Feast of the Day: Conversion of St. Paul – January 25
January 25 is the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul (Acts 22). Most of us are familiar with the story. Saul – his original name – was a Pharisee who was persecuting the very first Christians. (At that early stage believers called themselves Followers of the Way. The name Christian would come about later in Antioch)
St. Paul was on his way to Damascus with documents authorizing him to arrest and bring back Christians to Jerusalem for trial by the religious authorities. Scripture makes no reference to a horse, which is usually part of the depiction of the scene in which St. Paul is blinded by a bright light and falls to the ground. He hears a voice utter the now famous words “Saul, why are you persecuting me.” In the exchange, St. Paul asks who it is that is speaking to him – the response, “I am Jesus, the Nazarene..”
According to scripture, we know that Paul was from Tarsus and that he was also a Roman citizen. His letters to the early congregations (churches) are the oldest documents in the New Testament. They reveal a man who is thoroughly Jewish in his mode of thinking and speech. Yet he is Christianity’s link to the larger Hellenistic world.
For those who like to emphasize the important role of St. Peter in the development of the Church, it can come as a shock that he and St. Paul disagreed so strongly about the incorporation of non-Jews, or gentiles. Some of us contemporary Catholics – with a certain sense of ironic humor – see this conflict as the first among many between a Pope and a theologian.
What is most significant about St. Paul’s conversion is his acceptance by the leadership of the early Christian community. Although they had substantial reasons to distrust his sincerity, they forgave an enemy – even one who had been an accomplice in the stoning of St. Stephen, the first martyr. They forgave a man who arrested and imprisoned their family members and friends. The book of the Acts of the Apostles shows that the leadership and the community had their misgivings, but they helped the repentant Saul to demonstrate his conversion, acting as mentors, teachers, and friends. Some helped more than others, and many not at all, yet it was enough. And as they say… the rest is history.