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num. 295 - May 2010

Conversion happens when we find a treasure hidden in a field
Fr. Stuart C. Bate, OMI

Conversion happens when we find a treasure hidden in a field. Conversion comes from God. We promote conversion when we reveal the treasure to others. Conversion comes by evangelisation in witnessing good news as something good and something new. Good News can be pleasing but it can also be frightening. Conversion happens within culture: within culture in Christian activity and in socialisation into the culture of Religious Life.

Conversion happens when we find a treasure hidden in a field

The process of conversion is described by Jesus as what happens to a person when he finds a treasure hidden in a field (Mt 13:44). His life is changed and everything which was so important to him before is revealed as relatively worthless and so he changes direction by divesting himself of everything that was important before in order to stake his claim on this new treasure. For such a man “the time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is near” and so he is called to “convert (metanoiete) and believe the Good news” (Mk 1:15).

Conversion is the experience of turning around; it is a change of mind, a change of heart and a change of direction. It refers to the experience of having something so wonderful happen in our life that we decide to change our life path. It is what happens in the powerful foundational moments of our lives. It is what happens when people fall in love, get married and raise children. It is what happens when a people is liberated from slavery and oppression. It is what happens when we become true believers. It is what happened to St Eugene in the Good Friday experience. “It was a moment singularly different from what I had experienced…never did my soul feel happier...Why say more? Could I ever do justice describing what I felt at that moment? Just thinking about it fills my heart with sweet consolation” (Hubenig 2004: 29-30). Many of us can link our own vocational choice to foundational moments like this where a treasure is revealed to us; a treasure so precious that we are changed, we decide to leave our former life behind us and we begin a new life. Our Oblate vocation usually has a root in foundational experiences like this whether they happen when we decide to join or during our formation programme. And this encounter with the treasure is what should nourish it and strengthen it all the days of our life. The initial experience is one of overwhelming good and attraction and it is the attraction to the good that makes us turn around and follow a new path. That is conversion! That is metanoia!

Conversion comes from God

The treasure comes from God. It comes upon us by his action when the time (kairos) is fulfilled for us. That kairos always remains fundamental to our lives and if we lose our way as result of difficulties that happen during our journey, then we are called to return to the original experience to rediscover it again.

In conversion we are offered salvation as a free gift because it is from love. God is love: “made manifest among us, as God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins” (1 Jn. 4,9‑10). The whole of our spiritual journey is founded on this truth. For God sent his son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through him (Jn. 3:16-17). It is only in conversion that we have access to this truth.

The Church on earth has been founded by God as a missionary organisation whose purpose is to proclaim conversion in order to bring people to salvation according to the plan of the Father which flows from a “fountain-like love” (AG 2).

This Divine Mission, founded on God’s love for us, takes flesh for all humanity in the Mission of Jesus Christ to proclaim God’s Love for us in word and deed. It continues in the mission of the Holy Spirit sent by Jesus as the “first gift to those who believe, to complete his work on earth and bring us the fullness of grace” (Eucharistic Prayer 4). .

God’s love for us is most fully manifest in the Paschal Mystery in which Jesus shows us the way to salvation. The way of salvation is the way of the cross. It is the fundamental metaphor of conversion. The Divine Son-ship undergoes the final test in the Paschal Mystery. In sending Jesus Christ, the Father has done all that was possible for the salvation of humanity. After this, God remains mute. He has no more to say [1]. At this point without our own conversion to this way of life we cannot respond to God’s call.

The Mission of the Holy Spirit is to continually inspire the Church to help people find the treasure through the activity of its members. The Holy Spirit guides all our activities as missionaries of the Church for he is Soul of the Church (EN 75) and principal agent of the whole of the Church’s mission (RM 21). In our conversion, the Holy Spirit continually prompts us to live this conversion by convincing us of sin (Jn. 16; DeV 46). For sin leads to death and faith leads to life (Romans 6:23).

We promote conversion when we reveal the treasure to others

The disciples turned around their lives because Jesus said to them “Come and See” and they witnessed the wondrous events of his ministry in word and deed. As the apostles begin their own ministry on Pentecost, Peter reveals, in the theophany, the treasure which is the Good News of salvation, about Jesus who worked wonders amongst them and who God has raised from the dead. And “about three thousand were converted on that day” (Acts 2). In his preaching to the poor of Marseilles, St Eugene revealed the treasure that God has put in each one of them contrasting it with what the world thinks of them. “Let your eyes look inward and see through the rags you wear. There within you is an immortal soul…more precious before God than all the riches of the world. Therefore O Christians recognise your dignity” (Hubenig 2004:53).

