It is often difficult for those of us who are cradle Catholics to identify a single moment of initial conversion to Christ. Some evangelical Protestant traditions put great stress on a certain moment when one was “saved.” Someone makes a decision to “accept Jesus as personal Lord and savior” and prays “the prayer.”
As Catholics we sometimes recoil at this kind of talk. Our experience grounds us in a more communal, sacramental, and gradual process of initiation rites and sanctification, beginning at baptism and maturing throughout life.
A common — and quite good — Catholic response to the question of “Are you saved?” is, “I have been saved; I am being saved; and I will be saved.” We were saved when Jesus came, lived, died, and rose for us and for our salvation (Nicene Creed). We were saved when we entered formally into his Body, the Church, through baptism. We are being saved as we consent consciously to the ongoing transformation (metanoia) that Jesus guides through the Holy Spirit. We will be saved through grace-filled perseverance and final purification.
This rich response embraces the past, present, and future dimensions of salvation in Christ, each of which is well-attested in Scripture.
This theologically rich answer to the question of salvation is profoundly helpful, but another point may need emphasizing. Because of our common belief in the long and communal journey of salvation, we as Catholics can sometimes fail to emphasize the urgency and importance of making a personal decision and commitment to follow Jesus. If some Protestant communities have erred in over-emphasizing a “once-and-done” moment of salvation, it is also true that many of our Catholic communities have erred in not calling Catholics to make a conscious “fundamental option” (General Directory for Catechesis, 56) to seek, know, love, and follow Jesus.
Both initial and ongoing conversion are vitally important in the life of every disciple. Some people will know the moment when they first opened their heart to Christ (“it was about the tenth hour,” John 1:39); others will not. We can celebrate the diverse paths Jesus leads us on as he takes each of us ever deeper into the paschal mystery.
For further reflection on the richness of the process of salvation and its implications for pastoral ministry, read the following excerpt from the General Directory for Catechesis:
Conversion and faith
In proclaiming the Good News of Revelation to the world, evangelization invites men and women to conversion and faith. The call of Jesus, ‘Repent and believe in the Gospel,’ (Mk 1:15) continues to resound today by means of the Church’s work of evangelization. The Christian faith is, above all, conversion to Jesus Christ, full and sincere adherence to his person and the decision to walk in his footsteps. Faith is a personal encounter with Jesus Christ, making of oneself a disciple of him. This demands a permanent commitment to think like him, to judge like him and to live as he lived. In this way the believer unites himself to the community of disciples and appropriates the faith of the Church.
This ‘Yes’ to Jesus Christ, who is the fullness of the revelation of the Father is twofold: a trustful abandonment to God and a loving assent to all that he has revealed to us. This is possible only by means of the action of the Holy Spirit.
‘By faith man freely commits his entire self completely to God, making the full submission of his intellect and will to God who reveals, and willingly assenting to the Revelation given by him.’
‘To believe has thus a double reference: to the person and to the truth; to the truth, by trust in the person who bears witness to it.’
Faith involves a change of life, a ‘metanoia,’ that is a profound transformation of mind and heart; it causes the believer to live that conversion. This transformation of life manifests itself at all levels of the Christian’s existence: in his interior life of adoration and acceptance of the divine will, in his action, participation in the mission of the Church, in his married and family life; in his professional life; in fulfilling economic and social responsibilities.
Faith and conversion arise from the ‘heart,’ that is, they arise from the depth of the human person and they involve all that he is. By meeting Jesus Christ and by adhering to him the human being sees all of his deepest aspirations completely fulfilled. He finds what he had always been seeking and he finds it superabundantly. Faith responds to that ‘waiting,’ often unconscious and always limited in its knowledge of the truth about God, about man himself and about the destiny that awaits him. It is like pure water which refreshes the journey of man, wandering in search of his home. Faith is a gift from God. It can only be born in the intimacy of Man’s heart as a fruit of that ‘grace [which] moves and assists him,’ and as a completely free response to the promptings of the Holy Spirit who moves the heart and turns it toward God, and who ‘makes it easy for all to accept and believe the truth.’ The Blessed Virgin Mary lived these dimensions of faith in the most perfect way. The Church ‘venerates in Mary the purest realization of faith.’
The process of continuing conversion
Faith is a gift destined to grow in the hearts of believers. Adhering to Jesus Christ, in fact, sets in motion a process of continuing conversion, which lasts for the whole of life. He who comes to faith is like a new born child, who, little by little, will grow and change into an adult, tending towards the state of the ‘perfect man,’ and to maturity in the fullness of Christ. From a theological viewpoint, several important moments can be identified in the process of faith and conversion:
a) Interest in the Gospel. The first moment is one in which, in the heart of the non-believer or of the indifferent or of those who practice other religions, there is born, as a result of its first proclamation, an interest in the Gospel, yet without any firm decision. This first movement of the human spirit towards faith, which is already a fruit of grace, is identified by different terms: ‘propensity for the faith,’ ‘evangelic preparation,’ inclination to believe, ‘religious quest.’ The Church calls those who show such concern ‘sympathizers.’
b) Conversion. This first moment of interest in the Gospel requires a period of searching to be transformed into a firm option. The option for faith must be a considered and mature one. Such searching, guided by the Holy Spirit and the proclamation of the Kerygma, prepares the way for conversion which is certainly “initial”, but brings with it adherence to Christ and the will to walk in his footsteps. This “fundamental option” is the basis for the whole Christian life of the Lord’s disciple.
c) Profession of faith. Abandonment of self to Jesus Christ arouses in believers a desire to know him more profoundly and to identify with him. Catechesis initiates them in knowledge of faith and apprenticeship in the Christian life, thereby promoting a spiritual journey which brings about a ‘progressive change in outlook and morals.’ This is achieved in sacrifices and in challenges, as well as in the joys which God gives in abundance. The disciple of Jesus Christ is then ready to make an explicit, living and fruitful profession of faith.
d) Journeying towards perfection. The basic maturity which gives rise to the profession of faith is not the final point in the process of continuing conversion. The profession of baptismal faith is but the foundation of a spiritual building which is destined to grow. The baptized, moved always by the Spirit, nourished by the sacraments, by prayer and by the practice of charity, and assisted by multiple forms of ongoing education in the faith, seeks to realize the desire of Christ: ‘Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.’ This is the call to the fullness of perfection which is addressed to all the baptized.
The ministry of the word is at the service of this process of full conversion. The first proclamation of the Gospel is characterized by the call to faith; catechesis by giving a foundation to conversion and providing Christian life with a basic structure; while ongoing education in the faith, in which the place of the homily must be underlined, is characterized by being the necessary nourishment of which every baptized adult has need in order to live. (53-57)