VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Conversion means believing that God became flesh to make all things new and offer his kingdom to everyone, said Cardinal Raniero Cantalamessa, offering the first meditation of Lent for leaders of the Roman Curia and Vatican employees.

Pope Francis was not present for the meditation Feb. 26 in the Vatican’s Paul VI audience hall.

The day also marked the end of a week of spiritual exercises for the pope and Roman Curia; the retreat, however, was not held at the usual retreat center outside of Rome due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, the pope had invited “the cardinals residing in Rome, the heads of dicasteries and the superiors of the Roman Curia to make their own personal arrangements, withdrawing in prayer” from Feb. 21 to 26, the Vatican said Jan. 20.

As is customary during the retreat week, the pope suspended all of his engagements, including his weekly general audience.

In his meditation, Cardinal Cantalamessa talked about how the meaning of “conversion” changed in the New Testament.

Before Jesus, “conversion” meant a call to “turn back,” to stop and return to the covenant made with God, he said. Conversion was “painful,” a moral mandate with a lot of “don’ts” concerning one’s behavior, he added.

Everything changes with Jesus, he said. Now “conversion” is no longer going backward but “a leap forward” to believe in Jesus and enter God’s kingdom to obtain that salvation Jesus came to offer everyone freely.

Conversion also means changing one’s idea of God from a God who “orders, who threatens, to the idea of a God who comes with his hands full to give us everything,” the papal preacher said.

The other meaning of conversion that Jesus offers in the New Testament is when he tells his disciples that if they do not convert and do not become like children, they will not enter into the kingdom of God.

Here, conversion is a movement back in time to when one was without titles, jealousies, rivalries — for example, when the disciples were companions and not competitors, he added.

This is a call to stop having everything revolve around oneself and have it all revolve around Christ, to return to that very first encounter with the Lord, when he was enough and “we believed.”

Conversion is also no longer being lukewarm in the faith, but filled with the burning flame of the Holy Spirit, who makes all endeavors fruitful.

A Christian life that only follows the law and the virtues but does not experience the “enlivening touch” of the Spirit, he said, is like a Mass with the readings and presentation of the gifts, but without the consecration of the species so they just stay the same — bread and wine.

“The secret is to say once, ‘Come, Holy Spirit’ but say it will all your heart, leaving the Spirit free to come the way he wants,” he said.