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Conversion of Saint Paul

Friday, January 25, 2013

The story of the conversion of Paul, (who used to be Saul) is an interesting one. That example, of an apostle who became the most productive in writing and pastoral activity without having set his eyes on the risen Christ, could be used to understand that Christ never abandoned his disciples after his resurrection.

After the resurrection of Christ and the Pentecost, Peter and the other apostles had started to preach the Gospel. Some of the disciples had started to baptize Gentiles. However, the new faith was only strong in Palestine till the martyrdom of Stephen. Then Christians were scattered in the world. But even then, it became a heavy and difficult matter for the disciples to accept the Gentiles in the Church. For the Gospel to be well spread in foreign nations, it needed someone who knew Judaism well and could relate well to foreigners, someone who could easily approach poor people as well as rich ones, uneducated and educated people. Saul had all the needed qualities: he was born in Judaism, grew up in Tarsus, became a Pharisee, and had Roman nationality.

Coming back to the persecution of the first disciples after the resurrection, the Pharisees and the Scribes could not believe what they were experiencing: how could those disciples, mostly uneducated men and women, preach Jesus's resurrection after having deserted him when he was arrested? Where did they get their new zeal? What could be the means to stop them? For a while, the Pharisees thought that they had a solution in a young man, Saul of Tarsus, who seemed to be as zealous as those Christians. And in addition to the zeal, Saul had also the power and the force to silence the Christians.

He started his mission with an eagerness that made him notoriously evil for Christians. One day he found himself witnessing, and consenting to, the death of the first Christian martyr. He then became a terror. He approved or ordered the death of many Christians. He put many others in jail. However, his zeal to persecute Christians ended when he was about to persecute the Christians in Damascus. A spectacular thing happened to him. He repeats the story in these words: “On that journey as I drew near to Damascus, about noon a great light from the sky suddenly shone around me. I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ I replied, ‘Who are you, sir?’ and he said to me, ‘I am Jesus the Nazorean whom you are persecuting. My companions saw the light but did not hear the voice of the one who spoke to me” (Acts 22: 6-9). The circumstances of those events might be understood by some as a figurative way of conveying a much stronger and overwhelming experience. Did he start to reflect on the meaning of Christianity at the stoning of Stephen? No one can tell. Nonetheless, the extent of the change in him after his conversion was unquestionably amazing.

Much has been written on the conversion of Paul and it remains one of the most beautiful stories of conversion. One among many things that we could learn from this story is that God knows how to defend the Church. The Church and the believers can’t claim to protect God and faith, they are just instruments used by God. God knows how and when to use them. Their role is to be available and willing to be instruments. When the Church goes through harsh moments like those of the persecuted Early Church, and when we rightly or misguidedly believe that we are under attack, we should not lose hope. Adopting the attitude of a violent zeal would only prove our lack of faith. We might use fierce enthusiasm thinking that we are defending God and our faith, but then, just as Paul before his conversion, we would be highly mistaken.

Gustave Ineza OP


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