Confession and Conversion: an Octave for Christian Unity
In 1908, Father Paul Wattson, a Franciscan Friar and Episcopal priest (later a Roman Catholic) proposed that the eight days between the Feast of the Confession of Saint Peter and the Confession of Saint Paul be observed as an Octave (eight days) for Christian Unity. Through the following decades, this week of prayer became practiced throughout numerous churches. Although the idea has nearly disappeared, the fruit of it has not: we live in a time of enormous ecumenical potential, especially as Christians seek for greater unity in a fractured society. The Church's vocation is to offer to the world a vision of a greater unity: one forged not by our own aspirations or desires, but according to the plan and call of God in Jesus Christ.
That fracturing is happening before our very eyes: the consequences of a post-christian, post-truth, post-decency era. Many today seem to think that one can make something true just be repeating it enough. Others will accept fanciful conspiracy theories as opposed to accepting the reality before them. Still others will bend everything they see to fit the narrative they like best. All of this creates a destabilized culture that will easily descend into a violent chaos. Lies give way to more lies, and sadly, many Christians have believed them. If one truly believes democracy has broken down, what can the result be but civil war? We Christians need to speak clearly, now more than ever. We need to be aware that a Church that values emotivism more than truth has done great damage to our witness, and recognize the need that we have to rise above the political divisions of our day to a common witness.
At Brooks College on the Baylor campus, the words of the novelist Iris Murdoch are inscribed in a walkway: “We need to return from the self-centered concept of sincerity to the other-centered concept of truth.” I would suggest that much of what has been embraced in our world today is not the truth but this self-centered sincerity. What is sincerity but an honesty about what is going on in our interior selves? The interior life today is assaulted by a vast variety of whims and passions. The way that social media serves as a “catechism of desire,” the way that sexual appetites have crippled our ability to have real relationships, the way that materialism has marred our perceptions of reality, all of these conspire to make us self-centered, and sincerely so. And when a society is built upon the conception of freedom as the ability to be as self-centered as possible, that society must be girded with falsehoods all around: for the very first lie told in creation is this: “You will not surely die.For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:4–5 ESV)
Toleration for lies is the chief vice of a nation in peril, for that toleration is the chief vice of a soul in peril. To live by lies means living in a total and complete hell of one’s own making. The Christian must live in resistance to the self-serving lies heard every day, whether from the right or the left, the media or the academy, friends or family. The Christian has the responsibility to embrace the other-centered concept of truth, particularly the truth presented to us in the Gospel: that of Jesus Christ, and Him crucified, and to forsake all others.
I would submit to you that the upcoming feasts on the calendar, the Feast of the Confession of Saint Peter (Monday, January 18th) and the Conversion of Saint Paul (Monday, January 25th) provide us with just such an occasion - namely for two things - confession and conversion. One might get the impression from the names of these feasts that Peter is about the confession of the faith, and Paul about the life of conversion. In truth, we remember two events that serve to bring us to an awareness of two sides of the Gospel: the acceptance of the truth about God and ourselves, and the acceptance of the grace to make our lives align with that truth.
We need confession in both senses of the word. We need to take repentance seriously enough to acknowledge our faults, specifically the lies we have believed, shared, and hoped in. We need to renounce the pride of life, the sins of the flesh, and the works of the Devil. We must take this confession of our sin straight to the Cross. We must concurrently be a people who confess the faith of the Church, the faith once delivered to the saints (Jude 3). Christian discipleship is a hard road. It leads us to renounce falsehood and embrace the truth, even as we deny ourselves.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, we need to embrace lives of conversion. Brothers and sisters, the idea that one can lead the Christian life without embracing conversion is a lie itself. Too many Christians have bought into the idea that the Lord does not care whether or not we are converted. They have been sold on it by their pastors and priests. No! God is holy. He demands that we become holy by His grace, that we become a people sanctified, a people who “live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age.” (Titus 2:12). This requires the kind of training in righteousness that only an active and disciplined life of interior prayer and fasting, a life centered upon the sacraments, can bring.
A much shorter way of putting all of this is that Christian knowledge is confessed, and Christian love comes by conversion. These two are not the acquisitions of lone-ranger Christians, but the domain of the whole body of the Church. The late Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey writes:
“…there are secrets of the meaning of the world that are unlocked through a knowledge
which is linked with the life and love of the society that shares in the cross; a knowledge
which grows through the building up of the one Body in love. Christian knowledge and
Christian love lie close together, and Christian theology is not only a detached exercise
of the Christian intellect; it is the life of the one Body in which Truth is both thought out
and lived out.” -Michael Ramsey, "The Gospel and the Catholic Church"
My prayer for Christ Church is that as a microcosm of the Church Catholic, we would continue to be built up in the truth as we labor under the power of the Cross, and that doing so, the Church would be built up to a unity that presents a powerful alternative to an increasingly self-centered and fractured society. Please join me in this prayer.
Faithfully in Christ, Fr. Lee M. Nelson, SSC