The call to discipleship begins with conversion. But what does it mean to be evangelized and converted?
The National Directory of Catechesis defines conversion as, “the acceptance of a personal relationship with Christ, a sincere adherence to him, and a willingness to conform one’s life to his. (NDC, p. 48). To put it more simply,
“Conversion to Christ involves making a genuine commitment to him and a personal decision to follow him as his disciple” (NDC, p. 48).
We might be surprised to hear the Church speak of evangelization and conversion in relation to those who come to Mass on Sunday morning. The National Directory of Catechesis describes a new intervention required by our modern world called the ‘new evangelization.’
The New Evangelization is directed to the Church herself, to the baptized who were never effectively evangelized before, to those who have never made a personal commitment to Christ and the Gospel, to those formed by the values of the secular culture, to those who have lost a sense of faith, and to those who are alienated (NDC p. 47).
Notice that the intervention of the new evangelization is directed towards the Church herself, to various groups of people who have failed to make a personal commitment to Christ despite being socialized in a parish environment. These people have not yet journeyed to the stage properly called ‘discipleship.”
Although baptized as children, these people have allowed themselves to be transformed, not by Christ, but by the values of our secular culture. In many cases, they have lost their faith and feel alienated from the Church.
Very clearly in the Gospels, Jesus’ call to be a disciple demands a radical change of life. As Jesus was walking by the Sea of Galilee, he called out to the fishermen Peter and Andrew saying, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.” The two men “At once they left their nets and followed him” (Matthew 4:19-20).
The call to discipleship required a radical drop-your-nets-and-follow decision. The same is true of James and John who immediately, “left their boat and their father and followed him” (Matthew 4:22). Matthew as well quickly “got up and followed” Jesus in response to his call (Matthew 9:9). It is possible that in each of these cases a prior encounter with Jesus took place, but the clear focus of these narratives is a point of decisive decision to follow Jesus completely and with one’s whole heart.
In our modern setting, most Catholics passively receive baptism as infants and then hopefully mature to later practice their adult faith. It is easy to see how some might miss the important role of personal decision and repentance in completing the journey of faith.
Does the word disciple mean someone who is now actively committed as opposed to a passive follower of Christ?
Recognizing this fact, some Catholics have tried to ‘sacramentalize’ this decision by delaying Confirmation and making this sacrament appear to be a validation of a decision to follow Christ by teenage Catholics. Historically Confirmation has never been seen a coming of age ritual like a Jewish bar/bat mitzvah. In Catholic tradition, very young children, even infants may receive this sacrament long before they express the fullness of adult faith.
The Catechism reminds us, “Although Confirmation is sometimes called the “sacrament of Christian maturity,” we must not confuse adult faith with the adult age of natural growth, nor forget that the baptismal grace is a grace of free, unmerited election and does not need “ratification” to become effective” (CCC 1308).
Clearly this passage from the Catechism should not be understood to mean that adult Catholics can be completely passive about their faith. The initial faith of baptism is an indelible mark on the soul, but these graces can be deliberately rejected. We must cooperate with these graces. Each one of us needs a personal conversion, or perhaps better on going personal conversion.
The catechists desire to inspire a decision of faith among Candidates for Confirmation and the special role played by Confirmation sponsors, should lead to a renewed decision to follow Jesus more closely during this catechetical journey, but this is not the central purpose of this Sacrament.
The Catechism notes, “Confirmation perfects Baptismal grace; it is the sacrament which gives the Holy Spirit in order to root us more deeply in the divine filiation, incorporate us more firmly into Christ, strengthen our bond with the Church, associate us more closely with her mission, and help us bear witness to the Christian faith in words accompanied by deeds” (CCC 1316).
Each one of us need to make a personal decision to follow Jesus. For those of us baptized as children, St. Pope John Paul II reminds us that each of us also needs to personally say ‘Yes’ to Jesus Christ. It is not enough to merely be baptized and raised in the Church without embracing this faith personally. Each one of us must say ‘yes’ to Jesus Christ.
St. John Paul II highlights two levels of saying ‘yes’ to Jesus. We must first surrender to the Word of God and rely on it. After this we must endeavor to know the profound meaning of this Word better and better (Catechesi tradendae 20). Infused by the Holy Spirit, we are lead to exercise faith and repentance and to surrender to God’s will and to enjoy personal relationship with him.
Pope Paul VI reminds us that the evangelical message must have the “capacity of piercing the conscience of each individual, of implanting itself in his heart as though he were the only person being addressed, with all his most individual and personal qualities, and evoke an entirely personal adherence and commitment” (Evangelii Nuntiandi, 45).
Each one of us must have a life changing personal encounter with Jesus that results in a decision to put Jesus at the center of our life. This must be a “a genuine commitment to him and a personal decision to follow him as his disciple” (NDC, p. 48).