Some of us might have been surprised by a comment in Msgr. George Higgins' recent article on Cardinal Joseph Bernardin. "He often spoke, with becoming modesty, of undergoing a conversion during his stay in Cincinnati," Higgins wrote. "It was a conversion that deepened his prayer life and helped him reassess and rearrange his priorities, a conversion which centered his life on Christ instead of the Church-bureaucratic."

Priests and teachers often encouraged me as a child to pray for the conversion of pagans, atheists, Jews, Protestants, Communists and Russians. But I don't ever remember any Roman Catholic bishops being in that list.

Conversion is essential for biblical faith. No matter to what life, work or ministry God calls us, God first calls us to convert, to reform, to repent -- to continually become new people. God requires such a change because God always invites us to go beyond, to step outside ourselves, to look at life from a completely new perspective. Those who constantly reform will be able to follow where God leads.

Repent now

Sunday's three readings underline the absolute necessity of such repentance.

Paul believes the whole world is in the midst of conversion because of Jesus' death and resurrection (I Cor 7:29-31). "The present form of the world is passing away," he tells his Corinthian community. But the world's conversion doesn't mean we automatically convert. We join this cosmic process only by freely reforming ourselves, by making our exterior behavior a sign of our interior turnabout. "Let those who have wives,...who mourn,... who buy,...who deal with the world" do the opposite for a while, a sign of true repentance, a way of joining the world in its repentance.

BY demanding conversion, Paul is simply repeating the message of Jesus, just as Jesus repeated the message of His mentor, John the Baptizer. Prophets always call their followers to "metanoia:" to a total change of value systems. Just as Paul demands some outward sign of conversion, Jesus' first four disciples demonstrate in the Gospel (Mk 1:14-20) that they're on the road to metanoia by the way they change their outlook on time, possessions and relationships. They immediately follow Jesus, leaving boats, nets and father behind. They're become new people.

It's no accident that the first reading (John 3:1-5-10) is our only liturgical peek at the book of Jonah. Though often misunderstood by literalists, its authors give us the ultimate reason for constant reform. Throughout this largely sarcastic writing, every character, except Jonah, repents. The pagan sailors, the hostile Ninevites, the senseless animals all repent. And we even hear those blasphemous words: "Yahweh repented."

Yahweh repents

Though some of us try to get God off the hook by explaining the words away with modern theological reasoning: "God really doesn't change; it's just our understanding of God that changes!" -- it's not that simple. The Sacred Author doesn't play by our rules. Remember, Yahweh told Jonah, "Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed." Then, after the Ninevites repent, Yahweh changes His mind. No matter how much we'd like to alter it, the biblical statement is clear and unequivocal: "Yahweh repented."

Every three years, I repeat the profound comment of my teacher, Hans Walter Wolff, on this passage. "Yahweh doesn't have to be faithful to Yahweh's word," Wolff taught, "as long as Yahweh is faithful to Yahweh's people." God's dedication to a living, changing people is more important than God's fulfillment of a static, dead word.

In the midst of religious authorities, structures and teachings grown smug and powerful by their refusal to change, we're called to imitate God's faithfulness to an eternally evolving universe, to His son's call to metanoia, and to the people God loves.

Obviously Cardinal Bernardin not only heard the call to repent, but also actually repented. According to the author of Jonah, the Cardinal's conversion placed him in some very important company. Those who refuse to convert not only refuse to grow; they also refuse to be part of God's ever-reforming presence in their lives.