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Conversion from Sin

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

Our present lecture is on conversion from sin necessary for salvation. This, as you know, is our reflection on the Scriptures and, concretely, on what the Sacred Scriptures tell us about conversion. First, by way of introduction, Christianity is unintelligible without conversion from sin. Had there been no sin there would have been no Christ and no Christianity. And the opposition over the centuries including, in our day, opposition to the Church is opposition to the Church’s teaching on sin. People want to do their own will in thousands of different ways. And the Church tells us you may be doing your own will all right but that’s a sin because what you’re doing is not according to the will of God. The very name Jesus means savior and savior from sin. However, Christ will save no one who does not repent. In other words, there is no reconciliation with God unless there is a prior repentance on my part. As strange as the language may sound God cannot forgive, God cannot restore a sinner to His friendship unless the sinner repents. In other words, there must be conversion by the sinner before God before God will reconcile that sinner to Himself. Of course this conversion, conversion requires grace from God, but repentance is a condition for reconciliation.

We go on. Our purpose here in this present lecture is to look at the New Testament stories of conversion and then draw some very serious lessons from what the Gospels teach us about what? About what is sin, how we can be reconciled with God after having sinned, and, what is most important, why God allows sin in order to do a greater good than would have been possible had there been no sin. And, this is no mere illustration because the favorite way that Christ taught was by making parables, giving stories; either stories that were in real life or stories from real life to illustrate a principle called parables. And the four we’ve chosen are The Prodigal son, Mary Magdalen, Simon Peter, and The Repentant Thief on Calvary.

First, The Prodigal Son. Remember, there are at least two brothers, one of whom is younger, and in Christ’s story or parable the younger one tells his father, “I want my share of the inheritance.” He gets the money, squanders it, and then he is starving, comes to his senses. His father, in the meantime, had been looking for his estranged son. And when the boy finally comes back, remember, there is festivity, music, singing. And the older brother asked, “What’s all the noise about?”

“Your brother has come home and your father is celebrating his return.”

“My brother. You mean, that bum (whatever word he used in Aramaic)! That lug!”

And then remember he won’t even go inside. He had the father come out and remonstrates with his father, “You’ve never given me even a, well, well, even a small celebration. And this son of yours (he wouldn’t even call him, my brother), you did this for him?”

Remember the Father’s answer, “Your brother was lost. He has been found. He’s come back. We should rejoice.”

Evidently the Prodigal was meant to teach us and to teach us a lot. Christ’s principal teaching was through parables. And now in every language of the world prodigal has a definite meaning: one who, well, went off, squanders money, talents and then comes back. But notice even that coming back, the very word “conversion”, verti in Latin means to turn. Convertere or converti means to turn and turn back completely. What is Christ telling us? And in greater or less measure we can all identify with the Prodigal Son. I know one person who can. That’s for sure. I was certain before I entered the Society of Jesus unless I sacrificed marriage and a physical family and lived a religious life taking orders from a superior; me taking orders from anybody, but I did not think I would save my soul. Christ is telling us He came to save sinners. And there is one thing that all of us must be thoroughly convinced of and we become only as faithful in following Christ and with the grace only as holy as we honestly, down deep in hearts, tell God, “Lord, I’m a sinner.” But, notice, the Prodigal Son had first to come to his senses; and this, the bigger the sinner the more need there is for some tragedy, some grave misfortune to awake the sinner from his or her stupor. In other words, suppose he had taken the money, made, as we call it, a good investment, and had enjoyed himself there would be no parable of the Prodigal Son. What we call misfortune is not misfortune at all. It is God waking us up. We need it. Thank God for what we call misfortunes: losing a job, losing a limb, losing one’s reputation. Then, remember too, the young man, he would have to be the younger of the two, the parable would not have been as strong if it had been the older. We’ve all gone through this stage ourselves, and how humiliating it is just to reflect how stupid we have been. But he wakes up and says, “I will go back and tell my father I’ve sinned before God and before you. I’m not worthy to be called your son. Give me a job.” And so he takes himself up back to where he came from. In the meantime, we are told the father, the father had been on the lookout hoping he knew his boy and sees him at a distance. All of this is what Christ wants to impress on us is the way God acts toward us. How many of you have read Francis Thompson’s The Hound of Heaven? Tell you what, I’m not sure how many pages it is, it’s not too much though, let me, for Christmas, let me (Oh, Father something big, no I can’t do anything big) – let me make copies of Francis Thompson’s The Hound of Heaven for Christmas, okay? And who is the Hound of Heaven? Who is it? God, dragging us down. We need it. And then when the father finally sees the son they embrace. In his joy he throws a big feast. And typical, typical, his brother who didn’t cavort, remember when he told his father, “This son of yours wasting his time and his money on loose women and here you throw a banquet in his honor.”

