|St. Paul: "Model of True Christian Conversion"
VATICAN CITY, 5 DEC. 2008 (ZENIT)
Here is the Advent homily Capuchin
Father Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher of the Pontifical Household,
delivered today in the Vatican in the presence of Benedict XVI and the
This is the first of three Advent sermons the preacher will deliver on
the theme "'When the Fullness of Time Had Come, God Sent his Son, Born
of a Woman: Going With St. Paul to Meet the Christ Who Comes."
The next two sermons will be held Dec. 12 and 19.
* * *
"But Whatever Gain I Had, I Counted as a Loss for the Sake of Christ"
The Conversion of St. Paul: Model of True Christian Conversion
The Pauline Year is a great grace for the Church, but it also presents a
danger: that of reflecting on Paul, his personality and his doctrine
without taking the next step from him to Christ. The Holy Father warned
against this risk in the homily with which he proclaimed the Pauline
Year in the general audience of last July 2, stating: "This is the
purpose of the Pauline Year: to learn from St. Paul, to learn the faith,
to learn about Christ."
This danger has occurred so many times in the past, to the point of
giving a place to the absurd thesis according to which Paul, not Christ,
is the real founder of Christianity. Jesus Christ was for Paul what
Socrates was for Plato: a pretext, a name, under which to put his own
The Apostle, as John the Baptist before him, is an index pointing to
one "greater than he," of which he does not consider himself worthy to
be an Apostle. The former thesis is the most complete distortion and the
gravest offense that can be made to the Apostle Paul. If he came back to
life, he would react to that thesis with the same vehemence with which
he reacted in face of a similar misunderstanding of the Corinthians:
"Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?"
(1 Corinthians 1:13).
Another obstacle to overcome, also for us believers, is that of
pausing on Paul's doctrine on Christ, without catching his love and fire
for him. Paul does not want to be for us only a winter sun that
illuminates but does not warm. The obvious intention of his letters is
to lead readers not only to the knowledge of but also to love and
passion for Christ.
To this end I wish to contribute the three meditations of Advent this
year, beginning with this one today, in which we reflect on Paul's
conversion, the event that, after the death and resurrection of Christ,
has most influenced the future of Christianity.
1. Paul's Conversion Seen From Within
The best explanation of St. Paul's conversion is the one he himself
gives when he speaks of Christian baptism as being "baptized into the
death of Christ"
"buried with him" to rise with him and "walk in newness of life" (cf.
Romans 6:3-4). He relived in himself the paschal mystery of Christ,
around which, in turn, all his thought will revolve. There are also
impressive external analogies. Jesus remained three days in the
sepulcher; for three days Saul lived as though dead: He could not see,
stand, eat, then, at the moment of baptism, his eyes reopened, he was
able to eat and gather his strength; he came back to life (cf. Acts
Immediately after his baptism, Jesus withdrew to the desert and so
did Paul, after being baptized by Ananias, he withdrew to the desert of
Arabia, namely, the desert around Damascus. Exegetes estimate that there
were some 10 years of silence in Paul's life between the event on the
road to Damascus and the start of this public activity in the Church.
The Jews sought him to death, the Christians did not yet trust him and
feared him. His conversion recalls that of Cardinal Newman, whose former
brothers of Anglican faith considered a renegade and Catholics looked
upon with suspicion because of his new and ardent ideas.
The Apostle had a long novitiate; his conversion did not last a few
minutes. And it is in this his kenosis, in this time of deprivation and
silence that he accumulated that bursting energy and light that one day
would pour over the world.
We have two descriptions of Paul's conversion: one that describes the
event, so to speak, from outside, on a historical note, and another that
describes the event from within, on a psychological or autobiographical
note. The first type is the one we find in the three relations that we
read about in the Acts of the Apostles. To it also belong some
references that Paul himself makes of the event, explaining how from
being a persecutor he became an apostle of Christ (cf. Galatians
The second type belongs to Chapter 3 of the Letter to the
Philippians, in which the Apostle describes what the encounter with
Christ meant to him subjectively, what he was before and what he became
afterward; in other words, in what the change in his life consisted
existentially and religiously. We will concentrate on his text that, by
analogy with the Augustinian work, we can describe as "the confessions
of St. Paul."
In every change there is a "terminus a quo" and a "terminus ad quem,"
a point of departure and a point of arrival. The Apostle describes first
of all the point of departure, that which was first:
"If any other man thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I
have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of
the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law a
Pharisee, as to zeal a persecutor of the Church, as to righteousness
under the law blameless" (Philippians 3:4-6).
