“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see.” 

These beautiful lyrics, written centuries ago by John Newton, describes his conversion when, as a wretched slave trader, he was saved from the imminent sinking of his ship during a storm. The lyric description of Newton’s conversion resonates with the dramatic conversion of St. Paul, which we commemorated on January 25. We know well the story of Paul’s moment of being blinded by the light on the road to Damascus that caused him to fall to the ground and hear the voice of Jesus, Whom he had persecuted. 

Paul’s moment of amazing grace is the prototype of many such conversions throughout the history of Christianity. Conversion to Jesus Christ is essential in every effort to evangelize. “It arises from the depths of the human person and involves such a profound transformation of heart and mind that it causes the believer to change radically both internally and externally” (National Directory on Catechesis). 

Father Richard Rohr, OFM, in his reflection on the conversion of St. Paul, writes, “Conversion is not a moral achievement accomplished by good behavior or New Year’s resolutions. Conversion usually comes to people who need it intensely.” With this as the goal, every evangelization program or catechetical ministry must go beyond changing the behavior patterns of parishioners so that they obediently come to Mass, but must be conversion-centric. But the need for conversion is in the eye of the beholder. 

Neither St. Paul nor John Newton thought they needed to change. Paul writes in his letter to the Galatians that he was so zealous for the traditions of his faith that he “progressed in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries.” He thus became a murderer in the name of religion, proudly receiving his commission to root out Christianity from the highest authorities in the Temple. We’ll never know why God chose to flip the mission of this zealot, but Paul turned his zeal for Jewish purity into a passionate mission for the love of Jesus Christ. Too bad we can’t buy a “knock ‘em down” conversion program and put it into every parish!

There is much we can learn from St. Paul and John Newton with regards to the evangelization efforts in our parishes. Conversion is the result of a deeply personal relationship with Jesus Christ. The introduction to Christ might be sudden, or it could take years to ferment. John Newton’s conversion did not result in a radical change of his behavior. He wrote in his autobiography, “I cannot consider myself to have been a believer in the full sense of the word until a considerable time afterward.” Indeed, John Newton continued in the slave trade business for many years before joining the abolitionist movement and eventually becoming an ordained minister in the Anglican Church where he went on to write those beautiful hymns. 

Behind every effective tool used to evangelize is an opportunity for the converted to witness to their faith. Not all conversion stories are like St. Paul’s, but many people have turned their lives over to Christ and need a platform on which to tell their stories. These people are easy to find; they’re the ones who radiate the fruits of the Holy Spirit. They are not zealots for the faith, but gentle souls who emanate love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, self-control, and faithfulness. Their intense need that brought them into an encounter with Christ will be the story that resonates with some kindred soul in search of Salvation. These are the people God wants leading the mission.

Matthew Kelly opens his latest book with a story of a man who is trying to find the right way to change the culture of his company to save it from going under. While trying to come up with a profound speech that will turn the company around, he is continuously interrupted by his bored seven-year-old son. The man tears out a picture of a map of the world from a magazine and cuts it into pieces and gives it to the boy to piece it back together. Thinking this would take the boy hours to accomplish, the man is surprised when the boy returns in minutes with the map completely reassembled. He asked the boy how he got it done so fast and was told, “There was a picture of a man on the back of the page. Since I knew what the man looked like I just put him together and then flipped it over and the world was in the right place.” This little piece of wisdom changed the way the man thought about saving his company. “Focus on the man and the whole world will be fixed!” If we focus on the conversion of one man or woman at a time, the Church will find itself on fire with the missionary zeal of St. Paul.

Anchor columnist Claire McManus is the director of the Diocesan Office of Faith Formation. 

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