And this, again, how many people over the years I’ve had to warn, watch it, watch it. So maybe you have not sinned as deeply and as frequently as someone else, but don’t you dare underestimate the mercy of God. It is so important to not follow the example of the older brother, right? And no matter how bad a person or persons can be, and they can be very bad, yet but we’ve got to tell ourselves, I don’t know how much grace that person has; only God can judge the heart. External conduct is something else. What they do if it’s bad we call it bad. Question: Once converted who was more holy, the prodigal son who returned or the faithful brother who had never abandon his father? God knows but it could well be the prodigal son. In other words, on the one hand, not to boast even inside of our minds because somehow we have been spared the tragedy of sinning as deeply as others whom we know. Never make what we call insidious comparisons or invidious comparisons between yourself and someone else. So there really are two lessons locked up in one: the lesson of the younger prodigal son and the lesson of the envious older son.

Now Mary Magdalen. You notice, which evangelist carries all four stories of conversion? Luke, and who was St. Luke? How was he related to Paul? He was his disciple. And Paul had been a big sinner. That’s why, no doubt, he found Luke or Luke found him. We may be sure that Paul’s mind was behind the Gospel of St. Luke to bring out God’s mercy. So, women can be sinners too. Tradition identifies the sinful woman at Christ’s feet with Mary Magdalen. She says nothing but weeps, kisses Christ’s feet and pours ointment over them. And then Christ’s words, “Her many sins are forgiven because she has loved much.” To all accounts that we’ve got in commentators Mary Magdalen was a prostitute, had sinned and then she too came to her senses. But notice, she finds out about Christ, goes to where He was staying, and then, as providence would have it, weeps, Christ’s feet she washes, and the evangelist tells us with her tears, and wipes them. Again, St. Ignatius encourages what he calls the gift of tears to ask God for this gift. That does not mean if we don’t have the gift of physically shedding tears we therefore, say, our repentance of our past sins is either not sincere or as deep as that of another person who does weep. No. However, it is a gift. And, remember, Christ Himself wept only on several occasions, but the most important weeping of Christ was over what? Over Jerusalem. In other words, if God became man so He might have human eyes and human tears He wants to teach us that like Him we too should weep; He over our sins and we over our own. However, whether we can physically weep or not, physically there is a deep sense in which we should all weep interiorly. What is, what is the essence of weeping? The essence of weeping is that the internal experience of sorrow causes, brings on, an external manifestation. And is this ever important for all of us. In other words, even if we don’t shed, as I say, physical tears our behavior, our conduct, our dealing with other people should reflect the fact that we are sinners. Anyone who realizes, who really realizes that he or she is a sinner will that person ever be scandalized at someone else’s sins? No! Will that person be kind and forgiving and merciful? Yes. Is a person who is really, really converted who realizes that he had so deeply offended God, can that person ever be proud of anything? No! In other words, the realization of my having sinned is to have an affect in my life so that my sorrow over the sins that I have committed will manifest itself by behaving as a person who has repented and tells God I am sorry. Meaning, how should I expect people to deal with me anything but kindly or mercifully? In other words, I’ve deserved the worst possible treatment, the worst treatment from others because I have so deeply sinned.

