Church built on conversion (Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul; June 29, 2014)

Readings for the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul, Apostles
Listen to the podcast

Here in America, famous criminals often discover Jesus in jail. Stock market swindlers, venal banking executives and unscrupulous politicians tend to see the light, renounce their evil ways, and be born again. Ordinary burglars and car thieves also find faith in prison, but the cases we hear about are of the one-time socialites and pillars of their communities who suddenly find themselves in crowded cells with numbers on their backs.

And, of course, the press and the general public react to news of these jailhouse conversions with amused cynicism. The conventional wisdom is that the leopard never really changes its spots. The abrupt embrace of Christianity is written off as another con –as a last desperate scam. Now given the history of some of these characters, a certain amount of skepticism is warranted. But I think at the root of people’s incredulity is the fact that there is very little place in public debate in America for the idea of conversion.

If a politician changes her mind on an issue, it is regarded as indecisiveness, rather than as evidence of a capacity to adapt to new information and changing circumstances. The past of a candidate for public office is sifted by the media and by political opponents in search of discreditable tidbits that when made public will bring ruin. Since there is no such thing as conversion, someone who plagiarized an essay in secondary school, or smoked marijuana as an undergraduate must still be a cheat and a lawless voluptuary today.

Special interest groups of every stripe comb a public person’s past, employing their own idiosyncratic checklists of unforgivable sins. And when they find they are able to tic a few items on their list, they denounce their victim. When apologies are demanded, they are seen not as a preliminary to forgiveness and reconciliation, but as an opportunity for public humiliation, where the person is compelled to admit the justice of the accusations that have been made. Modern culture is plagued by an array of new petty orthodoxies, and the penalty for violating their tenets is condemnation.

Thankfully, Christianity is possessed of a greater wisdom. Our faith acknowledges that conversions happen. In fact, the possibility of conversion is at the heart of our Christian hope. If it weren’t for conversion, the Church would have been deprived of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, whose contributions we celebrate today. If it weren’t for their convictions about conversion, the early Christians would never have believed that Paul, who had persecuted the Church, and approved of the stoning of Stephen, had suddenly been transformed into an apostle. And St. Peter, who three times denied he knew Jesus, would never have been accepted as the first head of Christ’s Church.

Initially we might find it odd that two men with checkered pasts should have played such a foundational role in the Church. But when we think of the really great Christians — those on the Church calendar, and those we have been privileged to meet — we notice that a remarkably large proportion of them have had to overcome some weakness or failing. They have experienced conversion.

All of us are broken in one way or another. In some of us the failing is obvious. Others of us are more successful in hiding our weakness from the world. Our sins might destroy us. But if, by God’s grace, we are converted, we can in the process become better, holier people than we would otherwise have been. The Gospels tell us that there’s more rejoicing in heaven over a single sheep that had been lost and is found, than over the 99 who never strayed. Perhaps the reason is that the single sheep is likely to be so useful.

Ours is not a God with a checklist, eager to mark us down for damnation. There is always a place in the Church for people who are willing to admit their failings and try again. That’s fortunate, because it means there is room in the Church for Peter, and for Paul, and for us.

Fr. Charles Gordon, C.S.C.Rev. Charles B. Gordon, C.S.C., is co-director of the Garaventa Center for Catholic Intellectual Life and American Culture at the University of Portland. He writes and records a regular blog called “Fractio Verbi.”

More Related Articles