Saints show us our capabilities, how far we can rise, from the depths to the heights. That’s why the church celebrates the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul every January 25th. As he readily acknowledges, Paul through God’s grace rose from the dust and became a powerful force in his church and in the world.
St. John Chrysostom says of him: “Paul, more than anyone else, has shown us what we really are, and in what our nobility consists, and of what virtue a human being is capable. Each day he aimed ever higher; each day he rose up with greater ardour and faced with new eagerness the dangers that threatened him. He summed up his attitude in the words: I forget what is behind me and push on to what lies ahead. When he saw death imminent, he bade others share his joy: Rejoice and be glad with me! And when danger, injustice and abuse threatened, he said: I am content with weakness, mistreatment and persecution. These he called the weapons of righteousness, thus telling us that he derived immense profit from them…
The dramatic conversion of Paul is recalled in today’s first reading from the Acts of the Apostles at Mass. Luke describes this event three times, a way of acknowledging Paul’s special role in the spread of Christianity from Jerusalem to Rome.
Paul’s conversion and ministry is a work of God, who uses the apostle for his own divine purposes. It’s not Paul’s genius or imagination that achieved so much. God’s grace brought him to the ground on his way to Damascus and God’s grace sent him on his mission.
“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Jesus says to him. From that meeting Paul gained the conviction that faith is a gift that justifies us and that the church is the body of Christ. He did not come to those beliefs on his own.
Paul’s great conversion story in Acts introduces a succession of stories recalling the conversion of the gentiles. Paul has a prominent part in these stories, an agent whom God sends and constantly empowers. But he never forgets the moment he was blinded by a light that made him see.
The Acts of the Apostles is not just a description of the past; it’s a template for the church of every age. Personalities like Paul and human factors play a part in her growth, but the church’s advance is not principally through human power, reason, or imagination. The power of God’s Spirit guides and supports it through time.
We need to humbly recognize the church as God’s church, created in the image of God’s Son, and gifted by the Spirit.