During the church’s year of focusing on Paul’s mission and hearing about the early Christian communities he established in the readings from Acts and Paul’s letters, St Joseph’s Parish, Mt Victoria, has had a monthly Year of Paul speaker in their parish. Moyra Pearce was recently one of these and has agreed to share her talk withWel-com readers.
In the Acts of the Apostles we hear how those who meet Christ live by the law written on their hearts rather than that set in stone and this ties in with the change I see happening in Paul when he finally encountered Jesus. Paul saw the followers of Jesus as breakers of God’s law, until the defining moment when he recognised the spirit of that law, the one written on the heart of anyone truly following the example of Jesus.
My relationship with Paul has not been easy. The restrictions on women which begin to appear in the Acts of the Apostles are alienating but I do understand that Paul is not necessarily the author of all the writings attributed to him and I do identify with the way he tried to shepherd the early Christian communities that he cared for so passionately—once he’d stopped persecuting them!
For me conversion has been a continual process rather than the dramatic turnaround that Paul experienced.
My childhood was one of total immersion Catholicism. I was raised in a rich Catholic subculture, which epitomised the Tridentine Church of the 1950s—sung Latin Masses and theological certainty. It was possible to live life almost entirely within this Catholic culture of parish, schools, sporting and social clubs. The indelible nature of this Catholic identity, that begins with baptism and is reinforced by culture, has never left me but in my faith journey I’ve chosen five life-changing or conversion experiences to share with you here:
The second Vatican Council in the early 1960s when I was still a teenager was my first conversion experience.
The windows of the Tridentine Church were thrown open and the world invited in; we came to see ourselves as the People of God.
There was Mass in the vernacular and lay participation in ministry. Not long after I left school I became a lay reader in my parish and I was converted to the idea of lay ministry.
Transformation of death
My second conversion experience occurred with the accidental death of my younger brother when I was 14 and this irrevocably changed the way I viewed the world. I think the depth of spirituality that had been laid down helped me come to terms with such a loss at a time when counselling was not an option generally available.
Compared to my peers I was a rather serious teenager having had to face the reality of life-beyond-death questions so early, but I was converted to knowing my God was always there for me, even when I found it hard to keep believing.
My third example, the call to mission came when I was 20 and comes closest to the experience of Paul hearing the voice of God.
There had been much talk of vocation in the Catholic schooling process; boys were invited to think about becoming priests, and girls about joining a religious community. I’d had my arguments with God about this particular option but still felt called to mission in some way.
Then I was offered the opportunity to go to New Guinea as a volunteer on a mission station. I was in St Mary of the Angels at Mass in the middle of the working day when a shaft of light came in through those stained glass windows and I knew I would say ‘yes’.
For the next two years I lived among the Buin people on Bougainville Island. This was a completely different cultural experience and I learned much about lay involvement in the church.
The catechist system was already well established there and catechists in each village carried out religious instruction and conducted liturgies. Every three months or so the priest would visit them but by and large these people took responsibility for their own faith communities with great dignity and wisdom.
I also learned a great deal about my own culture from that distance especially about the gaps in my own Maoritanga. I returned home with a heightened consciousness of the importance of honouring the Treaty of Waitangi in Aotearoa New Zealand and hearing a fourth conversion experience in a call to social justice.
Justice for all
In the church I had first learnt Christian social justice principles and by the time I returned home the church had set up a commission for Justice, Peace and Development and was running structural analysis workshops. Through these I was converted to the idea of a just society for all.
With the rise of second-wave feminism in the 1970s, becoming a feminist convert was another extension of this social justice tradition—a paradox when the church even now is called ‘the last bastion of sexism’.
I said ‘yes’ to the call to work for justice in gender relationships and this continues to be one of the issues about which I am passionate.
As well as some activism in regard to gender roles in the church, this has also involved reading feminist theologians and challenging and rethinking the male-dominant images of God available to us, especially in the liturgy.
For feminists in the churches, the challenge is whether to leave, to operate on the margins or to try to reform it from the inside.
So far I’ve chosen to stay, but it’s getting harder. The ideals of Vatican II are growing dimmer as fundamentalism, conservatism and retrenchment gain the upper hand.
It has been good to reread of some of the challenges the early Christian communities faced in Paul’s time. This reminded me also of the importance of being a Christian in community and of prioritising the collective good. I’m not on this journey on my own.
For me conversion is not so much about faith—I’m the doubting Thomas type—but it is certainly about hope and love and about living out transformative theologies that enable and empower us all as the people of God.