THE FEAST OF THE CONVERSION OF SAINT PAUL JANUARY 25, 2009, THE YEAR OF SAINT PAUL (Liturgical Texts: Acts 22:3-16; 1Cor 7:29-31; Mk 16:15-18) Msgr. Kevin T. McMahon Cathedral Basilica of St Louis
The Acts of the Apostles presents an account of St. Paul’s conversion and commissioning as an Apostle in three places – in Chapter 9, in Chapter 22, which we just heard, and in Chapter 26. Each account is given in a different setting and emphasizes points of particular relevance to the individuals and groups being addressed. However, they all include a detailed description of the central point, which is Paul’s personal encounter with the Risen Lord Jesus. The scene is familiar to us all: Paul, a zealous persecutor of Christianity, is en route to Damascus to arrest Jewish Christians and to bring them back to Jerusalem where they will be tried and possibly executed for abandoning the faith of their fathers and becoming Christians. On the road, Paul encounters the Risen Lord, who identifies Himself as Jesus whom he is persecuting. Paul does not ask why or how this is so, rather he immediately understands that the union between Christ and His disciples is such that to persecute the Church, which is the Body of Christ, is to persecute Christ Himself. This was a complete revelation to Paul although he had witnessed the willingness of Christ’s followers to embrace suffering and death in union with the passion and death of their Master. Seeing Christ and His Church as one, led Paul to discover the meaning of St. Stephen’s martyrdom as a sacrificial act joined to the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Paul now understood what Stephen and all those who had accepted death rather than deny Jesus died proving; namely, that they were one with Christ. In his physical blindness, Paul is given internal sight and so moves closer to the Light. After this conversion, Jesus requires even more of Paul. He is to carry the name of Jesus to “the Gentiles, and kings and the sons of Israel” (Acts 9:15). As Paul would demonstrate throughout the rest of his life, the effects of this encounter with Jesus on him were profound. In every respect, Paul was changed forever. Paul, the Pharisee, who, as he put it, “…was convinced that I ought to do many things in opposing the name of Jesus of Nazareth” (Acts 26: 9-11), was now an Apostle of Christ. Christ entrusted Paul with a daunting task. As Paul himself describes it, Christ sent him to the Gentiles “to open their eyes, that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me” (Acts 26:18). Indeed, Paul’s mission reflects the very purpose of the Church, which is to bring Christ’s redemptive love to the people of every age and every land. A living-faith in Jesus –- Christian life itself — is all about redemptive love and redemptive living. Like the Eleven apostles in today’s gospel, Paul had a particular role to play in the Lord’s saving action. He was sent into the world to proclaim the Gospel to every creature, so that they may be saved through baptism. Scripture attests that Paul received many of the gifts promised by Christ in today’s Gospel to those who believe in him. He experienced the forgiveness of his own sins, he drove out demons, healed the sick, spoke new languages, and was unharmed by the bite of an Asp. He converted many pagans to Jesus and established or ministered to Christian communities in places like Thessalonika, Philippi, Galatia, Ephesis, Corinth, Colossae, and Rome. But, as Jesus had also promised His disciples, Paul knew persecution as well. As the Acts of the Apostles and his own letters to these Christian communities demonstrate, Paul preached the message of Christ crucified, and willingly accepted a share in that suffering himself. He experienced disappointment and disillusionment because of his own personal failings and those of the Christian community. These included the backsliding of converts into their former sinful ways, and the divisive disputes within the Church regarding the specific demands of Christian life. He was deeply saddened at seeing the diverse gifts of the Spirit used to divide rather than to unite the Body of Christ. He was even driven to anger by the erroneous teachings of some leaders within the Christian community, and by the allegiance given to them by those who had professed Jesus Christ as their one Lord and Savior. But, through it all, Paul fulfilled the mandate of Christ to preach the Gospel, whether welcomed or un-welcomed, with a firm hope in the resurrection and life eternal. His dedication to spreading the Gospel brought Paul ever closer to his Lord, culminating in the triumphal proclamation of his self-surrender: “It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). On June 28, 2008, the Eve of the Solemnity of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, Pope Benedict XVI designated June 2008 to June 2009 as the Year of St. Paul, and in his homily given at Vespers that evening he highlighted his own aspirations for the year by issuing this invitation to us: Dear brothers and sisters, as in early times, today too Christ needs apostles ready to sacrifice themselves. He needs witnesses and martyrs like St. Paul. Paul, a former violent persecutor of Christians, when he fell to the ground dazzled by the divine light on the road to Damascus, did not hesitate to change sides to the Crucified One and followed him without second thoughts. He lived and worked for Christ, for him he suffered and died. How timely is his example today! On this feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, we are asked to examine our own apostolic zeal. We are invited to think about our own personal encounter with the Risen Lord in Baptism, by which sin was replaced with God’s grace, and we were incorporated into the Body of Christ and commissioned by Him to live holy lives. St. Paul was a Jew and a Pharisee who witnessed to Christ before his fellow Jews, even though they considered the new Way apostasy. He was a well educated citizen of Rome who proclaimed the Gospel to Greeks and Romans, even when they rejected and scorned him. Paul would not deny Christ or His message, even when threatened with imprisonment and death. In light of the witness of St. Paul and the mandate of Christ to us, we might well ask: Have we done our share to spread the Gospel and to build up the Kingdom of God by our service to Christ in His Church? Have we loved God and our neighbor as we ought? Have we developed the mind and heart of Jesus, and lived the Beatitudes, which find concrete expression in the spiritual and corporal works of mercy? Or, to put it negatively, have we done anything to impede the Church in fulfilling the mandate of Christ to preach the Gospel? Have we failed to live our faith in the past, do we fail to do so in the present? Do we limit the demands of faith to what is convenient, or express it only when we know that it will be well received? Do we ever dismiss the teachings of the Church as outmoded and naive, perhaps in an attempt to be viewed as intellectually sophisticated, objective, urbane, or just “with-it”? Do we try to convince ourselves of the lie that it is possible to follow Christ while rejecting the teachings of His Church? Whether at home, at work or in social settings, do we accept or even join in on what is becoming a relentless and often public mockery of the Church and a vilification of her Apostles? In brief, do we ever, in counter distinction to Paul, abandon the Crucified One to gain the favor of those who persecute Him? In Paul’s time, as in our own, the Gospel is counter cultural. The demands of conversion are not always well received by those who are committed to doing evil. If they sought to kill the Righteous One because He was obnoxious to them, they will certainly seek to silence those who teach the truth in His name. When they are not able to embarrass us into silence by ridiculing the tenants of our faith, they may drag us into courts or, as in some places in the world today, put us to death. In 1990 Pope John Paul II invited us to reignite our dedication to redemptive living: The mission of Christ the Redeemer, which is entrusted to the Church is still very far from completion. As the second Millennium after Christ’s coming draws to an end, an overview of the human race shows that this mission is still only beginning and that we must commit ourselves wholeheartedly to its service. It is the Spirit who impels us to proclaim the great works of God (Redemptoris Missio, No. 90). By the example of St. Paul, may we be led to encounter our Lord anew, to firm up our conversion from sin and to deepen the life of grace within us. May we be attentive to the tasks the Lord is asking us to undertake for our own good and for the salvation of the world. In everything, may we remember that our redemption in Christ is the fullest expression of God’s love for us, and that our mission is to make His loving presence known to all the world. Paul encourages Christians to carry on the redemptive mission of Jesus with full confidence in the power of His love, and reminds us all that true love, Christian love, “…bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. [Through the example of Paul we must come to hold on to the truth that this] Love never ends” (1 Cor 13:7-8).