by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
We are approaching the conclusion of the Year of St. Paul, commemorating the 2,000th anniversary of his birth. Saint Paul had, perhaps, the most famous conversion story in all of Christian history.
Accounts of his conversion are found in the Acts of the Apostles, as well as in Paul’s own letters. Paul is initially mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles as consenting to the execution of the first Christian martyr, Stephen (Acts 8:1). Later in Acts, Paul admits his complicity in the martyrdom of Stephen: “And when the blood of your witness Stephen was being shed, I myself stood by giving my approval and keeping guard over the cloaks of the murderers” (Acts 22:20).
Paul bitterly opposed the Christian way. He saw the first Christians as perverting authentic Judaism and made it his personal crusade to stamp out what he considered a heretical cult. Acts reports: “Saul . . . was trying to destroy the church; entering house after house and dragging out men and women, he handed them over for imprisonment” (Acts 8: 3). Saul acquired authorization from the high priest to go to Damascus in order to extend his reign of terror beyond Jerusalem. Saul’s plan was to bring back to Jerusalem in chains any Christian found in Damascus (Acts 9:1-2). Acts even describes Paul as “breathing murderous threats against the disciples of the Lord.”
It is on the famous road to Damascus that the direction of Paul’s life would be completely changed. We are told that Paul is blinded by a light that suddenly flashed around him as he heard a voice say: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Saul asks: “Who is speaking?” He receives the reply: “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”
This personal encounter with Jesus would change everything for Paul. His experience on the road to Damascus left him physically blind. It is in this state of physical darkness that Paul begins truly to see for the first time. The Lord sends Ananias to heal Paul’s physical blindness, after which he is immediately baptized.
Paul is transformed not by logic, reasoning or arguments, but rather by a personal encounter with Jesus. Jesus reveals to Paul that in persecuting his disciples, he is actually persecuting Jesus himself. Paul had a firsthand experience of the mercy of Jesus. He knew himself to be the worst of sinners. In persecuting the early Christians, Paul realized that he had been striking Jesus, mistreating Jesus, chaining Jesus.
It is out of his own experience of mercy and grace that Paul would be driven to bring the truth of the Gospel to the whole world. Saint Teresa of Avila wrote about St. Paul: “[I]t seems that no other name fell from his lips than that of Jesus, because the name of Jesus was fixed and embedded in his heart.”
Paul reminds all of us that being a Christian is not first and foremost about believing in a set of ideas or living a set of moral ideals. It must be about a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, a relationship that is so real and so powerful that it affects how we see and understand the world. It is a relationship that compels us to see every other human being differently. In Jesus, we recognize every other person as one so esteemed by God that his Son gave his life on Calvary.
For many of us and probably most of us, our personal encounter with Jesus is different from that of Paul. Many of us can more readily identify with Peter, who came to know Jesus over many years. Like Peter, most of us have come to understand the identity of Jesus much more gradually than Paul. Many of us — baptized as infants, growing up in strong Christian families, attending Catholic schools — have had the privilege of being formed in an environment in which Jesus was part of the fabric of our everyday life. We did not have to be blinded by a dramatic encounter with Jesus because we were surrounded by the light of his love and truth throughout our lives.
Despite being formed in such a blessed environment, most of us at some point questioned our faith and, like Peter, betrayed Jesus. Yet, also like Peter and Paul, we have experienced his mercy and grace. We have had many mini-Damascus road experiences through receiving our Lord in the Eucharist, experiencing his mercy uniquely and powerfully in the sacrament of penance, and personal encounters with Jesus at times of retreat and other extraordinary moments of prayer.
I have encouraged our archdiocesan and parish leadership to focus our energy and resources around five pastoral priorities. The first of these five pastoral priorities is conversion. At the heart of the mission of the church is facilitating, for each of its members, profound encounters with Jesus. Our Christian faith is not about perfecting ourselves through self-discipline and self-determination. It is about meeting Jesus Christ and being transformed by his mercy and grace in our lives.
This Year of St. Paul invites us to reflect more consciously on our own personal experience of Jesus Christ. It challenges us to cultivate our friendship with Jesus. It invites us to ponder how we have already experienced the mercy and grace of the Lord and how to foster the ongoing conversion of our hearts.