We can easily make a mistake in reading this description: These were
not negative titles, but the greatest titles of holiness of the time.
With them Paul's process of canonization could have been opened
immediately, if it had existed at that time. It is as if to say of one
today: baptized the eighth day, belonging to the structure par
excellence of salvation, the Catholic Church, member of the most austere
order of the Church (the Pharisees were this!), most observant of the
Instead, there is a point at the top of the text that divides in two
the page and life of Paul. It is divided by an adverse "but" that
creates a total contrast: "But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss
for the sake of Christ. Indeed I count everything a loss because of the
surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have
suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that
I may gain Christ" (Philippians 3:7-8).
In this brief text the name of Christ appears three times. The
encounter with him has divided his life in two, has created a before and
an after. A very personal encounter (it is the only text where the
Apostle uses the singular "my," not "our" Lord) and an existential
encounter more than a mental one. No one will ever be able to know
in-depth what happened in that brief dialogue: "Saul, Saul!" "Who are
you, Lord? I am Jesus!" He describes it as a "revelation" (Galatians
1:15-16). It was a sort of fusion of fire, a beam of light that even
today, at a distance of 2,000 years, illuminates the world.
2. A Change of Mind
We will attempt to analyze the content of the event. It was first of
all a change of mind, of thought, literally a metanoia. Up to now Paul
believed he could save himself and be righteous before God through the
scrupulous observance of the law and the traditions of the fathers. Now
he understood that salvation is obtained in another way. I want to be
found, he says, "not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but
that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that
depends on faith" (Philippians 3:8-9). Jesus made him experience in
himself that which one day he would proclaim to the whole Church:
justification by grace through faith (cf. Galatians 2:15-16;
Romans 3:21 ff.).
An image comes to mind when reading the third chapter of the Letter
to the Philippians: A man is walking at night in a thick wood in the
faint light of a candle, being careful that it does not go out; walking,
walking as dawn arrives, the sun comes out, the faint light of the
candle turns pale, to the point that it is no longer useful and he
throws it away. The smoking wick was his own righteousness. One day, in
the life of Paul, the sun of righteousness arose, Christ the Lord, and
from that moment he did not want any other light than his.
It is not a question of a point along with others, but of the heart
of the Christian message. He would describe it as "his Gospel," to the
point of declaring anathema whoever dared to preach a different Gospel,
whether it be an angel or he himself (cf. Galatians 1:8-9). Why such
insistence? Because the Christian novelty consists in this, which
distinguishes it from every other religion or religious philosophy.
Every religious proposal begins by telling men what they must do to save
themselves or to obtain "illumination." Christianity does not begin by
telling men what they must do, but what God has done for them in Christ
Jesus. Christianity is the religion of grace.
There is a place
and how great it is
for the duties and observance of the Commandments, but then, as response
to grace, not as its cause or price. We are not saved by good works,
though we are not saved without good works. It is a revolution of which,
at a distance of 2,000 years, we still try to be aware. The theological
debates on justification through faith of the Reformation and onward
have often hampered rather than favored it because they have kept the
problem at the theoretical level, the texts of opposing schools, rather
than helping believers to have the experience in their life.
3. "Repent, and Believe in the Gospel"
However, we must ask ourselves a crucial question: who is the author
of this message? If it were the Apostle Paul, then those would be right
who say that he, not Jesus, is the founder of Christianity. But he is
not the author; he does no more than express in elaborated and universal
terms a message that Jesus expressed with his typical language, made of
images and parables.
Jesus began his preaching saying: "The time is fulfilled, and the
kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the Gospel" (Mark
1:15). With these words he already taught justification through faith.
Before him, to be converted meant to "go back" (as indicated by the
Hebrew term shub); it meant to return to the broken Covenant, through a
renewed observance of the law. "Return to me [...], return from your
evil ways," God said through the prophets (Zechariah 1:3-4; Jeremiah
Consequently, to be converted has a primarily ascetic, moral and
penitential meaning and it is affected by changing one's conduct of
life. Conversion is seen as a condition for salvation; the meaning is:
Repent and you will be saved; repent and salvation will come to you.
This is the predominant meaning that the word conversion has on the lips
of John the Baptist (cf. Luke 3:4-6). However, on Jesus' lips this moral
meaning takes second place (at least at the beginning of his preaching)
in regard to a new meaning, unknown until now. Manifested also in this
is the epochal leap that is verified between the preaching of John the
Baptist and that of Jesus.
