Conversion is not a feel-good word. There is an interior magic in every beginning, says Hermann Hesse, but life teaches us that there is also a lot of effort. Looking back to the Church’s sometimes glorified past for answers concerning the conditions in the parishes, the influence of the Church, or the number of members—this does not help us going forward. Repentance is perhaps particularly difficult for bishops, writes Georg Bätzing, chairman of the German Catholic Bishops’ Conference.
Locusts don’t taste so bad, supposedly. The desert can be a beautiful place. A camel hair costume could certainly, properly tailored, make quite an impression. And hair care is often overrated. But would you radically change your life because of an old hippie-type zealot with long and shaggy hair and a robe made of camel hair, who lives in the desert and eats locusts? And all this just because he says, “Repent! Convert!”? A great number of disciples did join and follow him, including Jesus of Nazareth—who according to biblical tradition, was also baptized by John. Jesus then preached the message of the kingdom of God with his whole life: “Repent and believe in the gospel!” (Mk 1:15) So many people followed his call to repentance and went along Jesus’ way—all the way to the cross in Jerusalem and they continue to do so today.
Already, at this point, we can see: Conversion is not an effortless thing, it demands full commitment—and it can end in death. We Christians hear this almost every day when we receive news of our persecuted brothers and sisters in faith, who accept persecution, repression, discrimination, and risk death for the sake of their faith.
In our communities we live in state systems with the free exercise of religion, but the question arises: Do we reach our contemporaries at all when we speak of conversion? What do we need to change to reach them? I have been concerned for some time about the growing distance between the Gospel and the culture. Understanding is difficult, attempts to communicate it are often unsuccessful. The impulse to spread the Gospel then comes to nothing if it does not really take people’s experiences seriously and respond to them.
Conversion: A way of life
It is clear that conversion is a basic theme of Jesus’ preaching, which is why it is also part of our Christian mission—and not only during Lent. It is a basic Christian attitude and approach to life for each and every individual and for the Church itself. As preachers, it takes awareness and the message that we are no better than those to whom we preach repentance. The Church is not the Redeemer, she is, as the Second Vatican Council puts it, “at once holy and always in need of purification, and so continually walking the path of penance and renewal” (Lumen Gentium 8).
We are only “signs and instruments” that point to the one who gives salvation: Jesus Christ. However, we are often a sign that not everyone understands anymore, an instrument that apparently does not work so well in a thoroughly liberal society. Some perceive our offers for reflection, the appeal for conversion, as presumptuous and encroaching. In view of the abuse scandal that has preoccupied us for years and continues to show us new abysses in our Church, this is very understandable. We have lost authority and credibility, through our own fault. The scandal of sexualized violence in our Church and its cover-up, in addition to all the guilt we have brought upon ourselves, is a call to repentance for the Church itself. Looking at the needs of those affected and the suffering they have endured must become the starting point for an unsparing analysis of the reality and the structures in which abuse was possible in the first place. And the perspective here is clear: the Church of the poor, the abused, the exploited, that is the goal that Pope Francis repeatedly emphasizes and demands of us. If the Church is not there for the people, we will be perceived and taken seriously less and less in our society, then we as a Church will go towards zero (towards nothingness).
In the Bible and in tradition, it is made clear again and again that conversion begins with each individual. Let us recall Jesus’ conversation with the rich young man in the 19th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, who actually does everything right and lives according to the commandments. But Jesus says to him (according to the Luther translation), “If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have, and give it to the poor, and you will have a treasure in heaven; and come and follow me!” Are we as a Church stronger and wiser than the rich young man of whom it says in this passage, “When the young man heard the word, he went away grieved; for he had many goods”? To give oneself completely, that is what Jesus exemplified (and invites us to).
