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Thursday, June 6, 2013

Turning conversion into advertising

"It was an age when American companies were beginning to understand that the image of a famous person could be used to sell products; through advertising, the traits generally associated with the person —in Nellie Bly's case, these included pluck, vitality, courage, patriotism, and, most important, success—seemed to be transferred to the product an, by extension, to the person using it." (Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland's History-Making Race Around the World, by Matthew Goodman, Ballantine Books, 2013)

"It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me." (Gal. 2:20)
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I'm in the diocese of Pittsburgh through Saturday, working on my last ever institute for the North American Forum on the Catechumenate. Of course, it's a great privilege to do this kind of work under any circumstances, but the fact that this is the next-to-last official Forum institute makes it all the more momentous for me. I'm lucky to be working with a great local coordinator, and with Forum colleagues Fr. Andy Varga and Linda Licata. I hope we can make this an institute to remember for the 100+ folks who have come from as far away as Seattle to attend.

Over the last few weeks, I've been listening to the audiobook Eighty Days cited above while I do my little run three times a week or so. I'm in the epilogue now, nearly done with it, but as happens when one is reading a book, sometimes you come across a passage that leads you down pathways you didn't think were connected to the subject. That's what happened when I heard that paragraph above.

It got me to thinking about the etymology of "advertising," which comes from the Latin verb vertere which means "to turn." Advertising is thus to turn someone's attention toward something else, to draw the gaze away. The same verb is at the root of the word "conversion," which also suggests turning around, and which in its Christian context translates the Greek metanoia, which conveys a changeover of thinking or of personal orientation. 

The work we are discussing this week in Pittsburgh is the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, which is a complex of rites, ministries, and processes in the church that gather in people who are interested in following Christ by joining the Catholic Church in a kind of apprenticeship that leads to the sacraments of baptism, confirmation, and eucharist and thus to the life of witness to the gospel for which the church lives and which the Holy Spirit makes possible. This is accomplished by incorporation into the body of Christ, sacramentally in the initiation sacraments, and fundamentally by apprenticeship in Church life during the RCIA process, focused around the pillars of church life articulated in Acts: prayer, common life, witness to the gospel, and service, especially to the poor.

Hearing the author of Eighty Days speak of the precursors to commercial advertising in the late 19th century made me sort of muse about the connections between advertising and conversion, particularly as it impacts the RCIA. Tertullian reported that in Antioch people would see the community of believers and remark, "See how these christians love one another!" What on earth would possess people in this day and age, with all the issues the church has had over the last 25 to 30 years especially, to want to come to be a part of this group in such remarkable numbers? Certainly some of the data shows that a good number want to join because of family life influences: a marriage, a baby, or some other pressure to come to a kind of unity of faith for purposes of a common future. But for many others, it is the "advertising," the witness, of the church, whether on the micro scale, an encounter with a parishioner, some friend's outreach or invitation, or on a macro scale, wherein an inquirer might see the greater good accomplished by the church in our witness to justice in the world, feeding the hungry, defending life, educating, providing health care, or any of the other countless ministries in which the church is engaged. It might be a case of being drawn by the personality or teaching of the pope, or Sister Helen Prejean, or some other Christian who lives the gospel in a highly visible way.

You have heard me say that the core message of Jesus was one of turning. "Repent and believe the good news" is another way of saying, "Turn away from the god who brings death, violence, poverty, and fear (Caesar), and give your heart to the God who brings peace, justice, and joy." Jesus spelled that out in parables and in his open table, shared with all kinds of people in all walks of life, regardless of their reputation and standing among the religious elite. Jesus paid the price for this peaceable treason with his death on the cross, and invites us also to "take up the cross and follow." The cross is the logo of this strange advertisement. The Christian life is, or ought to be, the ongoing advertisement for throwing off the loneliness and violent dead end of what is commonly thought of as "civilization" and turning toward one another in self-gift, mutuality, and kindness. "Not me, but Christ living in me," St. Paul said of his life. See the Spirit of the Savior in my actions, words, and attitudes, and come to Christ. Change your mind, heart, and the way your spend your days and hours and years.

That's what we're doing in the Church. That's what we've been doing in Forum, and what we do in the RCIA in our parishes: advertising for conversion. Turn away from sin, and believe the good news. Wear the logo of the cross on every aspect of your life. There is a life that goes deeper here and now than we imagined, it is life shared together, and it goes on forever. 

If we could grasp that, discern meaningful common life that offered a genuine alternative to business as usual in the violent world of counterfeit peace, belonging, and well-being, well, could the world be about to turn?