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‘Turning, Turning’

The need for continual conversion in the life of a priest

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In Matthew’s Gospel, after Jesus preaches by the sea and feeds the multitude, a telling encounter occurs. Walking on water, he meets his disciples who are in a boat. Jesus is buoyed up by faith, which allowed him to perform the priestly services of preaching and feeding. Faith in the Scriptures means solidity, a firm foundation, enabling one to experience wonders.

The disciples are terrified except, apparently, Peter. He requests Jesus to call him out of the boat. Peter, it seems, yearns for a similar faith to preach and feed. Jesus grants his request, and Peter ventures onto the water. As long as his eyes are fixed on Jesus — that is, as his faith is steady — Peter does fine. But when he shifts focus to the wind — that is, the challenges of the world — he begins to sink. In dire need, Peter must renew his faith in the Lord. “Lord, save me,” he cries so that he might again walk on the waves.

The story relates the need for faith of all Christians, but especially of priests. We depend on faith for integrity as we preach and offer the Eucharist. Sometimes in performing these duties we falter. Our faith needs renewing and refining. We need to undergo conversion so that we may more fully be like Christ. Conversion is never a once-and-for-all experience. Rather, it takes place piecemeal throughout our lives. St. John Henry Newman summed up the process. “To live is to change,” he wrote, “and to be perfect is to have changed often.”

Lonergan’s Thoughts

Bernard Lonergan analyzed conversion as a compound, long-term affair. In “Method in Theology” (University of Toronto Press, $48.95), he described how it takes place on the intellectual, moral and religious levels. With intellectual conversion, the subject becomes conscious that knowing includes more than grasping what one’s faculties sense. It comprises the total experience of one’s community along with constant review for accuracy.

Lonergan understood moral conversion as the continual refinement of one’s sensibilities so that he (or she, of course, but in this essay, I will use masculine pronouns) chooses what is right rather than what is convenient. Understanding reality as more than his personal experience, he can act in favor of the common good.

Religious conversion for Lonergan is uniquely wonderful. It is being grasped by the holy. More colloquially, it is “falling in love” with God. Falling in love inspires one to strive for monumental goals. Ever a Christian anthropologist, Lonergan called religious conversion “operative grace” by which God changes stony hearts into hearts of flesh. Operative grace’s counterpart, cooperative grace, is the “heart of flesh becoming effective in good works through human freedom.”

It may seem that progression proceeds from intellectual to moral to religious conversion. Lonergan, however, claimed it to be otherwise. He posited first and foremost the love of God filling our hearts. The person then finds value that could not be seen before. Finally, the eye of love discerns the truths taught in one’s religious tradition.

The three kinds of conversion affect an ever-greater self-transcendence. Undertaken continually, the person grows both in awareness and in virtue as he moves closer to God.

Calls to Conversion

Shortly after retiring from full-time episcopal service, Juan María Uriarte, bishop emeritus of San Sebastián in Spain, published a volume on priestly spirituality. Entitled “Serving as Pastors” (Santander: Sal Terrae, 2010), Uriarte’s book outlines the challenges and remedies of three stretches of a priest’s life: youth, middle age and old age. The first stage takes place after ordination until approximately 40 years old. The second lasts from 40 to 70 years of age. Old age begins there and carries on until death.

Uriarte’s stages correspond to the final three crises in Erik Erikson’s trajectory of psychosocial development. The eminent psychologist listed eight in all. Each crisis challenges the person to transcend its associated difficulties for greater maturity. Between the ages of 18 and 40 years old, the person must develop intimate relations. Otherwise, he will find himself isolated and not infrequently depressed.

At the next stage, he must pass on the values he has learned in life to the next generation. Failure to do so results in stagnation often characterized by self-indulgence and pseudo-intimacy. Erikson distinguished a summary challenge in the autumn of life. The person must reflect on life with satisfaction or die in despair.

The insights of Uriarte and Erikson can be integrated into Lonergan’s concept of conversion. The resultant schema points out ways priests are to undergo conversion at each of the three stages. Doing so, they will — like Peter in the Gospel narrative — experience faith-filled lives and ministry.

