Every year on January 25th, we celebrate in our liturgical calendar one of the most important events in the history of the early Catholic Church. That day is the Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul. More than one author, scholar and saint has remarked that although his conversion was an event inferior to and highly insignificant in comparison with the miracle of our Savior's resurrection, nevertheless, the change of Saul the Pharisee and persecutor of the Church into Saint Paul the Apostle could be considered next in importance in historical significance for the story of the Church's development.
In announcing that from next June 28, 2008, to June 28, 2009, the Church would be celebrating a special year dedicated to Saint Paul the Apostle, our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, said last June 28, "Paul, a former violent persecutor of Christians, when he fell to the ground dazzled by the divine light on the road to Damascus, did not hesitate to change sides to the Crucified One and then followed Him without second thoughts. He lived and worked for Christ and for Him he suffered and died. How timely his example is today!"
The basis for the Pauline year will be, according to the Pope, the commemoration of the bimillennium of Saint Paul's birth. The exact year of his birth is uncertain, with some placing it between the years 1 and 5, and others, which is the preference of the Holy Father, sometime between the years 7 and 10. The year of his death is usually held to be 67.
The account of the Pauline conversion is related three times in the Acts of the Apostles. The first time it is in a simple and direct narrative by Saint Luke, who was the human but divinely inspired author of the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, (Acts 9:3-19). The second time is when Saint Luke tells us about an incident that contains a discourse which Saint Paul delivered at one time to a crowd of angry Jews in the Temple of Jerusalem (Acts 22:6-16). The third time is when Saint Luke relates the talk that Saint Paul gave before the Procurator, Porcius Festus, and before King Agrippa (Acts 26:12-18).
In his New Testament Epistles Saint Paul himself, although never giving an account of his conversion in specific detail, does mention it several times incidentally when it seems to serve some purpose to benefit the various groups of Christians to which he addressed his letters (1 Corinthians 9:1 and 15:8; 2 Corinthians 4:6; Galatians 1:13-24; Ephesians 3:7-8; Philippians 3:12).
The three accounts of Saint Paul's conversion are basically the same. However, there are a few differences, which are easily explained. One account, for instance, describes Saint Paul's companions are standing speechless (Acts 9:7), while another says they all fell to the ground with Saul (Acts 26:14). Perhaps they initially fell down and then got up. Also, some note that the Greek word for "standing" can indicate a state of mind rather than a bodily posture.
Another difference is that one account (Acts 9:7) has the companions of Saul hearing the mysterious voice but not seeing anything, while another account (Acts 22:9) has it that they saw the bright light, but did not hear the voice. Once again the simplest explanation can be found in the Greek verb "to hear", which most often does not mean aural perception, but comprehension and understanding. It is only Saul himself who "sees and hears" both physically and spiritually, while his companions are only partial witnesses to the startling event, some partly by "seeing" and some partly by "hearing."
A third difference in the accounts is that in one of them Jesus Himself tells Saul that he is to become the Apostle to the Gentiles (Acts 26:16-18), while in another account (Acts 22:12-15) Ananias is told by Christ to give Saul that message. However, Ananias is regarded by Saint Paul as a messenger from God and, according to Jewish belief, which Saint Paul would have adhered to, the words of God's messenger are truly the words of God Himself. When Saint Paul was talking about his conversion to the pagan Procius Festus, and the Romanized Jew Agrippa, he most likely wanted to impress upon them that his authority came from a divine apparition and, therefore, might have left out talking about the intervention of the holy Ananias, who, by the way it is generally supposed was a Catholic priest.
Down through the centuries there have been attacks by rationalists and other non-believers on the accounts of Saint Paul's conversion. These attacks are most often made by persons who deny any supernatural order and who bring to their discourse an a-priori prejudice against the possibility of miracles and against any evidence of divine intervention in human history. In recent times these attacks have centered on conjectures about Saint Paul's psychological state of mind possibly being the cause of his change. However, the conversion-event was so life-changing and lasting for him, and the testimony of his companions who were with him on the road to Damascus was so convincing to their contemporaries, that for some people to somehow try to give a natural explanation for that clearly supernatural event has always failed the test of historical veracity, and has almost always been a mere display of intellectual and emotional bias.
Saint Paul himself explained his conversion with the words, "Jesus Christ laid hold of me" (Philippians 3:12). The Greek verb he used can mean "I was taken by surprise" or "I was conquered" or "I was taken as hunter's prey" or "as a soldier's booty". He noted that God had his destiny eternally arranged for him "from his mother's womb" (Galatians 1:15). Our present Bishop of Rome remarked that "The Apostle to the Gentiles repeats several times in his letters that his whole life is a fruit of God's freely given and merciful grace (1 Corinthians 15:9-10; 2 Corinthians 4:1; Galatians 1:15). He was chosen to proclaim the Gospel of God (Romans 1:1) and to disseminate the announcement of divine grace which in Christ reconciles man with God, with himself, and with others."
Pope Benedict XVI remarked that when Saint Paul said of himself that he was "a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an Apostle, this indicated a relationship of total and unconditional belonging to the Lord Jesus. Paul knew he was called, that is, he had not presented himself as a candidate nor was his a human appointment, but solely a divine call and election."