I also noticed Mary Magdalen not only repented but, we believe as found elsewhere in the Gospels, to whom did Christ first appear after His resurrection? We may believe that it was His mother, but there is nothing in Scripture. Scripture tells us it was Mary Magdalen, specially beloved of Christ, privileged to bring the message of Christ’s resurrection, remember, to His own Apostles.

We go on. Simon Peter, that combination Simon Peter, as you know, the first name Simon is his family name. Peter was the name that Christ gave him. Peter three times denied that he even knew Jesus and then Our Lord looks towards him. Peter sees Christ and he repents. And then remember, as a follow-up after His resurrection, Christ takes Peter aside on the shore of the lake and asks him, “Do you love Me more?” More than who? “More than these others.” There is no way that Peter could have known how much the others love Christ but he knew how much he should love Christ. And this is, in many ways, the principal reason why God has allowed us to sin so that once we come to our senses we will love Him more than we would have had we not sinned. Only God knows, but we may say this on sound theological grounds, had Simon not sinned by denying his master there would not have been a Peter. God from all eternity anticipated that Simon would betray Jesus Christ, but in God’s providential mind He foresaw both Peter’s infidelity; He foresaw also that Peter would repent. Two men that should always be seen together and that’s Peter and Judas. I’m not even sure whose was the greater sin, whether Peter’s or Judas’. Peter repented. But then what happened? Christ then anticipated what Peter would do. He was promised the Primacy, to be the visible head of the Church that Christ was founding. But, and we have to say this, in God’s mysterious providence Simon had to sin not that God might not have done it otherwise but He wants to teach us. That’s why we’re choosing even that episode, an episode right at the very heart of the New Testament; shows a converted sinner anticipating his sin to then be the head of the Church. If there is one thing, if there is one thing that the leaders of the Church, especially the Popes and Bishops – the Popes of the centuries and the Bishops also in our time – if there is one virtue they need it is humility. And the most humiliating experience that God can send us is the realization of our own past sins. God knows we need it or needed to sin. And then Jesus three times asked him, “Do you love Me?” In other words, that Peter then would give himself totally to Christ in a way that he would not have done had he not sinned. And, over the centuries, the great masters of the spiritual life have pointed out that it’s the great sinners over the centuries of the Church’s history who have been the most zealous, fearless, and successful Apostles of Christ. That’s the story of Peter, the story of Paul.

The story of my Jesuit father in God, St. Ignatius, one of the last things he had to do before, well, he came to his senses was to provide for the child care of a child he brought into the world, of course, outside of marriage. God, in other words, knows how we need to realize His goodness to us and then nothing will stop a converted sinner because then he realizes. First of all, the peace that comes, the deep peace of the reality that I once more, I am once more in the friendship of God. And this is a regular feature of people asking me and questions that come here too: how can I convince a Protestant friend of mine that he or she should become a Catholic? Well, there are a thousand good reasons, but all you’ve got to do is ask this Protestant, “Have you sinned.” If he says no then he should be institutionalized. If he says yes, now, “Do you want to be in God’s friendship?”

“Of course.”

“Are you sure you’re in God’s friendship?”

Well if he is a sober Protestant he will say, I hope so. But a Catholic does not have to say I hope so. I know so. That’s with the Sacrament of Confession. And I’m now working on that part of the Catechism, which is the Sacrament of Penance. The great peace, Lord thanks. I’m back in your friendship. And you want to pass on that experience to others.

