Lots of people think a “conversion” must be a profound encounter with the divine. But really, there’s a more familiar way to think of it. The foundational requirements for a conversion are similar to the requirements for marriage. This connection provides a framework that can help deepen your understanding of conversion. This excerpt from Clear & Simple introduces an analogy that connects conversion and marriage.
Clear & Simple: How to have conversations that lead to conversion is the latest book by Andre Regnier and was released on Sept 19th, 2018.
Marriage, the Icon of Encounter
The greatest manifestation of encounter in human terms is that between husband and wife. There is no more intimate and transformative human relationship than this lifelong, life-giving one between a man and a woman. While some individual experiences of marriage may be marred by brokenness, each of us has some sense of the Church’s ideal of marriage, and each of us has some practical insight into what marriage means—both the wedding ceremony and the lifelong, lived reality of holy matrimony.
I’m reminded of this every year. Working with a youth movement in the Church, I have the blessing of attending a lot of weddings. There’s nothing like the joy of the marriage sacrament when it’s celebrated by two people in love with Christ and his Church; two people surrounded by supportive, faithful friends committed to encouraging the young couple in their vocation.
One priest came to me, almost in tears, after marrying two of our students. He admitted that more often than he wished, he found it difficult to celebrate the marriage sacrament with the proper sense of joy and hope, as he knew that so many couples he married had no intention of coming back to Mass until they had a child to baptize. But with our students, his sorrow had turned to wonder and awe. In the case of these two young people who understood the sacrament and who were prepared to put Christ at the centre of their lives together, he was filled with hope, and with a sense of the day’s sacred character. “This is the way it’s supposed to be!” he exclaimed.
Such is the image of marriage I want to keep in mind throughout this chapter. We know that the marriage sacrament involves the freely given consent of both the husband and the wife, motivated not by fear or manipulation, but by a desire for an exclusive and life-giving relationship. Each spouse receives the other individually and personally. They aren’t just consenting to enter into an institution they approve of in general terms, but into a relationship with a specific, beloved person.
At the same time, each spouse needs a mature understanding of marriage as a lifelong commitment requiring generosity, chastity, humility and a willingness to work together. Marriage changes the spouses’ priorities. The relationship between spouses isn’t just one among many relationships in their lives. Rather, it becomes the central human relationship that affects how they relate to everyone and everything else.
Their whole community—particularly the Church—is called to recognize the significance and sacredness of this choice, to affirm them in it and to support them. In a very simple, practical, yet profound sense, then, we can begin to understand conversion by seeing marriage as the icon of encounter between God and his Church.
Is it presumptuous to frame our understanding of conversion in terms of marriage? Not in the least. Throughout salvation history, God has helped his people understand his desire for a relationship with them using the terms of marriage. The prophet Isaiah tells God’s people, “As a young man marries a young woman, so will your Builder marry you; as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you” (Isaiah 62:5). In the early days of the Church, St. Paul wrote in his letter to the Ephesians, “‘For this reason, a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5:31-32). The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) further affirms, “The entire Christian life bears the mark of the spousal love between Christ and the Church” (CCC, 1617).
If the whole Christian life “bears the mark of [this] spousal love,” then we can proceed confidently with this comparison. In fact, what I suggest here is that we can apply our understanding of holy matrimony to grasp more concretely what the Church means by “conversion,” making us better equipped to respond to the call to evangelize. In particular, I want to focus on how this analogy captures three critical aspects of our humanity, each of which ought to be engaged for us to experience conversion: our will, our intellect, and our heart.
The will: Ours to activate
Let’s look at the dynamics of a Catholic wedding rite. Note that I don’t mean to lift an individual’s initial conversion to the status of a sacrament. Rather, I want to draw out the analogous core principles that make it possible to enter into such a profound, lifelong, committed and fruitful relationship.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states the following about both spouses consenting to marriage: The parties to a marriage covenant are a baptized man and woman, free to contract marriage, who freely express their consent; “to be free” means:
- not being under any constraint; and
- not impeded by any natural or ecclesial law.
The Church holds the exchange of consent between the spouses to be the indispensable element that “makes the marriage.” If consent is lacking, there is no marriage. (CCC, 1625-1626, emphasis added)
Consent is an essential aspect to the nature of such a committed relationship. Without it, there is no true relationship based on love. Likewise, God will not impose, coerce or even presume our love and devotion to Him. We have to give some form of consent indicating that we are open to the relationship. God has done His part—in Christ, he proposes to us a relationship with Him that is intimate and unending. Only we can respond on our own behalf.
The Catechism goes on to say this about marriage:
The consent must be an act of the will of each of the contracting parties, free of coercion or grave external fear. No human power can substitute for this consent. If this freedom is lacking, the marriage is invalid. (CCC, 1628)
I’ve seen how damaging it can be when a person’s faith is coerced through fear. This became particularly clear to me back in 1988, when my parents went to a live-in Catholic retreat where they were invited to intentionally open their lives up to Jesus Christ. They both acknowledged this retreat as a turning point in their spiritual lives, an encounter with God my mother always longed for in her life. Both my parents described afterward how faith or obedience to the Church and God had until then been inspired by fear. My father recalled countless parish missions and retreats on which he’d felt terrified by the prospect of hell.
He wasn’t alone. Many people of my parents’ generation have told me that fear of God and his judgement kept them going to Church every Sunday. As one lady shared with me, “Confession was not an act of repentance, but an avoidance of judgement.” It’s no wonder so many people of my parents’ generation couldn’t or didn’t want to pass on a faith that was wrapped up in fear.
Similarly, the Catechism’s point is that a sincere “yes” cannot be forced by fear and coercion. As Divine Providence would have it, the failure of many people of my parents’ generation to pass on the faith brought my whole generation to a critical point. Catholics like me had to make a personal choice regarding how we wanted to live our faith. Unfortunately, most chose to walk away from the Church. The good news is that those who chose to authentically embrace the faith were motivated by one thing: love.
I remember my parish priest sharing his observation on the matter in a homily. It grieved him that fewer young people were coming to Mass these days. But he found hope in the fact that most of those who did come seemed to have a powerful personal story of love and encounter with the Lord and a stronger, more active faith because of it.
I have a dream—a desire—I would like to share with you. What if every baptized Catholic had such a story?