Conversion in Young Priests

To a palpable extent, ordination ends one’s private life. The newly ordained can no longer expect to buy groceries or get a workout without being recognized as “Father.” For this reason, Uriarte writes of the need for the young priest to “marry his ministry.”

The implied intimacy in this term corresponds to Erikson’s sense of intimacy as being much more than sexual embrace. He describes it as “the capacity to commit oneself to concrete affiliations and partnerships and to develop ethical strength to abide by such commitments even though they may call for significant sacrifices and compromises.” Certainly, priests can see themselves included in this mouthful of words.

Uriarte points out several difficulties for the young priest at this stage. Enamored of his youth, he will have trouble giving up the pleasures of youthful living. He will want to party late and to look “cool.”

The challenge becomes particularly evident in contemporary culture. Today’s newly ordained — millennials for the most part — grew up with the Internet. Making a display on Facebook, trolling and even exploring pornographic sites universally tempt this generation. As some young priests have already succumbed, these are sins that need repentance.

But full conversion runs deeper. It requires the young priest to let go of overidentifying with his youth. In its place, he must find intimacy with the Church. This body incorporates more than brother priests and faithful parishioners. Above all, the Church is Christ himself whom the priest should love. The priest must talk to him in prayer, meditate on his virtue and practice his ways.

In the book “Extraordinary Lives: 34 Priests Tell Their Stories” (Ave Maria Press) by Francis P. Friedl and Rex Reynolds, Msgr. Michael Heras of the Corpus Christi diocese made the following point. Echoing Lonergan’s definition of religious conversion, he said, “To be a good priest, the most necessary thing is to fall in love and stay in love with God and with God’s people.”

Having done this, the young priest should be able to recognize the difference between a hero and a saint.

Unlike a hero, a saint does not desire to stand out, but to serve. He knows that the acclaim that matters is given by God, not by humans. Young people are fond of heroes and seek to emulate them. Hopefully, sooner or later, they will see through the mirage of earthly fame. Young priests, for the sake of the Church, should pioneer in abandoning the illusion.

Intellectually, young priests may rethink the ideas they entertained in the seminary. Many seminarians today question Pope Francis’ pastoral theology. They think that he may be betraying the Catholic moral tradition. After engagement in ministry, however, they should find that Francis neither has that intention nor has done that in practice. His concern is that every person, especially those who have been marginalized, knows of Christ’s love for them through the Church.

Conversion at Mid-life

Erikson was quite aware that generativity embraces more than the legacies parents leave to their offspring. Monks, priests and nuns are to convey a spiritual legacy to others. Most importantly, they should radiate charity, which facilitates living in this world while opening to the next. In contemporary Spain, Uriarte finds disbelief as the primary impediment in this endeavor.

Empty churches may leave the middle-aged priest feeling empty inside. He can dry up spiritually from a lack of hope for the future. The situation in some parts of the United States may be more sanguine. But churches in the Northeast, once brimming over with Massgoers six times a Sunday now may be less than half-full for three Masses. COVID-19, of course, has steepened the downward spiral.

The lack of vigorous response does not mean that the priest does less. He may be overseeing several parishes, keeping abreast of dozens of ministries and attending multiple committee meetings. He may find all the options that life today affords more debilitating than helpful. He may not have the recognition from the bishop or the respect of the public that his predecessors received. In any case, the pastor often feels tired and frustrated. He may wonder if his work is worth the sacrifice he renders. He may also question the choice he made years earlier to become Christ’s spokesman.

For this reason, Uriarte calls middle-aged priests to a “second conversion.” Earlier in life, a priest may have repented of living for himself and not for God. Now he must confess relying too much on his own powers and not letting God save him. Uriarte urges priests to let go of the grief from unfulfilled ambitions. In its place, they do well to make an offering of their past, present and future to the Lord.

The religious conversion that Uriarte heralds is found throughout the letters of St. Paul. For example, in Galatians, he writes, “Yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me” (2:20). Christ saves, although all Christians, and especially priests, act as his instruments.

