The conversion of St. Paul is one of the most important and sea-changing moments in the history of Christianity. While this is a tale that most of us are familiar with, it would behoove us to recount the story here, in order to fully immerse ourselves in this seminal moment. This is related to us in the ninth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles.
Still known as Saul, and “still breathing murderous threats against the disciples of the Lord,” he sought permission from the high priest to bring back to Jerusalem in chains any men or men who belonged to “the Way”. Seeking out more disciples of Jesus Christ, Saul wanted to punish them, and perhaps encourage them, by such punishment, to recant and rejoin the Jewish fold. But something happened on the way to Damascus – something which would change the course of the new Christian Church, and the course of the history of the world.
A light from the sky flashed around Saul, and he fell to the ground. He heard a voice crying out, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Saul seems to have thought that an individual he had arrested, or was about to arrest, was accosting him, confronting him. But it was someone else altogether – “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”
This revelation was a shock to Saul. Jesus? The one whom the adherents of The Way cling to as their Messiah? The one whom the Romans executed in shame and ignominy? How could Saul be persecuting him if he was dead? Furthermore, how could he be addressing Saul?
Jesus told Saul to go into the city, and get instructions there. When he rose to go, and opened his eyes, he could see nothing. He was led into the city by the men he was traveling with, and remained unable to see for three days. A man in the city named Ananias, a disciple of the Lord, was told by the Lord to go and find Saul.
Ananias was familiar with Saul by reputation. “Lord,” he said, “I have heard from many sources about this man, what evil things he has done to your holy ones in Jerusalem. And here he has authority from the chief priests to imprison all who call upon your name.” The response that Ananias received is remarkable, even shocking, and knowing what we know now, a deeply important statement.
“Go, for this man is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before Gentiles, kings, and Israelites, and I will show him what he will have to suffer for my name.” Here we are told, out of the mouth of the Lord Himself, that Paul is to carry the word of God to all peoples, to the gentiles, as well as the Israelites (Paul’s own people), kings as well as common folk. We know already that this man is to be important, that his role is to be unparalleled, and that he will yield great things in the service of God.
Ananias came to Saul, and told him that he had been sent by the Lord. “Saul, my brother, the Lord has sent me, Jesus who appeared to you on the way by which you came, that you may regain your sight and be filled with the holy Spirit.” Saul regained his sight, was baptized, and immediately moved on to preach Jesus in the synagogues of Damascus.
Saul was traveling to Damascus to arrest those in the synagogues who followed Jesus, and bring them to Jerusalem in chains. Now, however, he was seeking disciples of Jesus in order that they might know and accept the Gospel. He went to those very synagogues in order to gain disciples of the Lord. And from the synagogues, Saul went out, preaching the gospel to all those he could reach, whether by letter or word of mouth, and his message was to have a profound impact, unimaginable at the time, and unfathomable today.
We need to carefully consider the import of this event. This is a man who had explicitly, and apparently with some relish, persecuted the followers of Jesus Christ. A devout Jew, a Pharisee, he sought them out, and requested special permissions from the chief priests in order to dispatch “justice” most swiftly and without delay. The first time we meet Saul in Sacred Scripture is at the scene of a martyrdom, the killing of the first martyr, Stephen. Stephen was preaching the Gospel, which infuriated those who heard, to the point that they threw him out of the city to stone him. “The witnesses laid down their cloaks at the feet of a young man named Saul.”
We know this was the same man, as Paul himself would later recount the story and identify himself and his role: “And when the blood of your witness Stephen was being shed, I myself stood by giving my approval and keeping guard over the cloaks of his murders.” (Acts 22:20) What a dramatic change! What a profound course correction! This man who had once facilitated, expedited, and perpetrated the persecution of the followers of Jesus, was now His instrument.
The conversion of St. Paul is important to us for two reasons. Firstly, this is the man who would become known as the Apostle to the Gentiles, the man who would do more than perhaps anyone else to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ far and wide, and to fight heterodoxy and other problems that would arise in the churches he established. St. Paul is largely responsible for the spreading of Christianity beyond Jewish circles.
Secondly, St. Paul helps to show us just what conversion means. Conversion does not simply mean changing religious adherence. Paul’s conversion didn’t only consist of his acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah, but a change of heart. Paul had essentially made a career out of persecuting Christians for their faith. After his experience on the road to Damascus, Paul recognized the folly of his ways, and had a dramatic change of heart. This is in what conversion consists: a change of heart.
We are all called to conversion. Conversion is not meant only for non-Christians or non-Catholics; conversion is not something that is only meant for those who have led dramatically sinful lives; conversion is a re-orientation of our wills toward God’s, a change of heart wherein we seek what God wills, and strive to do what He is calling us to do.
Conversion is not something that happens to us once. It is an ongoing change of heart, a perpetual reorientation of ourselves in order to align our wills with that of God. Our wills are not perfectly in line with God’s. This is something we must strive for, something that we must always be working towards.