Two things in the headlines this week should be like sirens calling us to conversion.
The first was the largest mass shooting in a church in U.S. history. The evil that was done to the people of First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs made hearts ache with compassion for those who died as they were worshipping God and for those who mourn them. And yet it somehow seemed to take no time before social media users were atwitter, pouncing on “thoughts and prayers.” The standard “What would Jesus do?” convention took on the form of an attack on prayer, with many insisting prayer was not an action but an excuse not to get behind gun-control legislation as the remedy for evil. And yet, both that question and the frenzied response of repulsion to the idea of “thoughts and prayers” ought to challenge us to ponder what the Gospel does require of us.
Father Donald Haggerty, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, who is currently stationed at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, has some insights on that topic. In his new book, Conversion: Spiritual Insights into an Essential Encounter with God, he writes:
There is a link between the crisis of unbelief in Western culture and the loss of religious intensity among those who claim the importance of faith. Belief is never simply an interior conviction about religious matters. It entails a personal cleaving to Jesus Christ as God and man that cannot be unaffected by his manner of life. But do we forget to keep our eyes fastened on the poor and crucified man of Nazareth whom we proclaim as divine and the object of our love? Belief in Jesus of Nazareth as God in the flesh has to face with some pain and distress the poor life he preferred for himself and the love for poor people that he chose. Otherwise, our faith in the Incarnation risks becoming an abstraction only useful for maintaining a correct belief. It misses an essential truth of this actual thirty-three years that calls for some effort of resemblance on our part.
Which brings us to the accusations against Alabama Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore. (There have been several vile defenses of him, in particular, one that shamelessly made use of the holy family.) Again, I quote from Father Haggerty:
A conversion is not just a change of life-style. The new recognition of God infuses strong desires in our soul that God should be known by others as we now know him. A kind of missionary zeal for souls can take hold of our heart and enter into our impulses with other people. We would like to see conversions spread contagiously among our contacts with people. More immediately we would be happy at times to bowl over an unbelieving soul with the overwhelming truth of God. This enthusiasm for winning souls may be naïve in its optimism regarding the appeal of God to people who do not know him. But, in another sense, it is a sign of our love for God. And a zeal for souls as we continue life is essential to a love for souls. We taste a graced impulse in wanting to bring others to the truth of God and to Catholic faith. We have to be led by God in this love for souls, learning wisdom of heart and suffering for souls, if we truly want their conversion to the faith. Even God in his omnipotence cannot convert a soul that does not want to know him.
People need to know converted souls. While conversion happens daily, if people are meeting Christians who are not surrendering themselves to the hard work of conversion, of course they are not going to believe that thoughts and prayers are worth anything. And if they see people using and abusing religion for ideology or other worldly power, of course they won’t have any interest in conversion either.
I can’t help but keep thinking of (there I go with thoughts again!) and be drawn into prayer (!) for Frank Pomeroy, the pastor of First Baptist Church and his wife, who lost their daughter in the shooting Sunday. He has a peace about him even in his devastating grief. I can’t help but think it comes from something Father Haggerty describes:
Surrender to God from a deeper layer of soul always conceals a promise that must also be heard, even without words. God is not casual and nonchalant when great offerings are made. He does not receive them so frequently that he can be dispassionate toward a soul that casts itself in abandonment into his hands. His fingers are strong in holding on tightly to such souls. If these souls are asked to bear their share of suffering in future days after their suffering in future days after their offering, even so, the firm hand of God never releases them but, rather, clasps them to his heart. And that embrace compensates for every risk that might earlier have intimidated a soul.
There is a fearlessness and freedom that comes with real faith, the kind where the soul begs for further conversion. For every misuse and abuse and manipulation of, or even mere miscommunication about, religion, there are those who truly try to live configured to Christ, a true transformation.
In the introduction to his book, Father Haggerty quotes Saint Edith Stein, the famous convert to Catholicism from Judaism who died in the Holocaust. She writes:
Immediately before and for a good while after my conversion, I was of the opinion that to lead a religious life meant one had to give up all that was secular and to live totally immersed in thoughts of the Divine. But gradually I realized that something else is asked of us in this world and that, even in the contemplative life, one may not sever the connection with the world. I even believe that the deeper one is drawn into God, the more one must “go out of oneself,” that is, one must go to the world in order to carry the divine life into it.
Not only do we need room for people of faith to be people of integrity, living their faith in the world — i.e., religious freedom — but we need people who are overwhelming our lives and culture and yes even politics with real religion, not the fake kind that remakes God into our own image instead of offers our lives for Him to remake them. The people of Sutherland Springs not only need and deserve our prayers, their very witness to faith is a prayer for us to go deeper, for real, for the sake of our souls and the souls of all we hold dear — which includes our country and its politics and its culture. Our thoughts and prayers ought to be for conversion to the kind of faith that radiates confidence in true hope in God, clinging to Him, not to ideological and other selfish self-reliant manipulations.