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Tuesday, January 25, 2011

On the Conversion of St. Paul

Today the Universal Church marks the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul.   Sts. Peter and Paul share the Solemnity on June 29th; however, the Church also honors these blessed apostles on two separate occasions.  February 22nd marks the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter.  As already noted, January 25th marks St. Paul's Conversion. 

St. Paul's conversion story shows us the depth of God's merciful love towards us.   But, it also shows us something equally remarkable:  what one man's response is to that immense ocean of merciful love that literally knocked him off his feet (or, as some artists like to depict, his horse). 

Conversion means to "turn around".  In Greek, the word is "metanoia".  We re-orient ourselves.  My dad likes to refer to it as something akin to pressing the "reset" button on his HDTV that restores the picture to its original setting.  God made us to know Him, to mlove Him, to serve Him and to ultimately be happy with Him in heaven.   However, while that is our original setting, original sin also exists.  Sin blinds us to our original purpose, turning us inward, making us focus on ourselves rather than the Other.

When Saul heads down to Damascus, he goes with the full intent and fury of hunting down Jesus' followers, bent on bringing them back to Jerusalem with the idea of forcibly reverting them back to their former ways.   Saul really believed that he was doing what he was supposed to do.  He was a devout Jew, the greatest student of the greatest Pharisee, Gamaliel.  However, in his zeal, it never occured to him that the prophecies that he had long studied had already reached their perfect fulfillment in Jesus.  He may have known about Jesus; but, he did not know Jesus.

One can say the same thing about the demons that Jesus silences right before he orders them to leave the individuals they've possessed.  The demons brazenly state that they "know" who Jesus is.  But, they don't really know Him, since to really know who Jesus is means to love Him. 

It was not until Saul got literally knocked down that he started his gradual ascent.  He went down into the dust when he fell, but, it was not just the physical fall, it was also the spiritual fall that he experienced.  It was as though everything he had believed suddenly turned on its head.  In those days of prayer, as he awaited Annanias'  visit, Saul must have had to re-orient his way of thinking.  It was in his blindness that the great and learned pharisee was finally able to see who Jesus really was.  It was in his lowest moment, being helpless, that Saul was able to open his heart and respond totally and completely to Jesus' love and mercy. 

Saul's transformation into Paul is not an easy one.  In fact, in today's first reading, Jesus tells Annanias that Paul will have much to suffer for His sake.  Apostleship is not an easy vocation, as Paul would later discover.  In his many epistles, Paul recounts the hardships that he has had to endure and the struggles that he has had to face.   The same persecution that he sought to inflict upon the nascent Church would come full circle upon him, as Paul finally gave his final witness to Christ during his own martyrdom outside the walls of Rome.

St. Paul also shows us that conversion is not a "one and done" deal.  Conversion means more than simply accepting Jesus as your savior.  It means putting that acceptance into action.  It means returning that love fully and completely.  Conversion happens every day of our lives.  We wake up with the best of intentions but we fall into sin and have to constantly re-orient ourselves back to God.

In the Church's case, she offers us the wonderful opportunity of pressing the "reset" button by going to Confession.  The Sacrament of Penance helps "reset" the soul, so to speak, to its original setting, taking away the fuzziness that sin has wrought so that we can have a better focus on God. 

We are not perfect.  St. Paul certainly made that point abundantly clear about himself on many occasions.  He laments about the fact that what he wants to do and what he winds up doing are two different things.  How many of us can relate to that?

Yet, the blessed apostle gives us hope.  He who had intended to be the nascent Church's most vigilant persecutor wound up being one of her strongest Apostles.  He who went out to search for early Christians to harm them wound up going all over the Roman empire seeking out the lost sheep and bringing them to the fold of the Church.  As today's Responsorial Psalm notes, he went "to all the world" and proclaimed the Good News.

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