Franciscan Sister of Christian Charity Sister Mary Ann Spanjers addresses topic of conversion highlighting the need for Church penitent.
Conversion for us, as a Church, needs to come in the form of penance. One of my former students summed up in a sentence what such a church would look like. Thanking me for being his teacher, he said: “You loved us, even when we disappointed you.” (I can add that my students love me, even when I disappoint them.)
Is this not a call to conversion to be a penitent, to recognize that one fails, sins, disappoints and yet knows that despite it all, one is loved and forgiven? Is this not how we experience God’s love and forgiveness? The only real answer to the brokenness of the world is Jesus’ love, through us, his church. Yet when we as church fail to be authentic, to love and forgive each other, we, too, become broken. When those called to guide us in the church become the cause of sin, harm and evil, the brokenness leads to rejection, pain and distrust. Sometimes the damage seems beyond repair and reconciliation.
How do we identify ourselves as church? What images do we use? The Second Vatican Council urged us to search for new images of the church so that it could become what it was intended to be from the beginning. The question my students struggle with is, what is an authentic identity of the church today? I believe that the only way the church can be relevant is if it embraces the model of a penitent.
St. Francis of Assisi provides us with a historical example. He chose to live among the lepers of his time, to take on the stigma of being an outcast and to befriend the sinners, the wretched and the poor. He took on this way of life as a penitent so that he might imitate Jesus, who shared our humanity and atoned for the sins of all through his living, dying and rising. Jesus accepted the sins and sufferings of others through death so that new life could be born. This is the call of the penitent to conversion, to face sin, to reconcile and to rise above it with the grace God offers. The proposed model of the church as penitent views the church as human beings in relationship with God. This relationship is shared with all God’s creatures.
As a Franciscan Sister of Christian Charity, embracing the life of a penitent is my reality. It is how I am able to teach my Lasallian Cristo Rey students. I am able to walk with them in need of God’s love, mercy and forgiveness. I teach theology about a church that is in disarray. Honesty with teenagers is the only thing that works. It is their honesty about who they are and who they hope to be that gives me hope. We are the church, we are a human faith community, but God is with us. We fall and sin and get up because of God’s love through and in each other. It is in this that we embrace the life of penitents and experience conversion of heart.
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