Austen Ivereigh, a biographer of Pope Francis (The Great Reformer), commented on a recent interview with the pope by an Argentinian reporter. Addressing the area of greatest need for growth in the Church, Pope Francis said, it is in “pastoral conversion. It is still very much halfway there” (“Relaxed pope muses on Latin America…” Crux).
Ivereigh went on to define pastoral conversion as “a move from maintenance to mission, and a pastoral focus on concrete people and their needs rather than taking refuge in abstraction and legalism” (Ibid).
In his apostolic exhortation Evanglii Gaudium, Pope Francis speaks of pastoral conversion in the strongest possible language. “I dream of a ‘missionary option’, that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation. The renewal of structures demanded by pastoral conversion can only be understood in this light: as part of an effort to make them more mission-oriented, to make ordinary pastoral activity on every level more inclusive and open, to inspire in pastoral workers a constant desire to go forth and in this way to elicit a positive response from all those whom Jesus summons to friendship with himself” (27).
Pastoral conversion is a call to the Church to place the proclamation of the Gospel over and above maintaining our structures and defending the status quo. Pastoral conversion is about finding ways to include people and to implore the Holy Spirit to help us extend the grace of the Gospel to those most in need of that grace.
More concretely, and in our context, this means looking for ways to include people whose lives have fallen short of the Church’s teachings rather than simply reminding them how they have fallen short. Instead of simply repeating doctrines that we all know, striving to find ways to make living the Gospel message of the God who comes to us while we are yet sinners (Romans 5:8).
Pastoral conversion is about a willingness to let go of church buildings that served the past so as to form vital and living communities of disciples for today. It is about an openness to being misunderstood and taken advantage of—getting a little dirty as Pope Francis says—in order to walk with those who are far from God and yet searching for life and healing.
Pastoral conversion is about making space for the other, who in an age of massive emigration is often very different from us. Instead of asking what do I get out of this, seeking ways to give others what I have. Such an approach calls us to set aside defensiveness and any semblance of protectionism so we might encounter one another.
Pastoral conversion, in short, is about asking and acting on how best to share and extend Gospel grace to others, especially those on the margins of such grace. It is risky and will entail getting bruised from time to time. More importantly, it will mean the Gospel, which for many has become old news, will be made for some good news again!