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Conversion is our life's work

Archbsihop Wenski's talk to catechumens at 2023 Rite of Election

Archbishop Thomas Wenski shows the congregation the Book of the Elect as he welcomed 453 catechumens who will soon join the Catholic Church during two Rite of Election ceremonies held at St. Mary Cathedral the Sunday after Ash Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2023.

Photographer: MARLENE QUARONI | FC

Archbishop Thomas Wenski shows the congregation the Book of the Elect as he welcomed 453 catechumens who will soon join the Catholic Church during two Rite of Election ceremonies held at St. Mary Cathedral the Sunday after Ash Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2023.

Archbishop Thomas Wenski preached this message at the annual Rite of Election ceremony where catechumens – those who have never been baptized in the Catholic Church or any Christian denomination – come to St. Mary Cathedral to sign their names in the Book of the Elect, as they enter the final weeks of preparation before receiving the sacraments of initiation – baptism, confirmation, Communion – at the Easter Vigil. The Rite of Election takes place on the first Sunday of Lent, this year Feb. 26, 2023, at St. Mary Cathedral. 

Today’s Gospel tells us that the Spirit led Jesus out into the desert where he was tempted by the devil.

Because he was truly human, like us, Jesus was tempted; but unlike us he didn’t sin. But it is precisely because he shared in our struggle with temptations that we can share in his victory over sin, death and the devil. And this is what baptism promises us — for if the wages of sin is death, in baptism, we die with Christ to sin, so that freed from the snares of Satan, we can rise with him to new life.

You may remember that old New Orleans’ jazz anthem: Oh when the saints, Oh when the saints go marching in, Oh when the saints go marching in, Oh I want to be in that number when the saints go marching in.

Well, today, you are enrolled in that number, the number of the elect, those chosen to become, in Christ, saints. By your enrollment in the Book of the Elect, you are saying that you want to be holy.

The word “saint” simply means a “holy one.” In Haitian Creole, the language in which I preached in every day for almost twenty years, “saint” is translated: "Zanmi Bondye” — a friend of God. This is a beautiful, and I might add, a most appropriate, translation; for the saints are friends of God — and only one who is holy can claim to be a friend of God.

And that is what baptism makes of us: friends of God, reconciled to Him through the suffering, death and resurrection of his Son, Jesus Christ, in whom we are baptized and through whom and through the indwelling of his Holy Spirit we entered into the holiness of God.

To accept a gift of friendship implies a “yes” to the friend and a “no” to all that is incompatible with this friendship, to all that is incompatible with life as a member of God’s family, with true life in Christ. This is what is implied in the word “metanoia” or conversion.

Conversion means a turning to and a turning from — a turning to the Lord and a turning from sin. But this does not end with baptism; as Catholics, we believe that conversion is our life’s work. Our earthly pilgrimage must always be lived as a continuing turning to the Lord, and therefore a continuing turning away from sin. Thus, the first recorded words of Jesus were: “Repent and believe in the Gospel.” (cf. Mark)

At the Easter Vigil, you will make your profession of faith. And at Easter, all of us who have been baptized already also will be asked to renew that same profession of faith. That profession of faith based on the Apostles’ Creed is our “yes” to God. It is our pledge that — despite whatever trials and tribulations we may face — we will walk through this life as a friend of God, as a friend of Jesus and in the company of his friends, that is, his Catholic Church.

Now before you can say yes, you also have to say no to something. In the desert, Jesus says no to Satan and to his false promises of power, pleasure, and vain riches. And, of course, before you make that profession of faith on Holy Saturday evening, you will be asked to renounce Satan and all his works and all his empty promises.

For you, catechumens, Lent is a time of final preparations for that day, the day of your rebirth in Christ. Lent for you must resemble in some way the desert experience of Jesus. As Jesus prayed and fasted for 40 days, Lent must also be for us a time of prayer and fasting so that when Holy Saturday comes you will be ready to have your sins forgiven in the waters of baptism. By your fasting and mortifications, you will learn — as all of us must learn — to say “no” to ourselves and to the sinful inclinations of our fallen human nature so that we might be more ready to “say yes” to God.

The content of that yes to God is expressed in 10 Commandments. And it is important that we understand that the Commandments are not just a pack of prohibitions. To be a Christian is not a burden but a gift. The commandments are not impositions on our lives or limitations to our freedom. The commandments put forth a great vision of life and show us the way to true freedom.

Pope Francis reminds us: "Belief in God makes us bearers of values that often do not coincide with the fashion and opinion of the moment and calls on us to adopt standards and behaviors that do not belong to the common way of thinking," he said. "The Christian should not be afraid to swim against the tide to live his own faith, resisting the tendency to conform."

Baptism is a gift — a gift that must be accepted, and once accepted it becomes a task that must be lived.

Como dijo una vez el Papa, San Juan Pablo II, “si el Bautismo es una verdadera entrada en la santidad de Dios... sería un contrasentido contentarse con una vida mediocre, vivida según una ética minimalista y una religiosidad superficial”. Ser amigo de Dios implica vivir de acuerdo con los mandamientos que no son imposiciones en nuestra vida o limitaciones de nuestra libertad. En realidad, los mandamientos proyectan una gran visión de la vida y nos muestran el camino hacia la verdadera libertad.

Y ahora, una vez inscritos en el Libro de los Elegidos, comienzan sus preparaciones finales, ahora comienza la experiencia del desierto. 40 días más para orar y ayunar, para hallar la fuerza para eliminar los posibles contrasentidos que queden en sus vidas que les impidan aceptar el don del Bautismo, que les impidan hacerse amigos de Dios.

Recuerden las palabras pronunciadas una y otra vez en las Escrituras y que nos fueron repetidas a nosotros con frecuencia por el Papa Juan Pablo II: No teman. No tengan miedo de caminar por la vida como amigos de Dios.

As the day of baptism draws nearer — the day on which your conversion — your turning to God and turning away from sin — is solemnized in the Rites of Christian Initiation, remain steadfast in prayer and know that your Catholic brothers and sisters are praying for you, and awaiting with great joy your entry into the Church. Remember the words spoken repeatedly in the Scriptures and repeated to us so often by Pope St. John Paul II: “Be not afraid.” Don’t be afraid to walk through life as a friend of God. 

Oh when the saints, Oh when the saints go marching in, Oh when the saints go marching in, Oh I want to be in that number when the saints go marching in.

Yes, today you are enrolled in that number, you are chosen to be saints, to be Zanmi Bondye, friends of God.