To be converted no longer means to return to the ancient Covenant and
the observance of the law, but to make a leap forward, entering into the
new Covenant, to seize this Kingdom that has appeared, to enter it
through faith. "Repent and believe" does not mean two different and
successive things, but the same action: repent, that is believe; repent
by believing! "Prima conversion fit per fidem," St. Thomas Aquinas would
say, the first conversion consists in believing.
God took the initiative of salvation: He has made his Kingdom come;
man must only accept, in faith, God's offer and live the demands
afterward. It is like a king who opens the door of his palace, where a
great banquet is ready, and, being at the door, invites all passersby to
enter, saying: "Come, all is ready!" It is the call that resounds in all
the so-called parables of the Kingdom: The hour much awaited has struck,
take the decision that saves, do not let the occasion slip by!
The Apostle says the same thing with the doctrine of justification
through faith. The only difference is due to that which has occurred, in
the meantime, between the preaching of Jesus and that of Paul: Christ
was rejected and put to death for the sins of men. Faith in the Gospel
("believe in the Gospel"), is now configured as faith "in Jesus Christ,"
"in his blood" (Romans 3:25).
What the Apostle expresses through the adverb "freely" ("dorean") or
"by grace," Jesus said with the image of receiving the Kingdom as a
child, namely, as a gift, without putting forward merits, appealing only
to the love of God, as children count on the love of their parents.
For some time exegetes have discussed whether or not one must
continue to talk about the conversion of St. Paul; some prefer to speak
of a "call," rather than conversion. There are those who would like the
outright abolition of the feast of the conversion of St. Paul, as
conversion indicates a detachment and a giving up of something, and a
Jew who converts, as opposed to a pagan, must not give up anything, he
must not pass from idols to the worship of the true God.
It seems to me we are before a false problem. In the first place,
there is no opposition between conversion and call: a call implies a
conversion; it does not replace it, as grace does not replace freedom.
However, above all we have seen that evangelical conversion is not about
denying something or going back, but a reception of something new, a
leap forward. To whom was Jesus speaking when he said: "Repent and
believe in the Gospel"? Was he not speaking perhaps of the Jews? The
Apostle referred to this same conversion with the words: "But when a man
turns to the Lord the veil is removed" (2 Corinthians 3:16).
In this light Paul's conversion appears to us as the model of true
Christian conversion that consists first of all in accepting Christ, in
"turning" to him through faith. It is a finding, not a giving up. Jesus
does not say: A man sold all he had and began to look for a hidden
treasure; he said: A man found a treasure and because of this sold
4. A Lived Experience
In the document of agreement between the Catholic Church and the
World Federation of Lutheran Churches on justification through faith,
presented solemnly in St. Peter's Basilica by John Paul II and the
archbishop of Uppsala in 1999, there is a final recommendation that
seems of vital importance to me. In essence, it says this: The moment
has come to make of this great truth a lived experience on the part of
believers, and no longer an object of theological disputes between
experts, as happened in the past.
The Pauline Year offers us the propitious occasion to live this
experience. It could give a shove to our spiritual life, a breath and a
new freedom. Charles Peguy recounted, in the third person, the story of
the greatest act of faith of his life. A man, he said (and it is known
he was speaking of himself) had three sons. On a bad day all three fell
ill at the same time. Then he did something audacious. Thinking about it
again admiringly, it must be said that it really was a daring act. Just
as three children are sometimes gathered together and hoisted, almost
jokingly, into the arms of their mother or nurse, who laughs and says to
take them away because they are too many and too heavy, so he, daring
man that he was, had taken
one understands with prayer
his three sick children and had peacefully put them into the arms of him
who has charge of all the sorrows of the world. "Look," he said, "I give
them to you, I turn and run away, so that you will not give them back to
me. I don't want them any more, you see it well! You must be concerned
with them." (Apart from the metaphor, he had gone on foot on a
pilgrimage from Paris to Chartres to entrust his three sick children to
Our Lady). From that day on, everything went well, naturally, because it
was the Holy Virgin who was involved. It is also curious that not all
Christians do as much. It is so simple, but no one ever thinks of what
The story is useful to us at this moment because of the idea of the
audacious act; because it relates to what is being discussed. The key to
everything, it is said, is faith. But there are different types of
faith: there is faith-assent of the intellect, faith-trust,
faith-stability, as Isaiah calls it (7:9): of what faith does one refer
to when speaking of justification "through faith"? It is a question of
an all-together special faith: faith-appropriation!
