|One Spirit and one hope
It appears that the
earliest focus of this day's feast was the transfer of St Paul's relics
from the catacomb of St Sebastian to the great Basilica built in his
honor outside the city walls of ancient Rome. In 2006 it was announced
that the stone coffin containing the relics of St Paul had been
unearthed for the first time in centuries and exposed for public view
under the High Altar of the present Basilica. On this day each year the
Pope goes to this Basilica to lead Solemn Evening Prayer.
Only in 717 AD do we first
find this feast referred to as the Conversion of St Paul in an English
liturgical calendar. This focus, however, quickly dominated and became
the chief object and title of the feast.
Today marks the conclusion
of the eight day Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity first promoted by
Fr Paul Watson, an Anglican priest and convert to Catholicism in the
twentieth century. St Paul's constant focus on unity in the Christian
community makes this a fitting coincidence: "There is but one body and
one Spirit, just as there is but one hope given all of you by your call.
There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all who
is over all, and works through all, and is in all" (Eph 4:4-6). Our
observance of this feast should include prayer that this truth be more
fully made manifest.
1. "What shall I do, sir?" (Acts 22:10)
The first Reading of today's Mass (the lectionary offers
Acts 22 or Acts 9) documents in dramatic fashion the moment of St Paul's
personal encounter with the Risen Christ. He was struck down on the way
to Damascus by the presence of Jesus: "Saul, Saul, why are you
Christ calls Saul by name,
reproves him for his persecution of the Christians
with whom Jesus identifies himself
and is told "now get up and go into the city and you will be told what
you must do" (Acts 9:6-7).
"The central element of the
whole experience is the fact of conversion. Destined to evangelize the
Gentiles 'to turn them from darkness to light and from the dominion of
Satan to God that they may obtain the forgiveness of their sins' (Acts
26:18), Saul is called by Christ, above all, to work a radical
conversion upon himself. Saul thus begins his laborious road of
conversion that will last as long as he lives, beginning with unusual
humility with that 'what must I do, Lord?' and docilely letting himself
be led by the hand to Ananias, through whose prophetic ministry it will
be given to him to know God's plan" (John Paul II; Jan. 25,1983).
The start of the conversion
journey of Saul is significantly enveloped in prayer. The now humble and
open Saul gives himself up in prayer to discern and accept God's will.
Ananias is told by Christ
"Ask at the house of Judas for a man from Tarsus named Saul. He is there
praying" (Acts 9:11).
All of us are called to
probably not in a sudden dramatic fashion like Saul
but still constantly day by day we are called ever more to surrender our
lives to Christ. He calls us too by our own name with great mercy and
tenderness; he calls us to abandon our special resistance to his will
and plan for our lives and to conform ourselves to his will and plan.
If we are to respond to
that call we, like Paul, must give ourselves up to prayer, stopping the
whirl of frantic activities and putting ourselves before God, saying
like Paul: "What shall I do?" (Acts 22:10).
We can all also profit in
this lifelong conversion process from the guidance of a spiritual helper
our own Ananias
who can help us in our discernment of God's will.
St Paul's conversion
therefore is not just an interesting historical episode from the
beginning of the Church
it is paradigmatic for our own continued journey of conversion. All of
its elements can be applied to ourselves.
2. "Go into the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to
every creature" (Mk 16:15)
In God's plan, as we see dramatically today, conversion
and mission go together. When God calls, he also gives a mission.
Ananias told Saul: "You will be his witness before all to what you have
seen and heard" (Acts 22:15) .
St Paul's conversion
launches a tireless missionary career that took him all over the Middle
East and ultimately to Rome where he was martyred under the Emperor
Today's feast then reminds
us powerfully of the whole missionary dimension of the Church. The
Responsorial Psalm today repeats Christ's words: "Go out to all the
world and tell the good news" (Mk 16:15). This was Paul's vocation but
it is also the vocation of the whole Church.
We are now in the third
millennium of Christianity. It is said that the first millennium
involved the evangelization of Europe, the second millennium the
evangelization of the Americas and the third millennium the
evangelization of Asia. There are more than a billion Chinese and almost
that many Indians who do not know of God's saving love
"the good news". The Church's mission continues.
In the face of this
challenge, the Church can never be at rest. We know too the
re-evangelization challenge in areas that were once considered
Christian. A true Christian, like Paul the Apostle, will always have a
wide horizon for apostolic zeal.
It is sad and unacceptable
that the Catholic Church in America has lost much of its missionary
fervor. In past decades thousands of priests, sisters and laity went to
all corners of the world to bring the "good news". If this is no longer
the case it demonstrates on a weakening of faith in God's saving plan.
It is not enough for us to exist in cozy narcissistic communities simply
celebrating the faith for ourselves.
"Go into all the world and
preach the Gospel to the whole creation' (Mk 16:15). Christ's command,
which Paul of Tarsus welcomed with generous heart, has continued to
re-echo in the Church, raising up in the course of the centuries bands
of apostles ready to face hardship and toil to bring the word of
salvation to the nations. The Church of today also feels the inner urge
of missionary duty. She desires to serve mankind with all her powers:
and the first fundamental service, essentially linked to her raison
d'etre, is the preaching of the Gospel to every creature.
Fidelity to the Lord's missionary command requires that the Church, in
her own existence, let shine through more clearly the mystery which
constitutes her" (John Paul II, Jan 25, 1986).
3. "Is Christ divided?" (1 Cor 1:13)
This day marks also the
closing of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Paul dealt with the
problem of disunity already in the primitive Church. In the face of
rival factions already emerging in the community of Corinth he
complained: "Has Christ perhaps been divided?" (1 Cor 1:13). Paul's
anguished question is still relevant today.
The divisions among
Christians are one more obstacle to the universal saving mission spoken
in the prior reflection, It confuses and alienates nonbelievers and so
the Church is bound to spare no effort, in its task of restoring
Christian unity. We must pray for it and work for it ceaselessly.
Within the Church and
within every community of the Church there must be a constant vigilance
for unity and harmony. It is easy for our sinful egos to want to focus
narrowly on our own special issues or agendas. We must be more concerned
for the common good. All of us must hear the words of the Saint we honor
today: "Make every effort to preserve the unity which has the Spirit as
its origin" (Eph 4:3). Whatever promotes unity and harmony is from the
It was precisely on this
feast, January 25, 1959, that the newly elected and now Blessed John
XXIII announced in St Paul's Basilica to startled Cardinals his
intention to convoke the Second Vatican Council. That Council described
the Catholic Church as "a sacrament or sign and instrument of intimate
union with God and of the unity of the whole human race" (Constitution
on the Church #1). The Church then must be able to show to an ever more
fractured and divided human family the way to unity. This is her mission
this was the spirit Blessed John XXIII was trying to arouse in the
Church. It is needed today more than ever when we hear of "clashes of
Prayer and efforts at
Christian Unity then cannot end with the conclusion of this week of
special prayer. They must continue throughout the year and we must seize
every opportunity for promoting this goal with trust in the power of God
who can achieve what man deems impossible: "for nothing is impossible
with God" (Lk 1:37).