Oblate missionaries throughout the world have revealed the treasure to people everywhere and so promoted conversion. Last year I was privileged to attend the 100th anniversary of Maphumulo parish in KwaZulu Natal. It was in 1909, that Fr Julius L’HOTE, OMI, left Montebello on horseback and arrived at the kraal of Camillus Mkhize. He spent the night at Camillus’ house and celebrated Mass the next morning: 20 April 1909. This was the first Mass at Maphumulo. Fr L’Hote continued as priest serving Maphumulo until his death in 1956 and celebrated his Golden Jubilee of priesthood here. For most of these years he worked together with Camillus Mkhize who was catechist until 1947. This mission produced many outstations, schools, large numbers of Christians and many vocations including a bishop, two other priests, many religious sisters and many conversions. This witness by a somewhat unknown Oblate is important because it is replicated worldwide through the efforts of many unknown Oblates who have revealed the treasure to people and built the Church in the modern world.

Conversion comes by evangelisation:
in witnessing good news as something good and something new.

As Oblates we are called to evangelisation and in this we follow Jesus, the apostles, St Eugene, all the saints and Oblates who have gone before us. Evangelisation means bringing good news to people. Now there are two essential yet often forgotten components of evangelisation. They are obvious but because of that we sometimes don’t become sufficiently aware of their importance.

Evangelisation means bringing Good News. The first criterion of good news is that it must be good and the second is that it must be new. This means that when we evangelise we are called to ensure that what we do is experienced in the heart of the recipients as something good for them: a treasure if you will. The gospel stories of the words and deeds of Jesus radiate goodness. This happens because in his healings, signs, words of comfort, blessing and support, Jesus inserts himself into the daily life of the people he meets and brings something good as a response to their human needs. And this is the call to us as missionaries. It is the essence of being close to the people.

But evangelisation must also bring something new into the hearts and souls of the recipient. When Jesus brought good news: “Amazement gripped the audience, and they began to discuss what had happened. ‘What sort of new teaching is this?’ they asked excitedly…. News about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee” (Mk. 1: 27-28).

So good news must be good and it must be new! That seems to be a surprisingly obvious comment to make. Yet what is more surprising is how sometimes our ministry can forget these two criteria and sink into the hum drum and repetitive of daily pastoral duty. And as we repeat the same old thing we wonder about the paucity of fruits! That is more surprising! . .

In fact, God continually calls people in Christ to participate in the realisation of his great plan for the salvation of the world (Cf. Eph. 1; 1 Cor. 15). A special call is the vocation to priestly life and service. We usually hear God’s call in the example of those around us, who challenge and inspire us by the witness of their own lives. It is surprising how often our own witness and example of Good News can touch others and bring them to commitment This is particularly true with priestly and religious vocation where the example of a zealous and holy priest is the way that many young men are challenged to examine the choices for their own future (DMP 32). This witness can be inspired by different kinds of priestly gifts and talents. Some parish priests reveal the treasure by preparing and leading prayerful and dignified celebrations of the sacraments. Others manifest the treasure of God’s presence in their special ministry to the sick and dying. Yet others have special gift of preaching as they mediate God’s word to the hearts of people. Some show a special commitment to the poor and suffering of the parish. There is no one recipe but what is common in all is the example of men who have met the Lord, who know it and who live their relationship with Jesus in service to the people they have been called to lead. And they bring the good and they do so daily anew!

Fr. Julius L’Hote, the Oblate missionary I referred to earlier, had a similar impact on one young boy who was particularly inspired by Father’s spirit of prayer and his love for the people. He recalled the compassion the missionary gave during an epidemic of malaria, visiting the sick and caring for them. And as a 13 year old boy he said to Father L’Hote: “I want to do what you do”. This boy, Dominic Khumalo, became an Oblate, a Priest and eventually Auxiliary Bishop of Durban.

Examples like this where missionaries bring the treasure that has been revealed to them and reveal it to others, inspires young men (and sometimes older people) to contemplate the value and indeed the immeasurable necessity of the life of a Priest. And in this frame of mind they are more open to the promptings of the Holy Spirit who may be gently challenging them to come and see more about this life for themselves (Cf. Jn. 1:39).

Good News can be pleasing but it can also be frightening.

The life of Jesus soon shows us that the Good News has two levels to it. And if we are his followers commissioned to the mission of the Church then it will be the same for us. In the early chapters of the gospel story the good news is mainly pleasant and joyful. It is very nice good news for people and the crowds grow and follow him. In our missionary activity we also bring this kind of good news especially when we meet people’s immediate needs in establishing churches and places of worship, providing education, promoting social justice and development, providing sites of healing and wellbeing, preaching retreats and leading pilgrimages and so on. We Oblates have been involved in all these activities and we have revealed the joyful good news of the Gospel as treasure for people.

