Feast Day: January 25
An important feast day for most of the main churches, Paul’s conversion signifies the overwhelming power of the Christian faith to cross the boundaries of belief and nationality. This feast originated in France at the end of the sixth century, when some relics of the apostle were transferred there. It was not celebrated in Rome until the eleventh century, perhaps in connection with the feast of the Chair of Saint Peter. The importance of the conversion of the “Apostle to the Gentiles” is evident from the three accounts given in the Acts of the Apostles (9:1-30; 22:3-21; 26:9-20).
Born to a Greco-Jewish family in Cilicia (southeastern coast of modern Turkey), Paul was originally named Saul. He was raised as a Pharisee, but was also a Roman citizen and became an ardent persecutor of the first Christians, participating in the stoning of Saint Stephen, the first martyr.
The conversion of Paul took place as he was traveling to Damascus around AD 35, in pursuit of persecuting the Christians there. On the road he had a revelatory vision and was temporarily blinded. “He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ He asked, ‘Who are you Lord?’ And the reply came, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do’” (Ac 9:4-6).
The biblical account of what happened to Paul on the road to Damascus describes the radical change that took place: “He who was formerly persecuting us is now preaching the faith he tried to destroy” (Gal 1:23). The apostle himself always contrasts that experience on the road to Damascus with what had preceded it (Gal 1:11-24). “In legal observance I was a Pharisee, and so zealous that I persecuted the Church. I was above reproach when it came to justice based on the law. But those things I used to consider gain I have now reappraised as loss in the light of Christ” (Ph 3:5-7).
Ultimately, Paul’s life became a tireless proclaiming and living out of the message of the cross that symbolizes: Christians die baptismally to sin and are buried with Christ; they are dead to all that is sinful and unredeemed in the world. They are made into a new creation, already sharing Christ’s victory and someday rise from the dead like him. Through this risen Christ, God the Father pours out the Spirit on them, making them completely new.
Being a witness to the truth of Christ, like Saint Paul, requires that we discover the meaning of the faith in the events and experiences of life, both individual and ecclesial. Paul himself, after the dazzling experience on the road to Damascus, spent three years in Arabia, southeast of Damascus, in order to grasp fully the specific dimensions of his vocation (Gal 1:17). His vocation was conversion and evangelization of Jesus Christ. As Paul himself was transformed from being a persecutor of Christ into a vessel of his grace and saw the close relationship between his own particular calling and that of the prophets of the Old Testament (cf. Gal 1:15; Jer 1:5). For Paul, the preaching of the Gospel was not a cause for boasting but a duty. For us evangelization should be the fruit of the light of the Holy Spirit who sustains and illumines our faith.
So Paul’s great message to the world was and still is: You are saved entirely by God, not by anything you can do. Saving faith is the gift of total, free, personal and loving commitment to Christ, a commitment that then bears fruit in more “works” than the Law could ever contemplate.
Saint Paul, pray for our conversion and evangelistic hearts!
Foley, Leonard, O.F.M., and Pat McCloskey, O.F.M. “Saint of the Day.” Cincinnati: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2009.
Heritage, Andrew, ed. “The Book of Saints: A Day-By Illustrated Encyclopedia.” San Francisco: Weldonowen, 2012.
Lodi, Enzo. “Saints of the Roman Calendar.” New York: Alba House, 1992.