Father Stephen Doyle, OFM, admits as much in the book of interviews cited above. He stated, “Every day I can keep my commitment because God is with me.” The moral conversion engendered here moves the priest beyond the desire for recognition in ministry. Rather, he grows more certain that his greatest consolation is incorporation into Christ at baptism.

This is a humbling thought. As helpful as the graces of priestly ministry are, they do not prepare one for eternal life more than those received by the ordinary Christian at baptism. Because of this, St. Augustine could say being a pastor is reason for concern while being a Christian is a cause for joy.

Intellectually, convinced of Christ’s love for all, a priest in midlife will realize that God speaks through all. He will read and listen carefully to different perspectives on the truth. In this way, he can transcend the liberal-conservative divide that cripples the Church and society. He will also see beyond doing things his way so that the true good of all may be realized.

Conversion for the Elderly Priest

Erikson maps a final crisis in the human person during his last years. The person should derive a sense of accomplishment leading to what the psychologist calls “ego integrity.” This is not a love of self, but gratefulness about having used one’s gifts and opportunities. The person has achieved an order in life that stands by itself as worthwhile. He can die in peace. Lacking this integration, the person fears death just down the road; there is no time to change course so that things might turn out more satisfyingly, hence he feels despair.

Uriarte refines Erikson’s ultimate challenge for the end of a priest’s life. He writes that an elderly priest faces conditions that sap at his peace. He is no longer a vigorous man who can command attention while getting things done. On the contrary, he has become dependent upon others. The situation may incline him either to anger and rebellion or to apathy and infantilism. Finally, the elderly priest living in a retirement facility may feel marginalized and useless.

To overcome the crisis of old age, the priest must respond to another call to conversion. Uriarte recommends that he recognize the twilight of life in a new way. He should see it not as progressive decrepitude but as the last chapter of a good life. This means not obsessing over past mistakes but entrusting them to God’s mercy. It also means developing a spirit of gratitude about the trajectory of his vocation. Finally, he should embrace death with faith in the Paschal Mystery. As Christ died and rose to eternal life, the priest will as well because he belongs to Christ.

Msgr. Joseph Schumacher was a priest of the Diocese of Fort Worth. For the last few years of his life, his bishop ordered him not to celebrate Mass in public. The situation was humiliating and depressing. However, Father Joe, as he was known, would not allow himself to be paralyzed by anger. He attended Mass in clericals and visited the sick when asked. Years before he was able to let go of his vigorous ministry as a pastor and vicar general. At the end of his life, he continued to find satisfaction in more humble service.

Religious conversion in old age recognizes that all will be well because God is love. Morally, the elderly priest comes to realize that God forgives past mistakes, duly repented. Just so, he can forgive others. Intellectually, the elderly priest assimilates the doctrine that God controls the course of everyone’s life. This stance may sound ridiculous to the elite but rings true for believers.

The Shaker song “Simple Gifts” tells how “turning, turning” produces the right outcome. Turning, of course, is only a metaphor for conversion. It is not the effort of an hour, a day or a year. It is the course of a lifetime, as necessary for priests as for everyone else. Pursuing it, we may look at God on judgment day without hanging our heads in shame.

FATHER CARMEN MELE, OP, of the Southern Dominican Province, is rector of the St. Martin de Porres National Shrine and Institute in Memphis, Tennessee. He maintains a homily blog at


The Process of Conversion

In his Angelus address on Sept. 27, 2020, Pope Francis spoke of the process of conversion: “Conversion, changing the heart, is a process, a process that purifies us from moral encrustations. And at times it is a painful process, because there is no path of holiness without some sacrifice and without a spiritual battle. Battling for good; battling so as not to fall into temptation; doing for our part what we can, to arrive at living in the peace and joy of the Beatitudes. [The Sept. 27, 2020] Gospel passage [Mt 21:28-32] calls into question the way of living a Christian life, which is not made up of dreams and beautiful aspirations, but of concrete commitments, in order to always open ourselves to God’s will and to love for our brothers and sisters. But this, even the smallest concrete commitment, cannot be made without grace. Conversion is a grace we must always ask for: ‘Lord, give me the grace to improve. Give me the grace to be a good Christian.’



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