Years ago, my pastor took a group of men from my parish on a pilgrimage down to Mexico City, to visit the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe at Tepeyac Hill—where Our Lady appeared to St. Juan Diego in 1531—and to see the tilma (cloak) on which Mary miraculously left her image as a sign of her identity to the local bishop—and ultimately to the world. It was a prayerful, spiritually- and sacramentally-rich week filled with prayer, adoration, Mass, worship, confession, spiritual direction, music, faith sharing, healing, and uplifting homilies and talks.
We stayed at a convent near the basilica run by an order of Latin American sisters, none of whom spoke a word of English. Fortunately, many of the guys in our group spoke Spanish. I believe Father became acquainted with this order when he had been sent to Mexico for a summer assignment to learn Spanish years before. From then on, he took pilgrim groups back there, and they would stay at the convent.
Other than morning Mass (in Spanish) and evening adoration, our group alternated throughout the day with the sisters to use the chapel. Every evening before adoration, as Father was wrapping up his final talk, the sisters would trickle in one or two at a time and begin to fill the empty pews.
On the final evening, Father was wrapping up his talk when the elderly Sister Socorro entered the chapel. She was quite stooped and couldn’t have been more than four feet tall. She moved slowly with the assistance of a walker and the help of another sister. You could tell that she was one of those tiny, feisty, sharp-as-a-tack sisters that seem to live forever. Even though she must have been close to 100, she still had her wits about her. She and Father had an ongoing, teasing, back-and-forth rapport in Spanish that usually had all the sisters in stitches.
Father called out to Sister Socorro in Spanish. She responded. They went back and forth for a few moments. You could see the faces of Father and the other sisters brighten up and smile at something she said. Finally, after a little bit, Father clued us in on the discussion. He explained that he’d asked her why she thinks God has granted her such a long life. Father said Sister Socorro told him, “I’m still converting!”
A few days after I returned home, my wife and I were invited to a dinner party. I happened to find myself at one point sitting with a group of people—all of whom, by chance, had converted to Catholicism as adults. They began to ask each other in what year they entered the Church. As a cradle Catholic and as someone who doesn’t like being left out of conversations, I blurted out sister’s words, “I’m still converting!”
Maybe two or three years later I ran into one of the people from that conversation—a young wife and mom—at another social event. I didn’t recognize her at first, but she came up to me and said, “I was hoping I would run into you again!” She went on to explain that those words, “I’m still converting,” had a profound impact on her spiritual life, her relationships, and her relationship with God. I was somewhat astounded because the words had just slipped out, and I hadn’t remembered saying them until she reminded me.
I’ve honestly never been more humbled. And I am grateful that the Holy Spirit used my big mouth as an instrument to share Sister Socorro’s words—from 2,000 miles away, in another country, in a different language—to help someone else in her journey of faith. Because believe me, I had no intention of changing anyone’s life when I said them.
Honestly, that’s one of those kinds of things you usually have to wait until you get to heaven to find out, when all is revealed. I guess you could say I got a sneak preview.
Speaking of ongoing conversion, today was the feast of St. Augustine, and I’ve been reflecting on his life and conversion. (I’m sorry that I always wind up writing these feast day reflections at the end of the day.)
In his 1986 apostolic letter Augustinum Hipponsensem, St. John Paul II points out how the story of St. Augustine shows us “how easy it is to go astray on the path of life, and how difficult it is to rediscover the way of truth.” St. Augustine’s conversion was not instantaneous and not without its setbacks. Rather, as John Paul explains, “it was not a case of arriving for the first time at the Catholic faith, but of rediscovering it.” Recall that St. Augustine’s journey as a young adult took him away from the Catholic faith taught to him by his mother, and into the Manichaean sect.
In 2008, Pope Benedict XVI spoke about Augustine’s realization of the need for ongoing conversion: “Initially, he thought that once he was baptized, in the life of communion with Christ, in the sacraments, in the Eucharistic celebration, he would attain the life proposed in the Sermon on the Mount: the perfection bestowed by Baptism and reconfirmed in the Eucharist. During the last part of his life he understood that … [w]e always need to be washed by Christ, who washes our feet, and be renewed by him. We need permanent conversion. Until the end we need this humility that recognizes that we are sinners journeying along, until the Lord gives us his hand definitively and introduces us into eternal life.”
Benedict emphasized in another address just weeks earlier that after Augustine’s initial conversion, when he later moved back from Milan to his home in North Africa and was made bishop, it was in a pastoral vocation that this “former rhetorician” grew closest to the Lord. He explained that Saint Augustine “was an exemplary Bishop in his tireless pastoral commitment: he preached several times a week to his faithful, supported the poor and orphans, supervised the formation of the clergy and the organization of men’s and women’s monasteries.” It was in this servant leadership that “Augustine entrusted himself to God every day until the very end of his life.”
In 2013, Pope Francis explored the story of St. Augustine’s journey of faith as well. Francis spoke not only of the restlessness in Augustine’s heart, but also of his perseverance and his commitment to find the right and true path: “He continued to seek God’s face. Of course he made mistakes, he took wrong turns, he sinned, he was a sinner. Yet he retained the restlessness of spiritual seeking. In this way he discovered that God was waiting for him, indeed, that he had never ceased to be the first to seek him.”
We can never think of St. Augustine’s conversion, of course, without thinking about his mother, St. Monica. St. Monica prayed and suffered for her son, and her prayers for his conversion were answered. How many of our own loved ones do we hold in our heart in similar ways? How many of our prayers for others go unanswered? Ultimately, although her son’s famous conversion is why she is remembered and celebrated by people today, that is not why she is a saint—that was ultimately his own response to God’s call. She is a saint because she persevered in faith, even though she suffered. As Pope Francis put it, she modeled “the restlessness of love: ceaselessly seeking the good of the other, of the beloved, without ever stopping and with the intensity that leads even to tears.”
If her son had never become a Christian, a bishop, a saint, and a Doctor of the Church, she still would have been a saint, albeit one whose name we would likely never know. Her restless love and prayer were a sign of God’s grace working in her. As Julian Waldner put it, “These ‘hidden’ acts of faithfulness—done only before God, and which no one else sees—witness to something beyond the merely human. They stake their claim on a higher order: an ethos of new creation. They testify to a hope that lies beyond our human possibilities.”
When our own journey hits low points, we can look to St. Augustine and St. Monica as inspiration for our own conversions. Their hearts remained restless because they yearned for God. We can pray for God to give us the same restlessness he gave them—the restlessness that allows us to always say, “I’m still converting!”
Image: Saint Augustine and his mother, Saint Monica, by Ary Scheffer (painting from 1846)Source: https://flic.kr/p/24nAtJ9. License: Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)