Conversion as liberation
Rev. Dr. Adaikalam Donald
It is quite obvious that it is the high time to discuss on religious conversion, which is the current debate in India. The term “conversion” originates from the Latin “conversio”, which means “to turn around.” In Septuagint, the Greek word “metanoia” (μετάνοια), is used to mean “repent and change of heart”. The term “metanoia” occurs 34 times in the New Testament. The Greek word ἐπιστρέφω (epistrephô) is also used to mean “turning to God” which occurs 39 times in the New Testament. Conversion is the master theme of the entire Bible. Every Prophecy in the Old Testament is proclaimed for the conversion: of the soul, of the heart, and of the mind. Jesus’ proclamation is all about turning towards God (Mk 1:15; Mt 4:17). The New Testament continues to preach the same: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 3:2); “Put off your old nature” (Eph. 4:22); “Repent therefore, and turn again” (Acts 3:19). Conversion is a 180-degree turnaround in a person’s life. When a person is converted, he/she turns his/her whole life away from sin and turns to Christ who saves him/her. This is about the fundamental reorientation of a person.
Well-known conversion experiences in this sense are as follows: a) the conversion of Paul of Tarsus (Acts 9) through an appearance of Jesus. Paul who persecuted Christians once, became the apostle of gentiles. He was the cardinal reason for the spread of early Christianity; b) the conversion of Constantine the Great made the Christianity as state’s benevolent religion by issuing the edict of Milan (313 AD). Christians suffered from sporadic and localized persecutions under his regime. His mother Helena exposed him to Christianity; c) the conversion of Augustine through reading the Letter to the Romans 13:13–14; d) it is also important to note Martin Luther’s “tower experience”, when he read Romans 1:17 on God’s righteousness e) the conversion of Ignatius of Loyola, which took place during his long recovery from his injuries, as he read bible and the lives of the saints.
Conversion in Catholic Church
Conversion in Christianity is the term for a personal, voluntary decision to believe in Jesus Christ as the Messiah and God as his divine Father. This is linked to the intention that this step is “life-changing” and “turning away from former lives.” The aim is to claim God’s grace to live in conscious “communion with God”; to experience God’s action in one’s own life; to live a life according to the Christian commandments of love.
Conversion in Christianity is closely related to baptism. In baptism we are cleansed of original sin and raised into new life with Christ. In baptism the Holy Spirit comes more fully to dwell in our soul, bringing knowledge, wisdom, and understanding to help us live fruitful Christian lives. To sustain converts and all Catholics in unity and strength, there is the spiritual food of the Eucharist. All of these allow Catholics to perform the works of Charity (John 14:12).
Conversion as a daily Choice and longtime duty
Conversion is not one-day event. It is a continuous and on-going process to become like Christ. Our faith is grown, our hope is continual and our love is worked unto perfection. The conversion of Ignatius of Loyola was not completed instantly. The incident at Pamplona set a new course for his life. It forced him into self-examination at the cave of Manresa, which was the cause for spiritual awakening; burning desire for holiness and self-surrender to God. Hence, conversion does not end with communion with the Catholic Church. Our Work of participation in God’s saving grace is a lifelong duty even for “cradle Catholics.”
Misconceptions about conversion
1. Forced conversion contradicts the New Testament ‘s concept of conversion. Conversion can never be forced. But it is absolutely necessary for a person to be saved. In Acts 17:30, God commands all people everywhere to repent.
2. Conversion is not a one-time experience, which has no further influence on our lives.
3. Conversion is a moment of radical change. Our lives must look different afterwards. A new struggle begins.
4. Conversion does not take place without confrontation. Conversion is a conversation with confrontation. Christians are indeed commissioned to share the gospel in humility. But our goal must be more than just a pleasant exchange with our interlocutor. We must invite each person to repent of their sin and trust in Christ who alone can save.
5. Conversion is not a formal “prayer of surrender”. Conversion, of course, involves prayer. But we should not lead people to trust in a particular wording rather than in Christ.
6. Conversion is not just an initial turning toward God, rather it is both the decision and the way to perfection.
Conversion in India
Today a fierce controversy has erupted in India over conversion to Christianity, which is considered by religious fanatics as foreign religion. Christianity in India is under pressure to prove again and again that it is against Proselytism. The debate is particularly explosive because the Hindu nationalist “Bharatiya Janata Party” (BJP) has been in government since 2014.
Although India is more than 80 percent Hindus and just Christians form a tiny minority of three percent, the RSS has been warning of the creeping “extinction” of Hindus since its inception. In their eyes, India is the state of the Hindus. According to their conception of the nation, Christians and Muslims can never be fully Indian and are always suspected of having divided loyalties. Thus wrote the Hindu nationalists’ chief ideologue, Vinayak Damodhar Savarkar, in his influential 1921 book Hindutva: Who is a Hindu?
Religious harmony in Michaelpatty
The village Michaelpatty, which is situated in the district of Thanjavur, is known for its religious harmony. Starting from 1643 AD, the Jesuit priests established a catholic parish in Michaelpatty. Now there are a total of 800 families in the village, where Christians, Hindus and Muslims live amicably and there have been no communal skirmishes in the history of the village. People from all religions participate in the festivals of one another.
But the controversies following the school girl’s death, who studied in Sacred Heart Higher Secondary School in Michaelpatty, are very painful. By using the tragic death of a 17-year-old school student Lavanya, “vested interests” tried to disrupt the communal harmony. In the school functioning here for 163 years, more than 60 per cent students are Hindus and most of those staying in the school hostels are also Hindus.
Gurumurthy (83), who studied in the school and later retired as a teacher, said his sons and daughters also studied in the same school. Azeez, a farmer, said his children are also studying in the school. They bear witness that there has never been any attempt of conversion in the school. There is no reference to conversion in the statements given by girl before her death. The BJP has been fabricating the narrative to create communal tension and clashes in the State.
The real conversion liberates oneself, which urges one to work for liberation of others. People who are actively engaged in an ongoing process of intellectual conversion exhibit a love of truth, which inspires curiosity and encourages people to explore unfamiliar ideas. Truth itself becomes the ultimate goal.
(Dr. Donald Michael is a catholic priest, ordained on 22 April 2004 and belonging to the diocese of Kumbakonam, Tamil Nadu. His native place is Michaelpatty, nearer to Poondi Madha Basilica in Thanjavur District. Did his doctorate on Dogmatic Theology in the University of Mainz, Germany. Now working in the diocese of Regensburg, Germany.)