Saturday, January 25, 2014

Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul

Today the Church celebrates the conversion of St. Paul. Perhaps no event in the early Church, apart from Pentecost and the establishment of the Church, is of more significance than when the resurrected Lord knocked Saul of Tarsus from his feet and asked the zealous Pharisee why he was persecuting, not the Church of God, but Jesus Himself (the Church being the Lord's very Body).

After identifying Himself to Saul, telling Him, upon being asked who He was, "I am Jesus the Nazorean whom you are persecuting" (Acts 22:8b), Saul asks, "What shall I do, sir?" (Acts 22:10a) In this simple exchange we are able to gain an understanding of faith, what it is and how it works. In other words, while faith, as we clearly see in the case of St. Paul's dramatic conversion, is a gift from God, that is, God's initiative towards us, by giving it, God seeks to elicit a response. Saul does not respond by saying, "Okay, cool. Gotcha" and then heading back to Jerusalem to ponder what this encounter might mean for him. He immediately grasps that this encounter changes everything. By asking the Lord, much like the Blessed Virgin Mary did in her fiat ("Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word"- Luke 1:38) "What shall I do?", Saul the zealous persecutor of the Church acknowledges Jesus the Nazorean as Lord.

The risen Lord tells Saul, "Get up and go into Damascus, and there you will be told about everything appointed for you to do" (Acts 22:10b). Saul was free to ignore the Lord's direction and to perhaps flee back to Jerusalem in an effort to make sense of what happened, but, led by the hand, due to being blinded by the light, he pressed ahead to Damascus. Ultimately he was directed to the house of a Jewish Christian, Ananias. Suffice it to say that Ananias, knowing of Saul's reputation as a persecutor of Christians, despite being told by the Lord to receive Saul, was apprehensive about so doing.

On this glorious feast, the question for each of us is, What is the Lord asking me to do? In other words, what is my response to God's gracious gift of faith? It is a perennial question, even a daily question, just as it was for St. Paul. Paul was an apostle, even if one who, by his own description, was "born out of due time" (1 Cor 15:8- KJV). One of the distinguishing marks of the Church, Christ's mystical Body, is that it is "apostolic." When we profess this in the Creed it is easy, especially as Catholics, to restrict the meaning of "apostolic" to apostolic succession (i.e., that the Church's authority is derived from and can be traced back to Christ and the apostles). This is tremendously important. But the word "apostle" means "one who is sent out."

Formerly, before we adopted the word "ministries," Catholic "ministries" were called, and sometimes still are called, "apostolates." By virtue of our Baptism, our Confirmation, our participation in the Eucharist, we are sent to bear witness to the Gospel. While we can certainly say we are to witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, we must never lose sight of the fact, made known to Saul so powerfully on the road to Damascus, that Jesus Christ is the Gospel!

Let's not forget that the word "Mass" is derived from the Latin word missa, which means to be dismissed, that is, sent. As a deacon, it is my great privilege to say, or sing, the dismissal at the end of the eucharistic liturgy. So, today and everyday, "Go and announce the Gospel of the Lord."

It bears noting that it was 25 January 1959, during the papal visit to St. Paul Outside the Walls in order to mark this significant feast, that Bl Pope John XXIII announced that he would convene the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council.

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