Settling For Less Power
Are we ready for this radical conversion—as individuals and as a Church—or will we too “go away grieved”? Will we turn away from God’s call—perhaps with what we believe are the best of reasons—since a poor Church, according to common arguments, would hardly correspond to the tradition of the Church in Germany? “Our” Church, after all, does so much good around the world with its money. The Church of the poor, the abused, the exploited, that is the idea that Pope Francis is pursuing. And he is right to do so. Because this Church corresponds to Jesus’ longing for the kingdom of God. Poor also means being content with less, certainly with less power. We need the spirit and courage of conversion when, such as in the Synodal Path, we fiercely discuss power and the division of power in the Church, a new culture of leadership and priesthood, women in ministries and offices. And this is not just about discussions, but about fundamental changes of attitude that manifest themselves in structures. In the end, we will have to make decisions, and, if possible, by great consensus.
Conversion is not a feel-good word. There is an interior magic in every beginning, says Hermann Hesse, but life teaches us that there is also a lot of effort. Looking back to the Church’s sometimes glorified past for answers concerning the conditions in the parishes, the influence of the Church, or the number of members—this does not help us going forward.
Biblical images for this are the lamenting people in the desert, longing to have the fleshpots from Egypt again, or Lot’s wife, frozen in the past and mourning for her old life. It is quite understandable. It does not, however, help. But of this we can be sure: as we go forward on the necessary path of conversion, we can trust in the protection and blessing of God. As Paul says in his second letter to Timothy (2 Tim 1:7): “For God has not given us a spirit of despondency, but of power, of love, and of prudence.” In this spirit, we will continue to walk the Synodal Path, which will still demand much of us—of all of us—and this also applies to the debates on the value of an orienting moral doctrine. Here, too, we need the spirit and courage of conversion. Turn back! Think anew!
The dilemma is that we can neither simply continue in the old way nor be completely absorbed in the new. Conversion—perhaps this is particularly difficult for bishops. After all, we see ourselves in the tradition of the disciples whom the Lord called personally. This is an almost 2000-year-old line of tradition and a vocation that can sometimes go to one’s head. But nothing less than a radical conversion will adequately respond to the force of the scandal that triggered this process and to the dramatic secularization that we see every day.
We can be somewhat reassured, or at least it should give us perspective, that we are the successors of some great sinners whom the Lord called to be Apostles. We are supposed to bring all our charisms into the collegial process. And we cannot help but bring ourselves. But the vocation to the episcopal ministry also fundamentally requires—and always and again very personally—that we leave behind what is ungodly, sinful, unspiritual, and unhelpful to community. Above all, it is a matter of listening to Christ, of letting ourselves be addressed by him.
The encounter with Jesus invites us to conversion; discipleship always means a new conversion to Jesus Christ. The story of the calling of Levi/Matthew (Mt 9:9-13), a sinner; those of Paul, Peter, Augustine, and many men and women in the history of the Church witness to this. They reveal a basic aspect of Jesus’ intention. Not infrequently does Jesus choose “people with a past.” Those he calls to a mission in the Church should understand the experience of being made new and being touched by God.
Not a National Church
When Jesus surrounds himself with tax collectors and sinners and calls people from this circle, pity is not the motive. This is about something different than turning towards the poor and sick. Here, Jesus points his finger at the wounds of injustice, inconsideration, “practical atheism.” This is what the “tax collector” stood for: someone who is unpopular and unfortunate, who collaborates with the exploiters of the land; who works side by side with the pagans. At the same time, he is gagged by oppressive contracts—he’s squeezed out and the squeezer at the same time. When Jesus calls such a person to follow him, it is not primarily out of love for marginalized groups, but rather it shows the divine power of the call of Jesus. One word from him, and Matthew stands up. One word, and he is healed of his notorious injustice and dishonor. One word and everything becomes new. Only God can do that. Only with him nothing is impossible.
When Jesus called people with such histories into the circle of twelve, he very purposefully formed the foundations for his Church. Only those who have experienced it themselves can probably understand what God is capable of in his merciful love. Only such people have eyes and the necessary sense of how mercilessly sinful practices in the Church have hurt people and their faith, and how it has caused them to doubt God’s love. Only they have an inkling of how deeply God must lay foundations and how much he must give in order to counter what we destroy through our own fault—to give us a creative beginning that calls us and many others forth to the glory and freedom of being God’s children. The Church is not a cultural event for those clothed in white who need to learn from us so they can understand and accept what it means to be saved.
