Conversion of St. Paul 2018
Today’s reading from St. Luke’s Acts of the Apostles is precious because it is one of the first-person testimonies from St. Paul about his conversion on the road to Damascus. Rabbi Saul was on his way to being the most famous Jew in the Levant when the Lord put him into a rather strict time-out. He saw a great light, certainly a sign of the presence of God, and heard the voice of God asking “Saul, Saul, why dost thou persecute me?” And He heard God identify Himself first with Jesus of Nazareth, who Saul thought was a fraud, and then with the disciples of Jesus whom Saul was persecuting. Talk about being blindsided! Oh, and then Saul found himself being not only spiritually blind, but physically blind. It was the disciple Ananias who first restored Saul’s physical sight, and then catechized and baptized him, restoring his spiritual sight. Saul became Paul and became the most famous and influential Christian in the Roman Empire before Nero lopped off his head.
The intention of the Jew Saul was to destroy the community of “The Way,” the original name of the Catholic Church. Instead, the Christian Paul spread the community, now called Christians, at least through Greece and Anatolia, and, if tradition is correct, all the way to Hispania-Spain. Man proposes, God disposes. The only question for us as individuals is whether we will correspond our actions with God’s will, or try to resist it and run things our own way.
There is a widespread notion in the Christian world, held even by many Catholics, that Martin Luther’s based his revolution on a correct understanding of St. Paul’s writings, and that Catholics base their tradition on a reading and following of St. Peter. Even St. Peter seems to place himself against Paul, or at least against some interpretations of Paul, when he writes of Paul’s letters “in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction.” (2 Pt 3:16) Of course, the Lord gave us the Church’s magisterium to help us resolve some of the apparent discrepancies in the Scriptures.
Luther’s idea that human natures was totally corrupted by original sin ultimately led him to teach that man’s will is not free. Whatever we do that is good, he believed, is not because of our cooperation with God’s grace, but in spite of it. “Against the [Catholic] teaching . . .that the righteous acts of believers are performed in cooperation with God, Luther wrote that Christians receive such righteousness entirely from outside themselves; that righteousness not only comes from Christ but actually is the righteousness of Christ, imputed to Christians (rather than infused into them) through faith.”
Now Luther and his Protestant opponents like Calvin and Zwingli pretty much shattered the Church in Germany and Scandinavia. It was a lot like breaking a bowl or a fresco–pieces all over the place. But God is a master craftsman. As Fr. Montague has taught for a long time, with society as with us as individuals, when sin shatters, God picks up the pieces and puts them together into a mosaic of His Son. And it brings a new beauty for us to behold.
The rebuilding of the Church in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries took the divine energy that we receive in the Eucharist and gave it a new missionary impulse. Until then, Catholicism was pretty much a European thing. But Our Lord sent us to the whole world. Recall that during the century of Luther and Calvin, God raised up St. Ignatius Loyola to form the Jesuits. And whatever we think of them today, they were God’s army all over the world, spreading the true Faith, especially in Canada and the Far East. Francis Xavier, one of the first seven Jesuits, energized the Church in India and spread the Gospel all the way to Japan.
St. John Paul gave us a mission, and called us to a “new” evangelization. This century needs Christ and the Church in ways no other era has. Let’s pray for the spread of Christ’s word and His Church so that humans may give thanks and praise in a unified witness to the Gospel.