But in the second half of the Gospel the good news takes on an urgent and darker message in the promise of the journey to Jerusalem, suffering and death. This begins with the profession of faith of Peter and the transfiguration on the mountain (Matthew, Mark 8, Luke 9). After seeing that the disciples have understood the Good News and who he is and, as a response, Jesus begins or reveal a deeper and harder side to the good news as he proclaims the journey to Jerusalem, to suffering and to death on the cross. After hearing this frightening news Peter rebukes him and then the one who Jesus has proclaimed to be the blessed and the rock on whom the Church will be built, is himself rebuked as Satan for “you are not on the side of God but of men”.

From then on the message of Good News becomes an increasingly difficult one: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it” (Matt 16: 24-25). This part of the treasure is hard for people to see and accept and as the story goes on, the crowds desert Jesus until on the cross he is alone: abandoned and denied even by his closest disciples. This deeper and harder dimension of Good News is linked to the struggle against evil and the inevitable suffering that this entails. It is about the journey to Jerusalem which will be most fully played out in the suffering and death of Jesus on the cross who, in this act, accomplishes his purpose as saviour of the world (Jn. 19:30).

The seemingly “bad” good news of the second part of the Gospel is however the real good news. It is the power of the cross which allows us to be saved and the kingdom to be upon us. In the crucifixion he assumes all our humanity including our sins and by his wounds we are saved. It is the real treasure since the “uncrucified is the unhealed” (O’ Collins 1997: 76; Cfr. Gregory Nazianzen Epistle 101).

It is Jesus’ death on the cross that opens the way to the kingdom and not the good news in the healings and the preaching. These are really the fruits of this redemption. Jesus agrees to be the sheep amongst the wolves and the victim for us in order that we can participate in his life. Ministry and mission demand that we, too, walk the same journey. This is the power and authority which is placed on us as we become apostles. It is also the hard part of conversion.

If we wish to bring Good News to people then we should remember these two parts of the Gospel message. Sometimes, those involved in ministry only recognise the “Nice and easy” good news. Failures are ignored and suffering is downplayed. Yet failure and suffering is at the centre of the good news as the life of Jesus shows. If we wish to imitate Christ, we are called to walk these two parts of the Christian way. The life we bring and the treasure we reveal in the ministries we do, is rooted in the suffering on the cross. The minister is thus the one who accepts to follow Jesus in the way of the cross. So the mission mandate is an invitation to walk where Jesus walked. It is also an invitation to journey to the suffering and pain of our Global Jerusalem as we make our way home to the Father. As we go we should preach saying ‘the kingdom of the heavens is at hand’ we should “heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons”. What we have received we have received without pay. So we should give without pay in a world sold on money (Cfr. Matt 10: 7-8).

Conversion happens within culture

1. Within Culture in Christian Activity

All missionaries cross boundaries between their own context and that of those to whom they are sent. The most fundamental boundary is of course the boundary of faith since the missionary brings the treasure of faith to a context of non faith. But there are other boundaries too. The most familiar is the one of geographical borders when we are sent from one place to another. But both outside and even within our country of birth, there are other boundaries the missionary must cross. Examples include those between rural and urban contexts, between young an old, between citizens and migrants, between religions, between worldviews and increasingly between cultures and ethnicities in fast growing multicultural urban conurbations worldwide.

“The kingdom is the concern of everyone: individuals, society, and the world. Working for the kingdom means acknowledging and promoting God’s activity, which is present in human history and transforms it.” (RM 15). But the treasure of the kingdom of God wrapped up in the culture of the missionary may or may not represent something good or something new for the recipient. This is why inculturation is so central to missionary life. If we are so tied to our own cultures, languages, viewpoints, traditions and ways of doing things then we may end up being like Nathaniel who said: “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” When that happens, the invitation to “Come and see,” passes us by and we do not have a missionary vocation.

We tend to think that other people see the world the way we do. But the fact is that they do not. We tend to think that our values, beliefs and priorities are the beliefs, values and priorities of other people. But in fact they are not. We tend to think that what is common sense to us is common sense to others but once more this is not the case. Common sense is the sense of a community: it too is cultural. The more we can learn to see with the eyes of others the more we will be able to help people discover the treasure hidden in a field

For the treasure is there amongst all peoples. And it is our role as missionaries to make our presence the means for the fulfillment of the kairos; providing the occasion for the kingdom to be at hand for those we serve. We do not carry God, he carries us and as missionaries we reveal him through our own eyes of faith; not as part of our baggage but as part of their world. It is through this kind of culturally mediated missionary activity that we communicate good news as a response to the culturally mediated human needs of the people we serve. The essence of missionary activity and missionary spirituality is an incarnational journey into the culture of the people we evangelise bringing good news that is pleasing at times but hard and challenging at other times. It will lead us through wondrous events to passion, cross and resurrection. We should expect nothing less.

World Youth Days have been such powerful means of mission for the Holy Father precisely because he has responded to the cultural challenge. When the Pope evangelises youth he does it through the culture of youth and if he can do that, how much more should we who have a specific missionary vocation and missionary charism to which we dedicate our whole life.

