Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Bernadette Parish, Fall River, MA
Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul
January 25, 2014
Acts 9:1-22, Ps 117, Mt 16:15-18
To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below:
The following points were attempted in the homily:
- Today on this feast of the conversion of Saul of Tarsus — one of the most important events in the history of the world because of the impact this one man had, post-conversion, in spreading the Gospel all over the known world at the time and whose writings have deeply influenced all of Christian theology — it is important to understand what led to his conversion, what his conversion truly was, and what it means for our conversion.
- First, St. Paul’s conversion seems to be, at least partially, the miraculous result of St. Stephen’s prayers. When the first Christian martyr was being stoned to death outside the Jerusalem Gate that now bears his name, the stone-throwing assassins were all laying their cloaks at the feet of Saul, showing that he was presiding over the execution. St. Stephen prayed, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them,” as he was asking Jesus to receive his spirit, echoing Jesus’ own words from the Cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” These prayers were heard. God didn’t hold this sin against Saul. And Jesus Christ met him on the road to Damascus to give him through that forgiveness the gift of conversion
- That brings us to what his conversion was. Many Christians believe St. Paul’s conversion is like most conversions we know of, from an immoral to a moral life. But that wasn’t Saul’s conversion at all. His was from a false notion of a holy life to a true notion. He was a zealous follower of God. He had come down from Turkey to Jerusalem to study at the feet of the greatest rabbi of the age, Gamaliel. As a young man, he had such zeal to keep the community of Israel together that he made it his mission to try to stomp out the heretical sect that was dividing Judaism and blasphemously claiming that a carpenter from Nazareth not only was the Messiah, but the Son of God and would destroy the holy Temple. That’s why he was hunting Christians down. In the persecution of the Church, he was the furthest thing, for example, from Herod, who hunted down the baby Jesus in order to preserve his own privileges. Paul’s conversion was, rather, from a false notion that we are saved by our external adhesion to all the prescriptions of the Mosaic Law, to the true one that we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. We are saved by Christ’s work, not our own. The culmination of the saving life of faith he wrote about in his letter to the Galatians when he said, “I have been crucified with Christ and the life I now live I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself up for me” (Gal 2:20). The true notion of holiness is to die to ourselves so that the Risen Christ truly can live within us, reign within us, sanctify and save us and make us his instruments to co-redeem the world. Holiness is union with God. Since we are saved by grace, and grace is not a thing but a participation as a creature in the life of the Creator, Christian conversion must be continual, because it’s based on a continued encounter with the Lord, as he seeks in us to form us more and more in his image with our free fiat. In St. Paul’s life we see that conversion was not a one-time thing but a continuous reality as he continued to grow in the Gospel that he was fearlessly and faithfully proclaiming.
- St. Paul’s conversion brings us to consider our own . Many of us at daily Mass, thanks be to God, don’t have to convert from a wicked life of sin, debauchery, malevolence and sadism. But many of us, like our Christian brothers and sisters do need to convert from a defective notion of the Christian life. Many Christians are minimalists, coming to Mass “when we can,” praying when we’ve accomplished everything else that was really “important” to do and still have the energy, and keeping the commandments “as best we can” without being “fanatical” about never breaking them. Similarly, many of us are legalists, thinking that if we “pray, pay and obey,” that’s all the Lord asks. If we fast two days a year, don’t eat meat on the Fridays of Lent, avoid mortal sins, then we’re setting ourselves up for the eternal hall of faith. We can live a Christianity without a Cross, seeking the good life of pleasure, money, power and control, without minimally sacrificing ourselves or things for God and others. Others of us are gnostics, thinking that as long as we “know” the truth, then we don’t really have to live it. Others are “promethean semi-Pelagians,” to use Pope Francis’ terms, that, similar to St. Paul in his Pharisaical days, think that all that really matters is our own action. Others think they can live the faith all on their own, without the other members of the Christian community, without a real familial love of neighbor. Others think that all God wants of us is personal piety, without our imitating St. Paul in trying to spread the Gospel to all we know.
- We can multiply the examples, but many are not living by faith in the Son of God, they’re not crucifying themselves to the world and the world to themselves, they’re not seeking to become perfect as the Heavenly Father is perfect, they’re not even making an effort to receive God’s grace truly to embody the beatitudes. Many Christians need to be converted from a defective notion of the spiritual life, of God’s will and hopes for us, to a true one.
- Today is a day in which we pray for the conversion of so many who persecute Christ without even knowing it, those who are caught up in sins for which he was crucified, those who are persecuting his body and making martyrs across the globe. It’s a day for us to pray for our own conversion from any shallow or deficient understanding of the holy life to which God is calling us. It’s a day in which we pray for the grace, like St. Paul, to be so converted that we will say, “Woe to me” if I do not share this gift!
- The great strength of Paul came from his encounter with Jesus Christ not merely on the road to Damascus but every time he, with the early Church, “took bread, and, after he had given thanks, broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.'” The same Lord who met him at the city gates of that Syrian capital comes here to meet us this morning!
The readings for today’s Mass were:
went to the high priest and asked him
for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, that,
if he should find any men or women who belonged to the Way,
he might bring them back to Jerusalem in chains.
On his journey, as he was nearing Damascus,
a light from the sky suddenly flashed around him.
He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him,
“Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”
He said, “Who are you, sir?”
The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.
Now get up and go into the city and you will be told what you must do.”
The men who were traveling with him stood speechless,
for they heard the voice but could see no one.
Saul got up from the ground,
but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing;
so they led him by the hand and brought him to Damascus.
For three days he was unable to see, and he neither ate nor drank.There was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias,
and the Lord said to him in a vision, AAnanias.”
He answered, “Here I am, Lord.”
The Lord said to him, “Get up and go to the street called Straight
and ask at the house of Judas for a man from Tarsus named Saul.
He is there praying,
and in a vision he has seen a man named Ananias
come in and lay his hands on him,
that he may regain his sight.”
But Ananias replied,
“Lord, I have heard from many sources about this man,
what evil things he has done to your holy ones in Jerusalem.
And here he has authority from the chief priests
to imprison all who call upon your name.”
But the Lord said to him,
“Go, for this man is a chosen instrument of mine
to carry my name before Gentiles, kings, and children of Israel,
and I will show him what he will have to suffer for my name.”
So Ananias went and entered the house;
laying his hands on him, he said,
“Saul, my brother, the Lord has sent me,
Jesus who appeared to you on the way by which you came,
that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”
Immediately things like scales fell from his eyes
and he regained his sight.
He got up and was baptized,
and when he had eaten, he recovered his strength.
He stayed some days with the disciples in Damascus,
and he began at once to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues,
that he is the Son of God.
All who heard him were astounded and said,
“Is not this the man who in Jerusalem
ravaged those who call upon this name,
and came here expressly to take them back in chains
to the chief priests?”
But Saul grew all the stronger
and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus,
proving that this is the Christ.
PS 117:1BC, 2
R. (Mark 16:15) Go out to all the world and tell the Good News.
glorify him, all you peoples!
and the fidelity of the LORD endures forever.
Gospel MK 16:15-18
“Go into the whole world
and proclaim the Gospel to every creature.
Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved;
whoever does not believe will be condemned.
These signs will accompany those who believe:
in my name they will drive out demons,
they will speak new languages.
They will pick up serpents with their hands,
and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not harm them.
They will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.”