Feast; Liturgical Color: White
In the long history of the Church no conversion has been more consequential than St. Paul’s. Paul had not been ambivalent towards the Church before he converted it. He had actively persecuted it, even throwing rocks at the head of St. Stephen, in all likelihood. But he changed, or God changed him, on one particular night. And on that night Christianity changed too. And when the course of Christianity changed, the world changed. It is difficult to overemphasize the impact of today’s feast.
One way to think about the significance of an event, whether big small, is to consider what things would be like if the event had never occurred. This is the premise behind the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.” You compare actual life with a hypothetical “what if” alternative scenario. What if St. Paul had remained a zealous jew? What if he had never converted? Never wrote one letter? Never travelled the seas on missionary voyages? It can safely be assumed that the world itself, not just the Church, would look different than it does today. Perhaps Christianity would have remained confined to Palestine for many more centuries before breaking out into wider Europe. Maybe Christianity would have taken a right turn instead of a left, and all of China and India would be as culturally Catholic as Europe is today. It’s impossible to say. But the global scale of the effects of Paul’s conversion speak to the significance of his conversion.
Some conversions are dramatic, some are boring. Some are instantaneous, some are gradual. Augustine heard a boy in a garden repeating “Take and Read” and knew the time had come. St. Francis of Assisi heard Christ say from the cross “Rebuild My Church” and responded with his life. Dr. Bernard Nathanson, the father of abortion in the United States, renounced, repudiated, and repented of his life’s work and searched for a real Church to forgive his real sins. He ultimately bowed his head to receive the waters of baptism.
The details of Paul’s conversion are well known. He was thrown from his horse on the road to Damascus (except that Acts makes no mention of a horse). Maybe he just fell down while walking. While stunned on the ground Paul heard the voice of Jesus: “Why are you persecuting me?” Jesus and the Church are one. To persecute the Church is to persecute Christ. Jesus is the head and the Church is his body. Paul did not convert to loving Jesus and say that the Church was just an accidental human construct that blocked him from the Lord. No, of course not. He believed what right minded Catholics have believed for centuries and still believe today. To love Jesus is to love the Church and vice versa. It is impossible to love the Lord while disregarding the historical reality of how the Lord is communicated to us. The Church is not just a vehicle to carry God’s revelation. The Church is actually part of God’s revelation.
Paul’s conversion teaches us that when Jesus come to us, he doesn’t come alone. He comes with his angels, saints, priests, and bishops. He comes with Mary, the sacraments, doctrine, and devotions. He comes with the Church because he and the Church are one. And when we go to the Lord we don’t go alone either. We go as members of a Church who have received a tradition to meet Jesus who gave it to us. Thus St. Paul heard from God himself, and thus we believe today.
St. Paul, we ask your openness to conversion when we hear the Lord speak to us as he spoke to you. Assist us in responding with great faith to every invitation we receive to love the Lord more fully, to know him more deeply, and to spread his word more broadly to those who need it.
From Butler’s Lives of the Saints:
THE great apostle Paul, named Saul at his circumcision, was born at Tarsus, the capital of Silicia, and was by privilege a Roman citizen, to which quality a great distinction and several exemptions were granted by the laws of the empire. He was early instructed in the strict observance of the Mosaic law, and lived up to it in the most scrupulous manner. In his zeal for the Jewish law, which he thought the cause of God, he became a violent persecutor of the Christians. He was one of those who combined to murder St. Stephen, and in the violent persecution of the faithful which followed the martyrdom of the holy deacon, Saul signalized himself above others. By virtue of the power he had received from the high priest, he dragged the Christians out of their houses, loaded them with chains, and thrust them into prison. In the fury of his zeal he applied for a commission to take up all Jews at Damascus who confessed Jesus Christ, and bring them bound to Jerusalem, that they might serve as examples for the others. But God was pleased to show forth in him His patience and mercy. While on his way to Damascus, he and his party were surrounded by a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, and suddenly struck to the ground. And then a voice was heard saying, “Saul, Saul, why dost thou persecute Me?” And Saul answered, “Who art Thou, Lord?” and the voice replied, “I am Jesus, Whom thou dost persecute.” This mild expostulation of Our Redeemer, accompanied with a powerful interior grace, cured Saul’s pride, assuaged his rage, and wrought at once a total change in him. Wherefore, trembling and astonished, he cried out, “Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?” Our Lord ordered him to arise and to proceed on his way to the city, where he should be informed of what was expected from him. Saul, arising from the ground, found that, though his eyes were open, he saw nothing. He was led by hand into Damascus, where he was lodged in the house of a Jew named Judas. To this house came by divine appointment a holy man named Ananias, who, laying his hands on Saul, said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, Who appeared to thee on thy journey, hath sent me that thou mayest receive thy sight and be filled with the Holy Ghost.” Immediately something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he recovered his sight. Then he arose and was baptized; he stayed some few days with the disciples at Damascus, and began immediately to preach in the synagogues that Jesus was the Son of God. Thus a blasphemer and a persecutor was made an apostle, and chosen as one of God’s principal instruments in the con. version of the world.
Reflection.—Listen to the words of the “Imitation of Christ,” and let them sink into your heart: “He who would keep the grace of God, let him be grateful for grace when it is given, and patient when it is taken away. Let him pray that it may be given back to him, and be careful and humble, lest he lose it.”
Lives of the Saints, by Alban Butler, Benziger Bros. ed.