common. That’s why Pope Francis stresses a culture of encounter.
Pastoral conversion means that the faithful at large assume responsibility for the church’s mission. Pope Francis suggests that “missionary disciple” is the term that best captures the fullness of the baptismal call. The distinction between clergy and laity is not helpful for an evangelizing church. Pastoral conversion means mobilizing all the faithful, for without their mobilization there is no way the church can accomplish its evangelizing mission.
What this means is that all of us must stop thinking of the church mainly as an institution, or of our priesthood as a nice “niche” to be occupied, or of our function as deacon or lay ecclesial minister as a status. Everything has to be transformed into mission. That includes the parish, which so often becomes self-referential rather than missionary.
Pastoral conversion means keeping the poor in mind and helping them while also listening to them. When the church demonstrates care for the marginal it gives the most credible sign after martyrdom of having encountered Jesus. Think about Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta. When we show genuine concern for the poor and for social justice we are “putting our money where our mouth is.” Christianity shows its authenticity not by the beauty of its liturgies, or the brilliance of its theologians as much as by its regard for those on the periphery: the oppressed, the aged, immigrants, the sick, the rejected, and the forgotten. So pastoral conversion means a change of heart and the courage to get down with the poor and learn from them, for they are very special conduits of the Good News.
Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are the three traditional activities of Lent. They can be viewed as the embodiment of pastoral conversion that requires noticing your dependency on God and others through prayer, the experiencing of hunger or the “embodied need” of the poor, and giving of your substance to those in need. Pastoral conversion is just another name for living the incarnate love of God manifested at Holy Week, the final destination of our Lenten journey.
For more reflections in our Lenten series, click here.
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Image: Illustration by Angela Cox