Reflection on the Conversion of St Paul
Francis D. Kelly
Superior of the Casa Santa Maria Pontifical North American College
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 two options — 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 persecuting me?".
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 conversion — 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 Nero.
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 Spirit.
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 civilizations".
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).
Weekly Edition in English
27 January 2010, page 10
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