The necessity of metanoia

by Nicole Trahan


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In his 2014 Apostolic Letter to all Consecrated People to usher in the Year of Consecrated Life, Pope Francis wrote:

Living the present with passion means becoming "experts in communion", "witnesses and architects of the 'plan for unity' which is the crowning point of human history in God's design". In a polarized society, where different cultures experience difficulty in living alongside one another, where the powerless encounter oppression, where inequality abounds, we are called to offer a concrete model of community which, by acknowledging the dignity of each person and sharing our respective gifts, makes it possible to live as brothers and sisters. So, be men and women of communion! Have the courage to be present in the midst of conflict and tension, as a credible sign of the presence of the Spirit who inspires in human hearts a passion for all to be one (cf. Jn 17:21). Live the mysticism of encounter, which entails "the ability to hear, to listen to other people; the ability to seek together ways and means". Live in the light of the loving relationship of the three divine Persons (cf. 1 Jn 4:8), the model for all interpersonal relationships.

In recent months, I've been doing a lot of reflecting on and praying with the call to be experts in communion — to be people who seek encounter and encourage dialogue. As I've reflected on this call, what keeps coming to me is the necessity of metanoia. This Greek word is often translated as "conversion." However, for me the implication is deeper.

Metanoia is a breakdown of current paradigms and their subsequent rebuilding — a change in one's purpose, a turning towards the light — due to a religious or spiritual experience or encounter. I have heard it said that transformation takes community. I would argue that the reverse is also true: community takes transformation. Being people of communion requires metanoia that results from encounter and dialogue.

If I am truly a person of encounter — open to the presence of Christ in the heart of the person in front of me, regardless of differences in opinion, political leanings, race, nationality, gender identity, and other categories — I cannot help but be changed by the experience.

Recently I was on a panel about racism in religious communities of women, as part of the celebration of the 150th anniversary of the presence of the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ in the United States.

At one point in the conversation, I told the sisters gathered that often people do not recognize their biases or unwelcoming attitudes, because they do not encounter as equals people of color or those who are marginalized. They are the people to whom we minister … but not our friends. They are the "other" and not in our social circles.

Coming from my own experiences in my religious community and the larger Marianist Family, I've noted that though we minister to people on the margins, they are rarely our friends, coworkers or people we invite to social gatherings. If we never truly encounter the "other" (however we define that) on an equal footing, then our hearts will never change and we cannot become people of communion.

Standing with the marginalized is a call for the whole church. This begs the question, however, how do we stand with the marginalized? With what attitude or disposition do we stand? The call is not only to stand with the marginalized, but to identify with and become one with the marginalized.

I think it is important to recognize the ways that we are not marginalized ourselves — in what ways am I in a position of power or privilege in relation to the person in front of me? If we recognize that, we can mitigate the harmful impact of such power or privilege.

We cannot necessarily undo privilege — undo the education we have received or change the circumstances of our social location. But if we can recognize and understand our own privilege, we can begin to break down some of the barriers to real encounter, thus giving space for metanoia to occur.

This metanoia requires dialogue in addition to encounter. Our society desperately needs good witnesses of dialogue and bridge building. To solve the issues facing our nation and communities, we need examples of how to disagree without demonizing, and how to engage in conversation.

If we could become those witnesses of what it means to be people of communion —marked by encounter, dialogue and the continual process of metanoia — we can be leaven for a metanoia of our communities, parishes and society at large.

(Adapted from a panel presentation given at the General Chapter of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, June 5, 2018)

[Nicole Trahan is a member of the Daughters of Mary Immaculate (Marianist Sisters) who teaches sophomore religion at Chaminade Julienne Catholic High School, serves as the National Director of Vocations for the Marianist Sisters, and is director of the pre-novitiate program for her province.]