2. Conversion as socialization into the culture of Oblate life

Religious life is a culture. It is a way of human living. All cultures have a foundational belief system, a set of core values and a specific lifestyle with its own behaviours. Apostolic Religious life is based on the belief system of the Catholic Church and the charism of a Religious founder. Its value system is based on the fundamental religious values of poverty, chastity and obedience. Its lifestyle is community based and its activity is apostolic.

The culture of Oblate life is based on the Charism of St Eugene De Mazenod and the history and tradition of the Oblate congregation. Our values are centred in the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Our lifestyle is community based and our missionary activity is focused on the evangelisation of the poor with their many faces.

We learn and live our culture through formation. Initial formation is the process of socialisation into our lifestyle. It comprises the daily living, in a community, of the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and the development of a commitment to the Oblate missionary vision and activity. This latter is often the most problematic within houses of first formation as they can be detached from our missionary activity. Socialisation in bigger communities can lead to another difficulty as socialisation into the lifestyle can be compromised by the demands of insertion into a big structure. In smaller communities the danger is that the socialisation process gets overwhelmed by prevailing local cultural values rather than attention being paid to the newer and stranger Oblate religious ones.

The vows themselves give rise to many common cultural challenges. One is the struggle to live the vow of celibacy in a promiscuous world. Another is when the lifestyle in the religious community is perceived as much more affluent than the poverty experienced by candidates in their own families. Another is a view of obedience infected by modern consumer culture which says what I do should conform to my personal desires and reason. Formation must respond to these matters.

Ongoing formation also needs to focus on the socialisation of Oblates into apostolic religious life. The centre of such a life is apostolic activity by a religious community in which “the whole religious life of their members should be inspired by an apostolic spirit and all their apostolic activity formed by the spirit of religion” (PC 8). Often the demands of the ministry overwhelm the demands of religious life and Oblates run the risk of living the lifestyle of diocesan priests.

Religious institutes create points of cultural contradiction within modern society. The ethos of religious life as represented by the vows is in stark contradiction to the prevailing values of most modern societies. In some places where there is a strong cultural root of Christian tradition, the ethos of Religious life may still be seen as important, though impractical in the “real world”. When religious orientate their lives around keeping their vows and religious culture this can be a source of admiration, surprise and praise. Many of the institutions established and maintained by religious have been successful and so earned the praise of the societies within which we work. In this way we reveal another aspect of the treasure to them and this witness challenges secularised value systems more than anything else.

But postmodern secular culture, which is consumer media driven, actively seeks to undermine by looking to expose the myth of these vows lived in the real world. Their goals will always be to publicise the failures of priests and religious to live up to their commitments because that’s what sells. This promotes a suspicion that the ideal is unattainable and that religious life is a sham. This is a challenge for all of us to witness through a daily conversion to faithfulness. It is also a challenge to protect ourselves against the malign influences of profit driven media groups who make money out of bad news stories particularly those that undermine leaders and public figures of all types. Former ways of dealing with these matters including confidentiality, prudence and privacy are likely to be ineffective in such a culture. We must protect ourselves here by means of approved Christian protocols and procedures of professional conduct in the culture of modern society.

To end

If we open our souls we shall find a treasure hidden in a field. This is because God wishes to reveal himself to us. As we remember the many ways in which good news has come to us so we should actively seek to bring good news to others. In wisdom we recognise that the Good news always includes the struggle against evil and that it will be tough at times. But in the good news of the paschal mystery we realise that the victory has been won and that death has no more sting. As we commit ourselves to be missionaries let us commit ourselves to the culture of our congregation and be ready to see with the eyes of others in order to bring the good news to the ends of the earth.



[1] St John of the Cross Ascent of Mount Carmel, II, 22, 4 Cfr. Apostolic Letter of His Holiness, John Paul II to the Very Reverend Father Felipe Sainz De Baranda Superior General of the Order of the Discalced Brothers of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel on the Occasion of the IV Centenary of the Death of Saint John of the Cross, Doctor of the Church.


References

DMP: Directory on the ministry and life of priests. Vatican: Congregation for the Clergy. 1994
DeV: Dominum et Vivificantem. Encyclical Letter of Pope John Paul II. 1986.
EN: Evangelii Nuntiandi. Apostolic Exhortation of Pope Paul VI. 1975.
Hubenig, A 2004: Living in the Spirit’s Fire. Rome: OMI Postulation
O’ Collins, G. 1977: The Calvary Christ. Philadelphia: Westminster Press.
PC: Perfectae Caritatis Decree on the Adaptation and Renewal of Religious Life Vatican II. 1965
RM Redemptoris Missio On the permanent validity of the Church’s missionary mandate Encyclical letter of Pope John Paul II. 1990
St Gregory Nazianzen. Epistle 101.