Let’s wrap up the discussion on “Conversion and Baptism” from sections 46-47, starting with the New Testament witness from writers other than Saint Luke. This is a long post on a lot of text, but Pope John Paul II’s thinking is a solid unit worth a long look. Let’s read:
Conversion to Christ is joined to Baptism not only because of the Church’s practice, but also by the will of Christ himself, who sent the apostles to make disciples of all nations and to baptize them (cf. Mt 28:19). Conversion is also joined to Baptism because of the intrinsic need to receive the fullness of new life in Christ. As Jesus says to Nicodemus: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (Jn 3:5). In Baptism, in fact, we are born anew to the life of God’s children, united to Jesus Christ and anointed in the Holy Spirit. Baptism is not simply a seal of conversion, and a kind of external sign indicating conversion and attesting to it. Rather, it is the sacrament which signifies and effects rebirth from the Spirit, establishes real and unbreakable bonds with the Blessed Trinity, and makes us members of the Body of Christ, which is the Church.
The discussion turns to a problem as the pope viewed it three decades ago:
All this needs to be said, since not a few people, precisely in those areas involved in the mission ad gentes, tend to separate conversion to Christ from Baptism, regarding Baptism as unnecessary.
If Baptism is seen as a final result, I’d say “incomplete” is a better term here. I might be misreading John Paul II here, but let me lay out what I’ve seen in the First World experiences in North America:
- Most of the “mission,” as it were, is operated through RCIA. In this respect, fruitfulness has a final result each Easter Vigil. Maybe one-third are baptized, and the rest are baptized Christians who have intensified their faith commitment via Roman Catholicism.
- Parishes operate in some ways at the fringes of belief: social justice, the arts, neighborhood presence, and people marrying Catholics. These fringes bring people of varying commitment. But North American parishes certainly focus on initiation.
It is true that in some places sociological considerations associated with Baptism obscure its genuine meaning as an act of faith. This is due to a variety of historical and cultural factors which must be removed where they still exist, so that the sacrament of spiritual rebirth can be seen for what it truly is.
Primarily, I would see the need for removal of the graduation model of sacramental life. We have it for everything except Anointing of the Sick. Removing it involves a sea change of expectations. The institution isn’t ready for it.
That said, I suspect John Paul II is on a different opinion. Whatever opinion one holds, he’s right to suggest parishes are on the hook for it:
Local ecclesial communities must devote themselves to this task.
Contrary witness of institutional Christianity or even Roman Catholicism remains a problem. I’ve seen this in my North American experience:
It is also true that many profess an interior commitment to Christ and his message yet do not wish to be committed sacramentally, since, owing to prejudice or because of the failings of Christians, they find it difficult to grasp the true nature of the Church as a mystery of faith and love.(Cf. Lumen Gentium 6-9)
We likely all know people who prefer to be Christians by action–however they define it–rather than by membership card. People are also skeptical of association with an institution:
I wish to encourage such people to be fully open to Christ, and to remind them that, if they feel drawn to Christ, it was he himself who desired that the Church should be the “place” where they would in fact find him. At the same time, I invite the Christian faithful, both individually and as communities, to bear authentic witness to Christ through the new life they have received.
As Jesus did not dictate institutional details, the best we can say here is that the Holy Spirit has inspired the best of our institutional structure. What we can say is that Jesus desired that we would imitate him, his methods and his style. John 3 is rightly cited in the first paragraph above. Nicodemus comes to the Lord in the middle of the night and has a patient, open conversation. When we imitate the Lord and have those conversations, we plant seeds. Notice that Nicodemus never entered the inner circle of the Twelve. He followed a different path, but one that, according to tradition, led to discipleship of a different sort.
Certainly, every convert is a gift to the Church and represents a serious responsibility for her, not only because converts have to be prepared for Baptism through the catechumenate and then be guided by religious instruction, but also because – especially in the case of adults-such converts bring with them a kind of new energy, an enthusiasm for the faith, and a desire to see the Gospel lived out in the Church. They would be greatly disappointed if, having entered the ecclesial community, they were to find a life lacking fervor and without signs of renewal! We cannot preach conversion unless we ourselves are converted anew every day.
Too true. Conversion must be continual. Newcomers and seekers must be reminded of this. Our bishops and pastors, too, it seems.
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