“Conversion” — at least in today’s news — can be an ugly word. The vicious so-called Islamic State warns Christians and non-Christians in the Middle East and elsewhere to convert to Islam or suffer a brutal death.
It’s ironic that the vile threat — convert or die — floods the media even as Catholics applaud other conversions. That’s because the Easter season is conversion season in our parishes, as we celebrate the journey many take in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults process that culminated at the Easter Vigil. For Catholics, conversion — thankfully without the threats to life and limb — is a core tenet of faith.
True conversion must be more than a shedding of one religious practice for another. Conversion means a change of heart much more than a change of rules. For the Islamic State group, conversion is about power and control. For us, conversion must be about love and fidelity.
It’s a difference the terrorists do not understand. But if we look closely enough, many other religions and secular belief systems have made the same mistake.
Yes, even Christianity.
In the late Roman Empire when Christianity became “official,” soldiers battled pagan Germanic tribes who would not accept baptism and Jesus. Thousands did accept — convert — and Europe eventually became Christian.
For centuries, often with threats and violence, Native Americans were hunted and coerced to forsake their “heathen” faith for Christianity. And democracy.
Jews have long been a handy target for conversion, forced into becoming Christians (at least publicly) during the Inquisition and at other times.
But butchery, beheadings and burnings don’t change hearts. True conversion cannot be involuntary. Over the millennia, Catholicism has learned that. The Islamic State group — and some others — haven’t.
Even evangelization, which can open the door to conversion, must walk a gentle path.
Evangelization cannot be the bullhorn-toting street-corner preacher warning the dire result of not heeding his words. Or the fundamentalist televangelist smoothly promoting his version of faith. Or old-time fire and brimstone erupting from the pulpit admonishing sinners to repent — or else.
Such proselytizing, such shoving one’s faith down another’s throat, is neither evangelization nor conversion.
In Catholicism, conversion has come full circle from apostolic times. In the early church, people got to know other Christians, saw the presence of God in their lives and were changed. And converted. Yet, as Christianity grew into a public institution, it often regressed, again demanding conversion by sword, fire or threats of banishment.
Just a few generations ago, conversion was mainly quiet and academic, with “instructions” on the rules behind rectory doors. With the Second Vatican Council came the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. There’s instruction, yes, but with an experiential dimension, because faith is not just the head, but also the heart.
Pope Francis has startled more than a few Catholics by reminding us that we shouldn’t proselytize. It’s a “solemn nonsense,” he said in one interview. To a group of Belgian young people he said, “If you go with your faith like a flag, like the Crusades, and you engage in proselytism, that’s no good.”
So then, if the sword is butchery and banishment out of favor, how do we convert?
The pope said, “The best way is witness, but humble witness: ‘I am like this,’ with humility, without triumphalism.”
RCIA accomplishes that. So, as we march deeper into the Easter season, the season of conversion, it becomes our task to continue the quiet witness of faith. Don’t be an introverted Catholic; share your faith.
Tom Sheridan is a former editor of the Catholic New World, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Chicago, and a deacon ordained for the Diocese of Joliet, Ill. He writes from Ocala, Fla.