Date: January 25, 2022
By: Leah L.
While the conversion story of St. Paul is all too familiar to us, it is beneficial for us to recount briefly the story, because such as we are, when things are too familiar, we have a tendency to say: “yah, yah, heard it before, what's the big deal?” and so very easily pass over it without any thought. I propose that we spare a few moments to St. Paul even just to give him a nod of gratitude for his yes to God's call to be “the apostle to the Gentiles” (Romans 11:13-14, Galatians 1:15-16 & 2:7-8); to spread the message of the Faith beyond Jewish circles. Similar to how we can trace and “blame” Adam and Eve for original sin, so too in a way we can probably trace to St. Paul the Faith reaching us “Gentiles”.
It is very worthwhile to pause and ponder St. Paul, and his conversion as one of the most important and life-changing moments in the history of Christianity. My history professor at Christendom College was famous for saying: "one man can make a difference" and without a doubt we can say that of St. Paul. Imagine what we would not know if there was no St. Paul (thirteen books of the New Testament are traditionally attributed to him; that’s 13 out of 27 which is 48%)! Numerous things depend (most especially the salvation of souls) on whether an individual cooperates with God’s call and graces!
I must confess, I had not fully realized (at least not consciously) how influential St. Paul has been in my journey of Faith until I started praying specifically on what I could possibly write or offer as insight into St. Paul. I owe especially much gratitude to him for my understanding of the application of Jesus’ Love. Who amongst us has not heard his exhortation of what Love is and not come to a realization of how very short we fail in its practice? Humility, oh humility, blessed Humility, such a challenge because to obtain it we always have to face exterior or interior humiliations and who humanly wants those!
The beginning of Paul’s conversion (from Saul to Paul) began when? We find it’s beginning at the end of chapter seven of the Acts of the Apostles at the stoning of the first martyr St. Stephen:
“When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him.
But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.
“Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”
At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.
While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”
Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep.” – Acts of the Apostles 7: 54-60
Truly, “the blood of the Martyrs is the seed of the Church” (Tertullian, 155-220 AD). History has testified to this countless of times. Therefore, we learn our first lesson from the conversion of St. Paul: “Somebody” prayed and offered sacrifice for Saul to become Paul. So often we forget the basics of our Faith; we are dragged down and blinded by rage, anger, bitterness, and the spirit of unforgiveness at the people around us who we perceive are responsible for our difficulties, our sufferings. Did Jesus not teach us and show forth the infinite mercy of His Most Sacred Heart in saying: “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt 5:44) and again, “bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:28). Do we ask for the grace to obey these commands of Jesus and persevere in praying daily for those who, in any way, have abused, cursed, hurt, rejected, hated, resented, or offended us directly or indirectly, from afar or in close proximity? We are all very familiar with the command but do we actually practice it? Think about the last person you complained about (these days for most it seems it’s all about who to blame for the COVID mandates & ongoing circumstances around us. Whether you think the protocols are too much or not enough, it does not matter: have I prayed for those who I view as the perpetrators of the seeming unending situation unfolding in the world? Or closer still: have I prayed for my friends and family members who are not on the same plane of thinking regarding what is playing out in this moment of history?) Are you finding yourself in an endless circle of frustration & annoyance towards the others? St. Paul counsels us in Philippians 4:4-8:
“Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!
Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near.
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.
And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things.”
Simply, if we are well with God, all is well with us though the thickest darkness of adversity surrounds us. It is a basic principle to know, but always difficult in application, because we profess more than we practice as our fallen human nature attests.
In these heightened, trying times, most especially, I have come face to face quite often with what St. Paul expressed in Roman’s 7:15-19:
“What I do, I do not understand. For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate… For I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want.”
Why is this? Because we love our comforts! Quite simply: we want to have the glory of the Resurrection and the unending joy of Heaven without the cross! It is as it has always been! Especially for us who live in the relative ease of a first world country. We are being faced with uncomfortable situations and for the most part we either want to flee and hide, or to fight, but I would venture to propose that we want to fight in the wrong way and not for the “one thing necessary". We fight for passing things and not for what’s eternal. What we should be fighting for first is found in 2 Corinthians 4:16-18:
"So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.”
A very wise priest taught me that no matter the circumstances we are faced with, we should always view it in three ways: 1) it is blessing 2) it is a warning 3) it is a lesson. Let’s view the stoning of Saint Stephen in this perspective: 1) it is a blessing to suffer like Jesus my Savior, because Jesus transformed suffering from being senseless to being salvific. 2) God is warning: “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world but lose his soul” (Mark 8:36; Matthew 16:26). 3) Lesson learned:
“But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same?” -Matthew 5:44-47
& Luke 6:32-36:
“If you love those who love you, what credit can you expect? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit can you expect? For even sinners do that much. And if you lend to those from whom you hope to get money back, what credit can you expect? Even sinners lend to sinners to get back the same amount. Instead, love your enemies and do good to them, and lend without any hope of return. You will have a great reward, and you will be children of the Most High, for he himself is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be compassionate just as your Father is compassionate.”
