On the Conversion of S. Paul

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Conversion of Saint Paul the Apostle (observed), 2020.

Today we are celebrating the Conversion of Saint Paul the Apostle, it being the patronal feast of title for our church [in Pekin]. It is truly a celebration of the whole Church, because so much of the life of the Church has come in being because of this moment when, at midday, Paul along the road to Damascus on yet another mission of persecution saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining around him and those who journeyed with him. And when everyone had fallen to the ground, Paul heard a voice speaking to him which said, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me? Why are you kicking against the goads?” To which Paul responded, “Who are you, Lord?” and then heard, “I am Jesus, Whom you are persecuting. But rise and stand on your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to make you a minister and a witness both of the things which you have seen and of the things which I will yet reveal to you.”

And Jesus clearly states His purpose with Paul again by saying that through Paul’s ministry the Jewish and Gentile people “may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who are sanctified by faith in Me.” It is this moment from which so much of the life of the one Church of Christ has grown, and continues to grow. This heavenly vision altered the course of human history immeasurably, and we Christians will for all times savor the mystery of this moment, live in the mystery of this moment, and be guided by what the mystery of this moment continues to reveal to us, that we can witness to the mystery in our lives in the world.

Our Collect affirms the sturdy belief of the one Church of Christ that the preaching of Paul cause the light of the Gospel to shine throughout the world. This is why it is so fitting to keep this holy day during the season of Epiphanytide. For it is during this season in particular that in reflecting upon the mystery of the Word made flesh (the broader theme of the Nativity of Christ, not only of Blessed Mary but also how Christ is born in our hearts) we give thanks that our heavenly Father hast caused a new light to shine in our hearts, to give the knowledge of the Father’s glory in the face of His Son Jesus Christ Our Lord. Celebrating the Conversion of Paul fits perfectly in this because, just as in Paul’s heart Christ was born through the presence of the Holy Spirit and the words of God deeply heard, we too have the beginning of Christ being born in our hearts at our Baptism at which the Holy Spirit moved over the waters of the baptismal font along with the words of God.

Yet our baptism must never be thought of as a one-time saving event, which remains efficacious no matter how sinfully we live our lives afterwards. Our salvation is not a transaction that happens at our baptism; rather, baptism is the beginning of the process of salvation (the name for which is sanctification), an ongoing journey in which we grow into deeper relationship with Jesus and, through Him, deeper relationship with the Father all by means of the Holy Ghost. We see all of this dramatized in Paul’s life. The Pharisee Paul knew the Scriptures very well, yet he could not properly interpret them. He had a relationship with God, but only barely. It was not until the holy Deacon and Martyr Saint Stephen was on trial did Christ begin to soften Paul’s hardened heart. In Stephen Paul saw the face of an angel, and in hearing Stephen’s testimony, Paul not only heard the proper interpretation of the Scriptures—in which page after page Jesus is found if one knows how to look—but also heard Stephen’s account of the heavenly vision Stephen was given. Paul’s heart softened still more, despite signing off on the stoning of Stephen. The seed planted in Paul’s heart by the blood of the martyr Stephen finally popped forth with its fragrant bloom as Paul was along the road to Damascus. And now Paul knew Christ, because Christ knew him, and shortly afterwards Paul received the Sacrament of Baptism, and began to preach the faith he once tried to destroy.

It is the movement of the Spirit in Paul’s heart that for us and for the whole Church is such an example. From incorrectly knowing the Scriptures to preaching in unfathomably profound ways about it once Paul truly knew Christ—which was catalyzed by Stephen’s witness, when Stephen undoubtedly was given to words to say by the Spirit of the Father, words Stephen proclaimed being on the edge of death, words so pregnant with transformation that Stephen’s murderer became the primary Apostle of the Church in her first decades.

Brothers and sisters, let us constantly have Paul’s wonderful conversion in remembrance, that the icon of it may quiet our minds and through that stillness, increase our awareness of the power of God to transform our hearts the more we open ourselves to Him in humility, and abandon ourselves at His feet, that we day by day might also hear the still, small voice of God.