Finally, The Repentant Thief. All kinds of other possibilities of either knowing being crucified with Christ or totally different people. Well there were two. Both were justly condemned to death. The first thief tells Jesus, “If you are the Christ save yourself and us.” By the way as a Christian and as a Catholic, you never, never prefix the word if; if the Pope is the head of the Church, if Christ is really present, if there is a heaven then I’ll behave, if there is a hell then I won’t misbehave. There are no ifs in Christianity. If implies a doubt. Only God knows, only He knows how absolutely certain you are of your faith. But beg Him for having an absolutely, uncompromisingly, undoubting faith. And this I can share with you. Over the years I’ve been exposed already from childhood to people who did not have the faith. Then as the mind grows you begin to ask questions, and we should ask questions of our minds. But, in a show down, our faith is reasonable, it is rational, it is credible. But once you say that our faith is credible then once you accept the Church’s teaching you never question, never question whether what you believe is true. And these are the most dangerous, and that’s a mild word, they are what I would call murderers of people’s faith. The intellectuals, very gifted naturally, whose writing and whose speaking I present: “Jesus probably did not say about eighty percent of the words attributed to Him in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.” The scholars say in a 575-page book to be released by the Macmillan Publishing Company on Monday, that’s tomorrow. It’s called The Five Gospels, What did Jesus Really Say? And the editor, I repeat, is a “theologian” from the De Paul University under the Vincentians. Well this is, in other words, as I mentioned earlier, our media, now this is The Detroit News or Free Press. Those are screeds. The paper is a waste of print. But, and the very book remember, just before Christmas they made sure this was issued to destroy our faith. They are being used, as we know, by the evil spirit, but my hope is that out of contact with his demonic opposition to the faith we then, more than ever, will study our faith. And let nobody ever tell you that what you believe should be questioned or doubted as won by the faith on Calvary.

And the second thief first rebukes his fellow criminal and he admits we are receiving what our days deserved. Then he turns to Jesus, “Lord remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He believed. I think I mentioned this several times. On his first visit to the United States our Holy Father pleaded with the bishops to restore the Sacrament of Confession. There are parishes as you know where it’s almost impossible to get to confession. And why? Because so many priests have lost their faith. And if only they would have, at least have the honesty of leaving the Church. But I am talking, I trust, to the right audience. I must believe, believe that there is a God whom I offended when I sin. And, therefore, that this merciful God wants to forgive me. No matter what the price may be I will pay it. So then Christ’s words to the good thief, “This day you shall be with Me in Paradise;” the first canonization. Again, Christ could not have made it, if I could use the word, more dramatic as to why He came into the world. He came to save sinners. Only God knows how many will be saved. Only He knows. What we do know is that to reach Heaven is not easy, and Christ Himself tells us, “The way that leads to life is narrow,” and He, He says, “And few there are who walk that way.” I tell people, “In the name of God, don’t take a chance. There’s too big a risk, only one life here on earth to be sure you make it. Expiate your sins because then you have guaranteed salvation.” Then some lessons for us.

Recognize with the mind that I have done wrong. I mean it. There are people’s minds who are anesthetized. They can do the most terrible things and they don’t realize they’re sinning. Do you believe me? Absolutely blasé. In other words, to recognize that I’ve done wrong. I’ve told this to more than one person, if you are going to bed examine your conscience. If you cannot remember what you’ve done wrong stay awake until you find out something you have done wrong.

Number two: become aware with the mind that I have offended God. The essence of sin is that it offends God that God has loved me so much and I have been so ungrateful. Then, humble admission by the will telling God I am sorry and mean it. And during the day, as I’ve said how many times, cultivate the habit of keeping your eyes open on your soul during the day. And remember no one but God can do it, to become immediately, ask Our Lord to become immediately aware that you’ve done something wrong right away. Then, humble acceptance by the will of suffering or pain for having offended God. That’s why I keep repeating, as we say ad nocium, I keep repeating, God puts suffering into our lives to give us the privilege of expiating our own sins and the sins of others. And then resolving with the will not to sin again and then make up for the sin by loving God more because of His mercy to me in the past.

Institute on Religious Life
Sacrament of Matrimony series
Ann Arbor, Michigan 1993

Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica

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