When we live out our Faith fully as Jesus commanded (no compromising: no additions or omissions) miraculous things happen; most blessed being the fulfillment of the Supreme Law of the Church (Canon Law 1752):
“Salus animarum, Suprema lex” — “the salvation of souls is the Supreme law of the Church.”
Saint Paul reiterated this throughout his writing, well-known especially the passage in 2 Timothy 4:7 “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the Faith.” Paul engaged in the battle and valiantly fought for the salvation of souls to the point of giving his life in total conformity with Jesus who showed us the only way to get to the Resurrection is the Crucifixion.
All these sayings and things I have written are familiar to us and nothing I say is original or new, but they are of eternal importance. As the Jewish people were a forgetful people in their sojourn in the desert, we must confess, that we are not only a forgetful people, but a very distracted people with too much technology at our fingertips to keep us 24/7 plugged into “worldliness” and not that which Paul exhorts us to think on “whatever is true, whatever, is noble, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” These Truths bear repeating and repeating and delving and contemplating on more deeply. In the times of Saint Paul, the knowledge of the Faith was only just blossoming, whereas in our time, it is being vehemently attacked not only externally, but internal divisions and confusion abounds. The “Essentialness” of the Faith is being diminished by continuous bickering about matters that really do not matter.
The very foundation of our Faith is being ripped apart. Before the year 2020 arrived- marking what one friend of mine has termed the COVID era- in 2019, I think a very symbolic event occurred that eerily symbolizes perfectly the state the Faith and Church finds itself. Cardinal Sarah spoke of it profoundly after visiting the ruins of the gutted fallen Cathedral of Notre-Dame of Paris,
“It is a sad fact: today the Church seems to be engulfed in flames on all sides. We see her ravaged by a conflagration much more destructive than the one that razed the Cathedral of Notre-Dame. What is this fire? We must have the courage to name it, because “to name things wrongly is to add to the misfortune of the world.”
This blaze, this conflagration raging in particular through the Church…, is a case of intellectual, doctrinal, and moral confusion. It is our cowardly refusal to proclaim the truth about God and man and to defend and transmit the moral and ethical values of the Christian tradition. It is our loss of faith and the spirit of faith, a losing sight of the objectivity of faith and thus a loss of the knowledge of God.” (https://www.catholicworldreport.com/2019/12/29/cardinal-sarah-we-must-rebuild-the-cathedral-we-do-not-need-to-invent-a-new-church/)
We as the People of God have abandoned the race. We must get back on the right track, engage in, and actually run the race. We must fight the good fight (the right fight) and keep the Faith, not just in word but most importantly in deed!!! We must practice what we profess to believe by following this wise shepherd of the Church: Cardinal Sarah. If I might suggest, he is a modern-day Saint Paul exhorting us to remember what is essential!
In Cardinal Sarah’s book: The Day is Now Far Spent, he speaks about what is required to get back in the race. When I read it back in 2019, it stuck in my head. When 2020 happened, and continues to drag on today, I have found myself repeating it to people in these disoriented and very uncertain days. Heart wrenchingly, our Mother Church is experiencing chasms of division which stabs at a mark of the Church that makes the Church recognizable as The Church: Unity. However, to achieve this unity it “…rests on four columns. Prayer, Catholic doctrine, love for Peter, and mutual charity [which] must become the priorities of our soul and of all our activities” (Cardinal Sarah, The Day is Now Far Spent).
I. Prayer: “Without union with God, every attempt to strengthen the Church and the faith will be in vain. Without prayer, we will be clanging cymbals. We will sink to the level of media hypesters who make a lot of noise and produce nothing but wind. Prayer must become our innermost respiration. It brings us face to face with God. Do we have some other purpose?”
II. Catholic Doctrine: “We do not have to invent and build the unity of the Church. The source of our unity precedes us and is offered to us. It is the revelation that we receive. If everyone defends his opinion, his novelty, then division will spread everywhere. It wounds me to see so many pastors selling off Catholic doctrine and sowing division among the faithful. We owe the Christian people clear, firm, stable teaching. How can we accept bishops’ conferences that contradict each other? Where confusion reigns, God cannot dwell! The unity of the faith presupposes the unity of the Magisterium in time and space.”