The Second Vatican Council and the decades since have taught us that our Church must remain a Church of conversion, a semper reformanda, one that is always changing. It is a permanent challenge to discern the spirits, to recognize which new path brings us further in the sense of the Gospel and what brings us closer to what Jesus Christ has accomplished and wants to continue to accomplish, and which path probably leads us astray. Often we only see this in retrospect.
But conversion also means having the courage to discern, to choose, and to move forward, step by step. This is how discipleship comes alive. In view of the Synodal Path in this country, there is obviously concern in the worldwide Catholic Church that we could be heading toward a self-contained national church. Let me be clear: I know of no one among those involved in the Synodal Path who wants that. Rather, the fear of an alleged secession of the German Catholic Church from the universal Church, of a new schism in the course of the Synodal Way, is a phantom that is being built up in order to discredit the process of conversion that we are daring to undertake in this country. We want to and will walk this path of conversion together with our brothers and sisters in the universal Church, accompanied by our sisters and brothers in ecumenism and, of course, closely united with our Pope. Integration with the worldwide Church and unity with the office of the pope are parts of the treasure that essentially defines the Catholic Church.
This is also how I understand the worldwide synodal journey that Pope Francis has initiated. It is a great, wise project of renewal and conversion. And of course it is a spiritual process that challenges us as believing, hoping, and loving people.
In the statutes of the Synodal Path, the preamble states, “The Catholic Church in Germany is embarking on a journey of change and renewal. We are facing the serious crisis that is deeply shaking our Church, especially due to the abuse scandal. We are counting on the great commitment of all those who are involved in the activities of the Church. As baptized women and men, we are called to proclaim in word and deed the ‘kindness and love of God’ (Tit 3:4) so that people may hear and receive the Gospel in freedom. We want to use the Synodal Path to improve the conditions for us to fulfil this task credibly.”
Many want to walk this path of conversion, want to risk it and are convinced of it. And for everything we ask God’s help and the accompanying prayer of our baptized brothers and sisters of other denominations. Because without this, conversion will not succeed.
 Translation of Mt 19:21 according to the Luther Bible: “Jesus sprach zu ihm: Willst du vollkommen sein, so geh hin, verkaufe, was du hast, und gib’s den Armen, so wirst du einen Schatz im Himmel haben; und komm und folge mir nach!“
 Translation of Mt 19:22 according to the Luther Bible: “Da der Jüngling das Wort hörte, ging er betrübt von ihm, denn er hatte viele Güter.”
 In the original German, Bishop Bätzing quotes from the Einheitsübersetzung, which is a common translation of the Bible used by both German Catholics and Protestants: „Denn Gott hat uns nicht einen Geist der Verzagtheit gegeben, sondern den Geist der Kraft, der Liebe und der Besonnenheit.“
 This sentence in the original German is “Kirche ist keine Veranstaltung von Menschen mit weißer Weste für solche, die es von uns erst lernen, es kapieren und annehmen müssten, was es bedeutet, erlöst zu werden.“ It translates literally to, “The Church is not an event by people in a white vest for those who first learn it from us, understand it and accept what it means to be redeemed.” The reference to the “white vest” is evocative of the white baptismal garment or the “pure.”
Georg Bätzing has been the bishop of the Diocese of Limburg, Germany, since 2016. He was elected chairman of the German Bishops’ Conference in March 2020.
Deacon Clayton Nickel is a deacon of the Archdiocese of Washington and a convert to the Catholic faith. The Washington metro area is his home. The Catholic Church is his spiritual home. He has many years of international experience from Germany to South Africa to Japan. In addition to his native English, he is bilingual in German, and also speaks and writes French. He enjoys working with different cultures and languages . Having lived in Germany for many years, he follows the German scene closely.
With thanks to Bishop Georg Bätzing, Deacon Clayton Nickel, and Where Peter Is, where this article originally appeared.