John Wayne and Five Obstacles to Conversion

Homily for the Twenty-Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A.

Two days before he died, John Wayne was received into the Catholic Church. When asked why he took so long to convert, his grandson explained that Wayne regretted not doing it sooner and blamed the busyness of his life. To have been received into the Catholic Church, Wayne would have had to confess his sins, be truly sorry for them, and be absolved of them before receiving the Sacraments of Confirmation, Holy Eucharist, and Anointing of the Sick. Wayne would have had to turn away from sin and turn toward the Lord. We heard in our first reading that if a man “turns from the wickedness he has committed, [if] he does what is right and just, he shall preserve his life; since he has turned away from all the sins that he has committed, he shall surely live, he shall not die.”

What does it take to turn around, to reverse course, to go in the opposite direction? If you throw a baseball straight up into the air, before it begins to fall to the earth, it must first slow down and then eventually stop. Its velocity, its momentum, in an upward direction, must go to zero. If a pendulum is moving toward the left, before it begins to move to the right, it must first slow down and then eventually stop. Its velocity, its momentum, in a leftward direction, must go to zero. If I am driving east on Capital Drive toward the Chick-fil-A in Pewaukee, and I suddenly remember that I’ve already been to Chick-fil-A that week, and my conscience forbids me go a second time, if I want to turn around and head back, my velocity, my momentum, in an eastward direction, must go to zero. Regardless of how I turn around—whether I pull a U-turn or pull into a parking lot—I can’t keep going in the direction I’m going. My movement in that direction must slow down and eventually stop.

Any genuine conversion involves turning around, reversing course, going in the opposite direction. And, consequently, it requires slowing down and eventually stopping. Our velocity, our momentum, must go to zero. This is obviously hard to do. Life keeps moving forward and we want to keep pace. If we don’t, if we slow down or come to a complete stop, we might fall behind and lose ground. At least that’s what we tell ourselves. But the busyness of life—John Wayne’s excuse, and so often our own excuse—is not the only reason why we have a hard time converting, of why we have a hard time turning away from sin and turning toward the Lord. I’d like to suggest five other reasons for this.

The first reason is what the spiritual masters call “acedia.” “Acedia” can be defined as a lack of concern for our spiritual life. Acedia comes from failing to heed Jesus’ words about gaining the whole world but losing our soul. Jesus says there is no profit in this (Mt. 16:26). We can’t take the world with us when we die, but we will take our souls with us. They alone are immortal. If we give into acedia, if we prioritize worldly success over spiritual success, we will never slow down, stop, and convert.

The second obstacle to conversion is worldly success itself. Worldly success is not bad in itself, but it can give us the illusion that all is well spiritually. “If I’ve attained worldly success, I must have attained spiritual success,” that’s how this line of thinking can go. But it’s an illusion: there’s no direct correlation between worldly success and spiritual success. Worldly success can actually act like a kind of opioid which numbs or hides a deep spiritual pain. That’s why Jesus says in our gospel that prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before the chief priests and elders. Public sinners are under no illusion of worldly success. Their spiritual pain is not numbed or covered up; it is laid bare. And because it is laid bare, they are more easily aware of it, and they can slow down, stop, and convert.

The third obstacle to conversion is ignorance. “Perhaps the greatest sin in the world today,” Pope Pius XII said in 1946, “is that men have begun to lose the sense of sin” (Radio Message, October 26, 1946). Almost seventy-five years later, these words ring truer than ever. Prostitutes and tax collectors were labeled public sinners in Jesus’ day. And that label was accurate. They sinned, they did so publicly, and the public labeled them appropriately. Jesus never denied this label. He didn’t reduce them to that label—and that’s an important point, but He didn’t deny it either. Jesus called sinners, “sinners,” and He called them to conversion. To call anyone a sinner these days is to be labeled judgmental, bigoted, and a religious fanatic. There are hardly any public sinners these days, not because people don’t sin, or don’t do so publicly, but because there is hardly any sin which the public considers to be a sin. The only sinners these days are those with whom we disagree, or over whom we are trying to gain power. And if there is no real sin, if there are no real sinners, then there is no need for conversion, and therefore no need to slow down or stop.

The fourth obstacle to conversion is pride. Pride refuses to acknowledge the possibility that we’ve sinned, that we’ve gotten off track, that we’re going in the wrong direction. Pride is willing to make a slight change of course, when it’s easy or convenient, but never an about-face. Pride is like someone who’s trying to solve a math problem, keeps getting the wrong answer, but refuses to admit that their method of solving it is wrong. They keep plowing ahead blinding, instead of erasing their previous work and going back to the point where they made the mistake. Pride refuses to slow down or stop. Pride refuses to convert.

The fifth and final obstacle to conversion is despair. The devil can sometimes convince us that we are unredeemable; that’s there no hope for us; that we’re headed in the wrong direction and there’s no chance of turning back. This is a lie. There is always hope. There is always a chance to turn back. For God’s love is unfathomable and His mercy inexhaustible. “‘Son, go out and work in the vineyard today.’ He said in reply, ‘I will not,’ but afterwards changed his mind and went.” If a man “turns from the wickedness he has committed, [if] he does what is right and just, he shall preserve his life; since he has turned away from all the sins that he has committed, he shall surely live, he shall not die.” This is the joy and hope of our readings today: that by God’s grace we can slow down, we can stop, we can convert.

Perhaps because of busyness, acedia, worldly success, ignorance, pride, or despair you’ve been headed in the wrong direction. Perhaps you’ve been speeding down a path of spiritual death and destruction. Pump the breaks. Slow down. Come to a complete stop. Turn away from sin and turn toward the Lord. He is waiting for you. He does not want you to die, but to live with Him forever. Amen.