III. Love for Peter: “The pope is the bearer of the mystery of Simon Peter, to whom Christ said: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church” (Mt 16:18). The mystery of Peter is a mystery of faith. Jesus willed to hand his Church over to a man. To remind us of this more strikingly, he allowed that man to betray him three times in front of everyone before handing over to him the keys of his Church. We know that the barque of the Church is not entrusted to a man because of his extraordinary abilities. We believe, nevertheless, that this man will always be assisted by the Divine Shepherd so as to hold fast the rule of the faith. Let us not be afraid! Let us listen to Jesus: “You are Simon. . . . You shall be called Peter” (Jn 1:42). From those first hours, the fabric of Church history has been woven with the golden thread of the infallible decisions of the pontiffs, the successors of Peter, and the black thread of the human, imperfect acts of the popes, successors of Simon. In this incomprehensible overlapping of intertwined threads, we sense the little needle guided by the invisible hand of God, intent on tracing onto the fabric the only name by which we can be saved, the name of Jesus Christ!”
IV. Mutual Charity: “Let us recall the words of Vatican Council II: “The Church is in Christ like a sacrament. . . of the unity of the whole human race.” However, so much hatred and division disfigure her. It is time to rediscover a little kindness among us. It is time to declare an end to suspicion! For us Catholics, it is time to come “to an interior reconciliation”, as Benedict XVI put it I write these words from my office, from which I have a view of Saint Peter’s Square. It opens its arms wide so as to embrace all mankind better. For the Church is a mother; she opens her arms to us! Let us run to snuggle up there, to stand close together there, side by side! Within her, nothing threatens us! Christ extended his arms once for all on the Cross so that from then on the Church could open hers and reconcile us in her, with God and with one another. To all who are tempted by betrayal, dissension, manipulation, the Lord again says these words: “Why do you persecute me?. . . I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (Acts 9:4-5): when we quarrel, when we hate each other, Jesus is the one whom we are persecuting!” (The Day is Now Far Spent, Introduction Alas, Judas Iscariot)
Are we fulfilling these four columns?
We can clearly hear the spirit of Saint Paul echoed through Cardinal Sarah in the words above. This evidence of the continuity of the teachings of the Apostles should imbue in us the hope which "...fill [us] with all joy and peace as [we] trust in Him, so that [we] may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:13).
As Saint Paul was knocked off his horse and he heard God's voice: "Saul, Saul why do you persecute me?" (Acts 9:4), we too can ask that question of ourselves. We should be more concerned by how we have been infected by the times and not by the virus. We have failed to remember the treasury of our Faith with its eternal Truths.
“How should we respond to this temptation to make a transition to the world? We sometimes have the feeling of being prisoners of a sort of detention that prevents us from looking at the heavenly realities. We could speak about quicksand. How can I drag myself away from the world? How can anyone escape the noise? How can we get out of this dark night that oppresses us and obstructs our path to heaven, that dazes us and makes us forget the essential thing? God created us to be and to live with him. God, who willed everything, did not create nature for its own sake. God did not create us for a merely natural perfection. God had an infinitely higher purpose than the perfection of nature alone: the supernatural order, the gift of pure love that we call grace, which makes us participate in his own divine nature, the communication of his own life that makes us his children, capable of knowing him and loving him in all his intimacy, as he knows and loves himself. We were created to get out of the world and to live fully with God’s own life. We were created to know and to love God in his full reality as God. Man by himself is absolutely incapable of this supernatural life, from which he is separated by an infinite abyss; it is a gratuitous gift of God. But we are made to live with God and to reach our perfection in God. When Christ explains to men what their goal should be, he does not say to them: “Be fully and perfectly human beings, flourish and attain the perfection of your human nature”, but rather: “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect”, in other words, with God’s own perfection.” (The Day is Now Far Spent, Part I: Spiritual & Religious Collapse, The Crisis of Faith)
This harkens back to Saint Paul who from the moment of being thrown off his horse tirelessly worked at preaching the Good News and reminding the churches entrusted to him to “… press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14).
“Look carefully then how you walk! Live purposefully and worthily and accurately, not as the unwise and witless, but as wise (sensible, intelligent people), making the very most of the time [buying up each opportunity], because the days are evil. Therefore do not be vague and thoughtless and foolish, but understanding and firmly grasping what the will of the Lord is” (Ephesian 5:15-17).
"...let us not become lost in the evil of division because of those who are wicked”, Saint Augustine said (Letter 105). "Go, [unite] by your faith, by your hope and your charity. Go and [unite] by your prayer and your fidelity” (Cardinal Sarah, The Day is Now Far Spent, Introduction).
"I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, urge you to live worthy of the calling with which you have been called" (Ephesians 4:1).