Let us listen to St. Bernard on this point who says, "What I cannot
obtain by myself, I appropriate (usurp!) with trust from the pierced
side of the Lord, because he is full of mercy. My merit, therefore, is
God's mercy. I am certainly not poor in merits, as long as he is rich in
mercy. If the mercies of the Lord are many (Psalm 119:156), I too will
abound with merits. And what about my justice? O Lord, I will remember
only your justice. In fact, it is also mine, because you are for me
justice on the part of God." It is written, in fact, that "Christ
Jesus ... became for us wisdom, righteousness, sanctification and
redemption" (1 Corinthians 1:30)
for us, not for himself!
St. Cyril of Jerusalem expressed, with other words, the same idea of
the audacious act of faith: "O extraordinary goodness of God toward men!
The righteousness of the Old Testament pleased God in the toil of long
years; but what they were able to obtain, through a long and heroic
service acceptable to God, Jesus gives to you in the brief space of an
hour. In fact, if you believe that Jesus Christ is the Lord and that God
has resurrected him from the dead, you will be saved and introduced into
paradise by the same one who introduced the good thief."
Imagine, writes Cabasilas, when developing an image of St. John
Chrysostom, that an epic fight is taking place in the stadium. A
courageous man has confronted the cruel tyrant and, with enormous effort
and suffering, has beaten him. You have not fought, you have made no
effort or suffered wounds. However, if you admire the courageous man, if
you rejoice with him over his victory, if you weave a crown for him,
stir and shake the assembly for him, if you bow with joy to the winner,
if you kiss his head and shake his right hand; in sum, if you are so
delirious for him as to consider his victory yours, I tell you that you
will certainly have a part of the winner's prize.
But there is more: Suppose the winner had no need of the prize he
won, but desires, more than anything else, to see his supporter honored
and considers the prize of his fight the crowning of his friend, in such
a case, will that man, perhaps, not obtain the crown if he has not
toiled or suffered wounds? Of course he will obtain it! Well, it happens
in this way between Christ and us. Although not having yet toiled and
although not having yet any merit
nevertheless, through faith we extol Christ's struggle, admire his
victory, honor his trophy which is the cross and valuable for him, we
show vehement and ineffable love; we make our own those wounds and that
death. Thus it is that salvation is obtained.
The Christmas liturgy will speak to us of the "holy exchange," of the
"sacrum commercium," between us and God realized in Christ. The law of
every exchange is expressed in the formula: That which is mine is yours
and that which is yours is mine. It derives that, that which is mine,
namely sin, weakness, becomes Christ's; that which is Christ's, namely
holiness, becomes mine. Because we belong to Christ more than to
ourselves (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:19-20), it follows, writes Cabasilas,
that, inversely, the holiness of Christ belongs to us more than our own
holiness. This is the thrust in the spiritual life. Its discovery is
not done, usually, at the beginning, but at the end of one's own
spiritual journey, when all the others paths have been experienced and
one has seen that they do not go very far.
In the Catholic Church we have a privileged means to have a concrete
and daily experience of this sacred exchange and of justification by
grace through faith: the sacraments. Every time I approach the sacrament
of reconciliation I have a concrete experience of being justified by
grace, "ex opere operato," as we say in theology. I go out to the temple
and say to God: "O God, have mercy on me a sinner" and, like the
publican, I return home "justified" (Luke 18:14), forgiven, with a
brilliant soul, as at the moment I came out of the baptismal font.
May St. Paul, in this year dedicated to him, obtain for us the grace
of making like him this audacious thrust of faith.
* * *
 St. Thomas Aquinas, S. Th., I-IIae, q. 113, a.4.
 Cf. J.M. Everts, "Conversione e Chiamata di Paolo," in "Dizionario
di Paolo e delle sue lettere," San Paolo 1999, pp. 285-298 (summary of
the positions and bibliography).
 Cf. Ch. Peguy, "Il portico del mistero della seconda virtù."
 In Cant. 61, 4-5: PL 183, 1072.
 Catechesis 5, 10: PG 33, 517.
 Cf. N. Cabasilas, "Life in Christ," I, 5: PG150, 517.
 N. Cabasilas, "Life in Christ," IV, 6 (PG 150, 613).
[Translation by ZENIT]