Saint Paul's Conversion

(A.D. 34: Feast January 25)

Only one feast in the Church’s liturgical calendar commemorates a conversion, but a conversion certainly worth commemorating. It is that of St. Paul, whom Christ called in a unique manner to become his apostle to the Gentiles.

On three occasions the Acts of the Apostles recounts this marvelous vocation. Paul himself is the source of the information, and he always recounts it with gratitude and unfailing wonder.

Paul (originally Saul) was a Jew born in Tarsus, a Roman citizen in civil status, but a convinced follower of his ancestral faith. His parents brought him to Jerusalem when he was young, and he received instruction in the Law of Moses from a learned and devout rabbi, Gamaliel. Gamaliel was of the Pharisees, the strict Jewish party, and Saul, by his own accounting, was strictest of the strict in that party.

Saul is first mentioned in connection with Christ as a vigorous partisan in the prosecution of the disciples when, after the death of Jesus, they defied the command of the Jewish Sanhedrin to cease preaching in the Savior’s name and winning converts to his Gospel. He took part in the stoning of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Around the year 34, Saul even took the initiative of asking permission of the high priest to go to Damascus, arrest there all Jews who had chosen Christ, and bring them in chains to Jerusalem for punishment.

Saul the persecutor, accompanied by several assistants, set out in zealous fury, but he never got to carry out his mission.

As he was approaching Damascus around noon, he and his associates were suddenly enveloped in a bright light from heaven. All saw it and all fell to the ground. Saul alone, however, saw in the light a vision. It was Jesus himself. Jesus said to him, unheard by the others, “Saul, Saul! Why do you persecute me?”

“Who are you, sir?” Saul asked.

“I am Jesus, the one you are persecuting. Get up and go into the city, where you will be told what to do.”

When Saul arose he found himself blind. So he who had come to Damascus to destroy, entered the city disabled and led by the hand of a companion. (He had not been struck from his horse, by the way. That is an artist’s conception. He and his fellows had evidently made the trip on foot.) At Damascus Saul lodged with a Jew named Judas. For three days, the blind man touched neither food nor drink. Then Jesus appeared to a Damascus Christian named Ananias, and instructed him to go to Judas’ house and heal Saul body and soul. Ananias hesitated, for he had heard of Paul’s coming to persecute the local Christians. But Jesus said, “You must go! This man is an instrument I have chosen to bring my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel.”

So Ananias did as he was bidden. Greeting Saul, he said he had been “sent by the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the way here, to help you recover your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Then he laid his hands on Saul, who at once recovered his sight, was baptized, and, having taken some food, recovered his strength. After staying a few days with the Christians whom he had come to arrest, he himself started preaching in the synagogues that Jesus was indeed the Son of God!

That was the beginning of Paul’s intensive apostolic career. (He eventually changed his name from Saul to Paul while preaching in Cyprus.) The story of that career need not be told here, except to point out that through his mission to the Gentiles, that faith was established that you and I, as Gentiles, rejoice to profess.

Back in 1989-1990 we witnessed the opening of the Berlin Gate and the collapse of the Iron Curtain. Everybody was amazed, but too few recognized in these events the hand of God. God has endowed all men with free wills, yet He remains all-mighty, able to inspire us to want to change our minds and wills. That is the strongest lesson of St. Paul’s conversion: the marvelous workings of divine grace.

--Father Robert F. McNamara