Often Christians talk about being “converted” to the Christian faith. Unfortunately, there is much confusion about what conversion truly looks like, and it often ends us being something that only touches the surface of a person’s soul.
In reality, Jesus challenged his disciples to be converted in a way that was meant to radically change their lives.
Jesus used the Greek word metanoia when speaking about conversion, and his word choice was deliberate. Pope St. Paul VI, in his Apostolic Constitution Paenitemini, explains the gravity of Jesus’ choice of words.
The kingdom of God announced by Christ can be entered only by a “change of heart” (“metanoia”), that is to say through that intimate and total change and renewal of the entire man—of all his opinions, judgments and decisions—which takes place in him in the light of the sanctity and charity of God, the sanctity and charity which were manifested to us in the Son and communicated fully.
Metanoia is often described as a complete “turning around,” where an individual is walking in one direction, but then turns around to walk in the other direction.
In the early Church this metanoia was symbolized in the sacrament of Baptism. Before baptism could be administered, the catechumens had to profess their faith in front of the priest/bishop and renounce their former way of life. The Catholic Encyclopedia explains how this renunciation and profession was practiced.
The catechumen standing with his face to the West, which symbolized the abode of darkness, and stretching out his hand, or sometimes spitting out in defiance and abhorrence of the devil, was wont to make this abjuration. It was also customary after this for the candidate for baptism to make an explicit promise of obedience to Christ. This was called by the Greeks syntassesthai Christo, the giving of oneself over to the control of Christ…During this declaration of attachment to Jesus Christ the person to be baptized turned towards the East as towards the region of light.
As a result, every Christian is challenged to look at their own lives and see if they have truly turned towards God in their thoughts, words and deeds. While they may have been baptized at an early age, Christians can still have a “conversion” (sometimes called a “reversion”), where they freely accept the Gospel of Jesus Christ and pledge their obedience to God.
Conversion is never meant to be something that is handled lightly and should never only be “skin deep.” It is an experience that touches the very core of our being and changes it, making us into a new person. That is what true conversion looks like.