As we remember the Conversion of Saint Paul, it is important for us to consider what “conversion” is and how it relates to Saint Paul. From there we can consider what insight the Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul has for our own journey.
Words like “conversion” or “convert” are common within the Catholic world. I retell my conversion story every December. Adults that join the Catholic faith might tell a loved one: “I converted to Catholicism!” In mathematics we speak of the conversion factor that is involved in changing a unit. Even chemistry deals with types of conversion. In every situation we see in “conversion” a word that describes “change.” In Latin, it refers to a kind of change like that of turning around. The Greek refers to a turning or a change of mind. In the early Church, and in some ancient liturgies from the Eastern Church today, the idea of conversion as a turning or change was embodied when the rejection of Satan and sin was made facing the West (shadow) and the belief in God was made after the people turned to face the East (light). The physical act of turning around is a symbol of the process of conversion.
Conversion, changing, is the response to Jesus: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mk 1:15, NRSVCE). Jesus’ coming to save us, conversion, repenting, all of these things are countercultural by today’s standards. They all presume a basic truth: I am not okay; we are not okay. If I am fine as I am then Jesus would be unnecessary. Yet, Jesus is necessary. I need a savior. I need help. We all need help. As G.K. Chesterton put it, “Not only are we all in the same boat, but we are all seasick.” There is no Jesus without conversion and repentance; and there is no heaven without Jesus. If conversion is a turning around, then it implies a recognition that I was heading the wrong way.
This kind of change is described by the Church as “a radical reorientation of our whole life, a return, a conversion to God with all our heart, an end of sin, a turning away from evil, with repugnance toward the evil actions we have committed. At the same time it entails the desire and resolution to change one's life, with hope in God's mercy and trust in the help of his grace” (CCC, 1431). Conversion requires all of who we are. It also requires us to realize that not only were we heading in the wrong direction but that it was wrong, it was not good. While we are sorrowful, we are also thankful for the new life that God alone makes possible. Yet, it is a process that is not primarily about my effort. It is a work of God. God helps me to realize I am heading in the wrong direction and God helps me turn around. “God must give man a new heart. Conversion is first of all a work of the grace of God who makes our hearts return to him...It is in discovering the greatness of God's love that our heart is shaken by the horror and weight of sin and begins to fear offending God by sin and being separated from him” (CCC, 1432).
The Church sees two primary ways of talking about conversion. There is initial conversion and ongoing conversion. Both are intimately tied to the sacramental life of the Church. Initial conversion is oriented towards and made possible by Baptism. “Baptism is the principal place for the first and fundamental conversion. It is by faith in the Gospel and by Baptism that one renounces evil and gains salvation, that is, the forgiveness of all sins and the gift of new life” (CCC, 1427). Ongoing conversion occurs after Baptism. “Christ's call to conversion continues to resound in the lives of Christians. This second conversion is an uninterrupted task for the whole Church” (CCC, 1428). While ongoing conversion is not reduced to the sacraments alone, the ongoing conversion of the baptized is made possible in a unique way by Confession, which is also called the Sacrament of Conversion, and the Eucharist, which is the source and nourishment for conversion (CCC, 1423, 1436). There is no conversion without the sacraments.
The Conversion of Saint Paul
Saint Paul, also known as Saul, was passionate about his Jewish faith; he was a pharisee who studied under Gamaliel. His zeal eventually sought the persecution of Christians (1 Cor 15:9-10). We need to consider what we mean by persecution. Paul sought the end of Christianity. He even used violence against Christians (Gal 1:13-14, 1 Tim 1:13). He was present for the killing of the first Christian martyr, Saint Stephen (Acts 7:58-8:1). Prior to his conversion he was “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord” (Acts 9:1). He admitted that he “persecuted this Way [Christians] up to the point of death by binding both men and women and putting them in prison” (Acts 22:4). Lastly, I want to draw your attention to how he described this time in his life to King Agrippa: “I also cast my vote against them when they were being condemned to death. By punishing them often in all the synagogues I tried to force them to blaspheme; and since I was so furiously enraged at them, I pursued them even to foreign cities” (Acts 26:10-11). His hate for Jesus Christ and Christians, and his desire to defeat the Church, consumed his life. He was going the wrong way. He was not moving closer to Christ but against Christ. He was not okay. He needed change.
The Conversion of Saint Paul shows us that conversion is about change and it is something that is the work of God.
Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” He answered, “Here I am, Lord.” The Lord said to him, “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.” But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength. -Acts 9:1-19
Most people will not have a conversion experience like this. Yet, all authentic conversion experiences will have the same elements: (1) it is made possible by God, (2) it brings about a change, (3) and it is connected to the sacraments.
Consider the change in Saint Paul’s life that resulted in this conversion. His relationships changed, his income changed, his habits changed and his focus in life changed. There is no way to miss the change. Could the same be said of us? This kind of change is articulated well in the chorus of Matt Maher’s song “The In Between.”
I was one way
But now I am different
There was a clear change in
A Holy collision
Who I was
And who I'll forever be
And He was the in between
(see below the post for the music video)
I was baptized on March 23rd many years ago. For my ongoing conversion, I need to consider whether the Eucharist and Confession are central to my life as a fruitful and sacramental encounter with the Lord. To deepen my sacramental life, I might consider:
Going to weekday Mass more often
Making a monthly or weekly Holy Hour of Eucharistic Adoration
Studying the Eucharist
Making a regular and prayerful Examination of Conscience
Going to Confession more regularly
Studying the Sacrament of Confession
One other lesson from Paul’s conversion for us today is that it was a change that could not be separated from mission. Just as there is no conversion apart from the sacraments, there is no missionary work apart from conversion. Consider the Mass prayer from the Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul:
O God, who taught the whole world through the preaching of the blessed Apostle Paul, draw us, we pray, nearer to you through the example of him whose conversion we celebrate today, and so make us witnesses to your truth in the world. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God, for ever and ever.
We pray at this Mass for God to make us witnesses as he did with Saint Paul. We pray not only for change from sin to God, but for a love of God and neighbor that results in missionary activity. God’s love in our life cannot be contained. It spills over into everything, just as it did with Saint Paul. God’s love spills over and gets everything in our lives wet.
When we remember the Conversion of Saint Paul, we also remember the source of missionary activity that brings about real change in our homes and communities, the God who changes hearts.
Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction. -Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, 1