Converts and Conversion

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Among Roman Catholics the term "convert" properly applies to someone above the age of choice who, experiencing the grace of the Holy Spirit, accepts the person and teaching of Jesus Christ in the communion of the Church. Before the promulgation of the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults in 1972, it was common to refer to anyone who joined the Catholic Church as a convert. Present usage, however, restricts the term to mean anyone who, not professing Christian faith and never having received baptism, joins the Catholic Church. Although the term "convert" is still loosely applied in practical usage to any adult who joins the church, the change in the formal vocabulary reflects better ecumenical understanding and appreciation of the traditions and practices of other Christian communions. It explicitly respects their baptism and Christian formation, which, in the past, were either not recognized or only "conditionally" accepted. In the context of the RCIA, individuals who have been previously baptized are referred to as candidates, while those who are seeking baptism are called catechumens.

Fuller notions of evangelization is treated below, but at the outset it is important to note that in the strict conception of the catechumenate, evangelization refers to the initial call and attraction of a person to faith. The 1997 General Directory for Catechesis refers specifically to "call" and "initiation" as two of five ministries of the Word of God (n. 51). Similarly, the process of being initially drawn to Christ and formed in his teaching can be specifically referred to as conversion, with catechetical formation building upon that. More generally, though, conversion refers to the whole process of entering the Church and not just the initial steps.

Individuals experience conversion in variety and often mysterious ways. Catholics often use the term to describe intellectual and moral transformations that occur within the life of one who is already a believer. Sometimes these transformations are dramatic and sudden, but more commonly they are gradual and, in this latter case, are referred to as "ongoing conversion."

Proselytism. Inviting others to conversion is usually very carefully differentiated from proselytism, both in its conception and also its method. Because conversion involves a process of open discernment covering an extended period, it results from a free and mature decision. Proselytism, on the other hand, refers to a forced or manipulative approach to sharing faith, usually without respect for the past experience of the seeker and often restricting the contacts and experiences of the person and employing enticements of a non-religious nature.

The Roman Catholic-Pentecostal dialogue, held in Rome between 1990 and 1997, treated problems of proselytism in a very thorough way. This dialogue developed an initial working definition of proselytism as "a disrespectful, insensitive and uncharitable effort to transfer the allegiance of a Christian from one ecclesial body to another." It went on to specify particular unethical forms of proselytism, instructive for their nuance, which included: intellectually dishonest presentations of one's own faith community in disparagement of others; intellectual laziness in knowing the religious tradition of another; willful misrepresentations of the beliefs and practices of other Christian communities; any form of force or coercion; manipulation "including the exaggeration of biblical promises; abuse of mass media; judgments or actions which raise suspicions about the sincerity of others; and competitive evangelization focused against other Christian bodies. These amplifications of the meaning of proselytism were made while acknowledging that Christians have a right to bear witness to Christ, and that this witness "may legitimately involve the persuasive proclamation of the Gospel in such as way as to bring people to faith in Jesus Christ or to commit themselves more deeply to Him within the context of their own church." If authentic witness leads people to freely choose to join a different Christian community, "it should not automatically be concluded that such a transfer is the result of proselytism."

Pastoral Dimensions. In the years after the Second Vatican Council, there evolved a movement from instructional classes for converts that focused on individuals to the wide-spread ministry of Christian initiation provided in virtually all parishes. The following changes have resulted from this transition: a formational notion of catechesis that extends beyond initial instruction; the establishment of adult initiation as the model for all initiation; the involvement of many laypersons in the conversion process; a clearer relating of converts to the local parish community.

The process whereby one joins the Church consists of a number of distinct elements. The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults establishes discreet steps, each of which might vary in length depending on pastoral needs:1) A period of inquiry presents the initial teaching of Jesus and the life of a believer; 2) then follows a period of more intense study and reflection called the catechumenate; 3) near the beginning of Lent those whose catechumenal experiences have led them to seek entrance into the Church become the elect and undergo a more intense spiritual preparation during the Lenten season; 4) the elect receive the three sacraments of initiation (baptism, confirmation and Eucharist) usually at the Easter Vigil, being referred to as "the enlightened"; and 5) they then begin a final period of formation called mystagogia.

The adoption of the catechumenal model was spearheaded primarily by the North American Forum on the Catechumenate which, through its workshops like "Beginnings and Beyond," that helped establish and dramatically shape the catechetical process in the United States and Canada. The practice of receiving adult converts into the Church at the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday has become, in effect, the norm in most parishes; similarly, candidates, already baptized, are typically received at the Easter Vigil as well.

The catechumenal process has resulted in a substantial rise in the number of adults entering the Church, when one compares the number of converts in 1970 (92,670), in 1975 (75,123), in 1989 (82,406), in 1994 (163,351) and in 2000 (170,956). [Source: National Catholic Directory ] However, despite this increase, the number of adults entering the Church at the turn of the millennium was just approaching the number of adults entering the church in 1950s, when the population of Catholics in the United States was much smaller. About 60% of those attracted to the catechumenal process have already been baptized in another Christian tradition; 25% have never been baptized, with the remaining 15% being baptized but uncatechized Catholics. (Journey to the Fullness of Life: A Report on the Implementation of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults in the United States. )

In November, 1977 Paulist Father Alvin Illig started an office of evangelization and served as the executive director of the bishops' committee on evangelization. Along with this, he also inaugurated the Paulist National Catholic Evangelization Association as a pastoral spearhead for the church, seeking to provide both materials and training in this field. In 1983, in an attempt to broaden participation in evangelization, the bishops' committee on Evangelization formed the National Council for Catholic Evangelization which serves as a wide network of people involved in evangelization; this organization has offered resources, training and nation-wide sharing of information concerning evangelization.

Pastoral practice to welcome and invite those who have no faith to experience Catholic faith varies tremendously from place to place. Evangelization efforts have often been buttressed by diocesan-wide renewal programs that seek to renew Catholic life; this renewal may become a resource for sharing faith as well. At the turn of the millennium, many dioceses involved themselves in programs like Renew 2000, Disciples in Mission, or Follow Me. These kinds of programs supplemented other world-wide renewal movements such as the Cursillo Movement, or the Charismatic Movement or Marriage Encounter which, in turn, built upon the renewed liturgy and interest in the Scriptures that were key pastoral fruits of the Second Vatican Council.

Research into the phenomenon of conversion shows the key role that contacts through marriage, family and friends play in attracting people to conversion and membership in a church. In addition, active parish outreach, a vital liturgy, welcoming clergy and general hospitality form important dimensions which supplement the human contacts which appear basic in the social dynamic of conversion. The attraction of the liturgical and spiritual richness of the Catholic tradition, along with its living authority and world-wide unity, also seems to motivate a good number of converts.

Bibliography: "Evangelization, Proselytism and Common Witness: the Report from the fourth Phase of the International Dialogue 19901997 between the Roman Catholic Church and Some Classical Pentecostal Churches and Leaders," Information Service # 97 (1998/III), 3856. Go and Make Disciples, A Pastoral Plan and Strategy for Catholic Evangelization in the United States (USCCB, 1993). Journey to the Fullness of Life: A Report on the Implementation of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults in the United States (USCCB, 2000). k. boyack and f. p. desiano, Creating the Evangelizing Parish (New York/Mahwah, NJ 1993). f. p. desiano, The Evangelizing Catholic: A Practical Handbook for Reaching Out (New York/Mahwah, NJ, 1999).

[f. p. desiano/

r. j. o'donnell]