The Starting Point of the Turnaround, The Anchor, November 28, 2008

Fr. Roger J. Landry
The Anchor
Putting Into the Deep
November 28, 2008

One of the great joys for me during this Year of St. Paul has been the opportunity to preach and teach about this great hero of our faith. I have been able to preach on St. Paul more in the past five months than I have in all nine of my previous years as a priest combined. In addition to focusing on the second reading selections from his epistles during my Sunday homilies and leading a parish Bible study on his letters, I have also had the privilege to lead two retreats and parish missions on him — in Virginia, New Jersey, Michigan and in the Archdiocese of Boston — with others to come during Lent in Alabama and Louisiana. The opportunities have helped me to get much deeper into St. Paul’s personality, the events of his life, his teachings and how he practiced what he preached.

One of the things about his life that I have been increasingly drawn to is the “prehistory” of his dramatic conversion. I’ve thought about the first Christians in Jerusalem, in the first few years after Jesus’ resurrection, and how shocked they would have been that, about 1970 years later, we, their spiritual ancestors, would be celebrating the 2000th anniversary of his birth. In the early 30s, they would almost certainly have been rueing the day of his birth.

After all, Paul was so convinced that the Christians were blasphemers — not merely violating the Mosaic law about circumcision, the Sabbath, and dietary restrictions, and proclaiming that a crucified, criminal carpenter was not just the Messiah, but the incarnate Son of God, violating God’s oneness— that with tremendous zeal he was invading their homes throughout Palestine and dragging them in chains before the Sanhedrin.

After St. Stephen was falsely accused of uttering blasphemous words against Moses, the temple, the law and God, he was dragged out of the city gates of Jerusalem and stoned to death under the supervision of Saul, the Hebrew name by which the Jews called Paul.

As he was being pelted by rocks, in close imitation of the Lord Jesus’ first and last words from the Cross, St. Stephen prayed for two things: that God would receive his spirit and that God would not hold this sin against his executioners. He was praying for his persecutors, doing good to those who hated him, loving his enemies until the end.

Those prayers must have had a huge impact on Paul. St. Stephen was beseeching God for mercy on him as he was mercilessly turning the ancient firing squad on Stephen. Both of St. Stephen’s prayers were heard. Many of the early saints of the Church have taught that this was the real beginning of Paul’s conversion.

This episode teaches us the important lesson that we should never give up on praying for anyone’s conversion, for no one is truly beyond the reach of God’s grace. If God can turn the worst persecutor of the early Church into its greatest preacher and promoter, then we should never stop praying for the conversion of others, even and especially those who may seem least likely to convert.

A tremendous illustration of this truth has just come to us from Serbia. It involves a doctor named Stojan Adasevic, who for 26 years was the most infamous abortionist in the former Yugoslavia. He took the lives of more than 48,000 unborn boys and girls — more than the total population of Attleboro. He was a staunch defender of the practice of abortion in the Yugoslavian media, repeating the party line of the Communist regime that he was merely eliminating “blobs of tissue. Nevertheless, the Christians in the country, both Catholic and Orthodox, never stopped praying for his conversion.

Adasevic began to be haunted by nightmares brought about by his gruesome daily work. One evening he dreamed about a field full of children, ages 4-24. They were playing and laughing, but, whenever they saw him, they ran away in fear. While this was occurring, he saw a man dressed in a black and white habit staring at him in silence.

For weeks this dream was repeated each night and he would awaken in a cold sweat.

One night in the dream, Adasevic asked the man in black and white who he was. The man responded, “My name is Thomas Aquinas,” a name that meant absolutely nothing to him, since Adasevic had never heard of the famous 13th century Dominican doctor of the Church.

“Why don’t you ask me who these children are?,” St. Thomas asked him in the dream. “They are the ones you killed with your abortions,” Aquinas said.

Adasevic awakened, haunted by the dialogue.

That same day, a cousin came to visit him in the hospital with his girlfiend, who was four months pregnant and desirous of having an abortion. She had already aborted eight previous children. Despite his being tormented by the nightmare of earlier that morning, Adasevic did once more what he had nearly 50,000 times before.

Normally his technique of preference was to dismember the unborn child and remove him or her piece by piece. This time, however, he decided to bludgeon the baby to death and remove the body intact. When he removed the crushed baby cousin’s body, however, the heart was still beating. At that moment, Adasevic realized that he had killed a human being, and that he had been killing as many as 35 human beings a day for the previous two and a half decades.

His own heart began to beat with contrition. He informed the hospital that he would no longer perform abortions. The communist authorities were infuriated at his decision. They retaliated by getting the hospital to cut his salary in half, they fired his daughter from her job and prevented his son from getting into college. They, in short, did everything to make his life and the lives of his family members as miserable as possible.

After years of pressure, he was about to cave in. Then he had another dream. St. Thomas Aquinas appeared to him again. “You are my good friend,” the black-and-white habited friar said to him. “Keep going!”

Fortified by this supernatural sign, he pressed onward. He returned to the Orthodox faith of his childhood. He began to study the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas. He got involved in the pro-life movement and was able to get Serbian television twice to air the film, “The Silent Scream,” by the famous American abortionist convert, Dr. Bernard Nathanson. Now his remarkable story is becoming known around the world.

When asked why God in his Providence had had St. Thomas Aquinas appear to him, Adasevic replied that he believes it is because the Angelic Doctor’s teachings about delayed ensoulment have been manipulated by so many — like Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Vice President-elect Joseph Biden — erroneously to justify the practice of abortion. He thinks that St. Thomas is trying to “make amends” for the evil done by those citing him out of context to justify a practice St. Thomas always opposed.

Adasevic decided to dedicate the rest of his life to fight for the lives of the unborn. Once one of the worst enemies of the unborn, he is now one of their staunchest defenders. Few would have thought years ago that this doctor of death would be winning international pro-life awards, but that didn’t stop Christians from praying for his conversion. I like to think that some of his 48,000 victims were praying for his conversion, too, before the throne of God. Like with St. Stephen’s supplications, those prayers were heard.

We’re living in a time when faithful Catholics are rightly horrified at the prospect that our new president-elect and Congressional leaders will actually fulfill their campaign promises to push for the Freedom of Choice Act, which will eliminate every restriction to the killing of the unborn in the womb.

It’s a time for us not to lose hope, but to pray for the conversion of all those who support abortion. No one is outside the reach of God’s grace. Even the most unlikely can convert. St. Paul and Stojan Adasevic will be praying alongside of us.