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January 25
Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul the Apostle

Wait, was it actually a horse? Ah! The power of art!

Today, you may have noticed that we’re actually celebrating a “feast” proper — as opposed to all those celebrations we call feasts but which are actually memorials. Here’s the reason for those who may have been confused. After the General Roman Calendar was revised in the late 1960’s, owing to the theme of overall simplicity, the Church decided to move away from multiple types of celebration (anyone remember a double of the third class?) to three basic degrees of celebration. They are memorials (for most saints), feasts (for the apostles and a few other major events), and solemnities (the highest type of celebration, reserved for a handful of days throughout the year and EVERY SINGLE SUNDAY). The difference in the progression of their solemnity is sometimes slight. Basically, for a memorial the priest has the option to drop into the mass special prayers mentioning the saint who is celebrated. For a feast we will add in the gloria at the mass. For a solemnity, well, just imagine a Sunday mass — two readings and a gospel, gloria, creed, and (if desired) incense, bells, and whistles, er, music. Got it? Good. So what of this particular feast?

Saul of Tarsus was a Jew and a pious one at that. He had studied under the learned Gamaliel. He was a tentmaker. He was a pharisee. His love of his Jewish faith moved him to defend her from the onslaught of these terrible followers of the Way (Christians). In early Acts we learn that he was one of those holding the cloaks of the men who were hurling rocks at Stephen, the first martyr. It’s not that he hated the Christians, per se. He truly felt they were corrupting Judaism and, more to the point, that they were blaspheming and needed to be dealt with according to the Law (of Moses). And then he received papers directing him to arrest all the Christians in the synagogues in Damascus and bring them back to Jerusalem in chains. And so he set out.

While on the way…

On his journey, as he was nearing Damascus, a light from the sky suddenly flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” He said, “Who are you, sir?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. Now get up and go into the city and you will be told what you must do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, for they heard the voice but could see no one.

Read that again. Did you see anything about a horse? Sorry Meghan, there’s not a word. During the Renaissance, Carravagio painted the beautiful image above and that image has stuck. Those beautiful words “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” speak to the heart of any man who’s ever experienced what the Greeks called metanoia, a change of heart. It is a call and the invitation to a conversion. This is not a conversion from one thing to another. Rather, it is a conversion from a surface way of living to a deep, rich, and very intimate way of living with and in and for Christ. It is personal. It is public (remember, his companions and Ananias were all in on this, not to mention the other Apostles to whom he would have to explain himself later). It is a word. It is a physical overpowering. It is the Lord making HImself known and asking Saul to make himself known. “Why do you persecute me?”… It almost sounds like a hurt child who asks a friend “why did you hurt me?” You can sense the complete innocence in those words, the genuine anguish. But you can also sense the firm purpose that this is a certain call. This call is an invitation. And we can ask ourselves why Our Blessed Lord called this man. And we can ask ourselves we He has called us, too. Saul was just as confused. In fact, he was blinded. I’m sure that was also a metaphor. Why Saul with all his “murderous threats” against the brothers? Why Saul, the arrogant, the cocky?

Obviously, these were qualities which Our Lord would bring into focus for the spread of His Gospel to the gentiles. But Saul couldn’t have known that during those three days he was being lead around Damascus. And sometimes we don’t know why He could ever want us and want us so desperately that He keeps calling despite our ever worsening sinful conditions. Why, for instance, could He want the man who can’t lay aside his lustful impulses to serve Him at the altar in celibacy? What possible good could come from His begging the woman who’s downfall is her inability to stay away from talking about others to serve him in a religious community where charity for all must prevail. And what of the young man and young woman who, in their youth, seem solely focused on their own lives and could never think of giving up their “individuality”? Why on earth would he plead with them to give all that they have to one another and then give everything they are down to their DNA to a tiny little person?

In the few days between when Saul became Paul, during that initial call and conversion, Saul had some time to think and to pray. We do no better than to do the same from time to time. I’m sure Saul wondered these things about himself. He may have even thought “you’ve got the wrong guy here, Lord.” But God knows what He’s doing. And I am forever amazed at who He calls for the carrying out of His will. But most of all, I am surprised to find myself any part of it. Like Saul, He calls each of us to that deep interior turning from the world to Himself.

And if you do it just right, Our Lord rewards with with a city named in your honor in Minnesota.

*Passage quoted from Acts 9:3-7