Throwback Thursday: Mercy and the Conversion of Saint Paul

Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls

When we first encounter Saint Paul, he is supporting the unjust killing of Saint Stephen, providing aid and encouragement by watching over the cloaks of the stone throwers (Acts 7:58).  He was at that time a Pharisee known as Saul and we read in the New Testament how he had wanted to destroy the nascent Church.  In his zeal for his own beliefs, he dragged believers in Christ out of their homes, handed them over for imprisonment and even plotted their deaths (Acts 8:3, 22:4).

One day, with a commission in hand to hunt down Christians, Saul was on the road to Damascus when “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’” (Acts 9:3-5).

Coming as it did from heaven, the voice was clearly indicating that Jesus is in fact the Lord and, further, that he identified with the Church – Christ and his Church are one.  Thus, to persecute the Church is to persecute the Lord Jesus himself.  We can imagine the apprehension felt by the great persecutor of the Church at that moment.  Yet, instead of the worldly justice of punishment and death coming down upon him for the evils done by him, Saul received God’s loving mercy and pardon.

This man who had rejected Christ and tried to destroy his Church would never forget the mercy shown him.  He took the name Paul and for the rest of his life professed the Gospel and, in a special way, the wholly gratuitous and undeserved mercy of God.  “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Of these I am the foremost,” Paul freely confessed in his First Letter to Timothy, noting with gratitude, “I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and an arrogant man, but I have been mercifully treated” (1 Timothy 1:15, 13).

Of the many lessons to be drawn from the conversion of Saint Paul, one of the most important is that there is no sin so great that God will not forgive.  None of us should think our sins are just too horrible or awful that they are unforgiveable.  God knows that we have sinned; he knows that sometimes these sins are grave and unspeakable.

“When faced with the gravity of sin,” says Pope Francis, “God responds with the fullness of mercy. Mercy will always be greater than any sin, and no one can place limits on the love of God who is ever ready to forgive” (Misericordiae Vultus, 3).  That is the whole reason the Lord came among us and suffered for us on the Cross – so that we might be redeemed.

Another lesson for this day is that the Lord is active in seeking our redemption, he takes the initiative.  God does not wish to leave us alone in the throes of evil (Id.).  Perhaps our experiences are not as dramatic the divine intervention Paul received on the road to Damascus, but the Lord does go forward and reach out to each of us, speaking to our hearts and speaking to us through the Church.  God calls us to conversion as well.

Following his conversion, with the grace of God, the great persecutor of the Church became the great missionary apostle.  The Lord calls Paul his “chosen instrument” to spread the Gospel to the world (Acts 9:15), and he would travel all around what is now Greece and Turkey before coming to Rome, proclaiming salvation and eternal life in Jesus Christ.  Paul confirms that it was part of God’s plan that through him, the foremost sinner, “Christ Jesus might display all his patience as an example for those who would come to believe in him for everlasting life” (1 Timothy 1:15-16).

Thus, we find a third meaning in the conversion of Saint Paul – the Lord will make major saints out of unlikely personalities.  He will bring good out of bad.  This is the way the Lord works.

Although we might stray from the Lord in sin, although we might oppose the Church’s teachings and even oppress the body of Christ, we are never lost.  God never abandons us.  In his infinite merciful love, the Lord comes into the world to redeem us and offer us a new life.  More than that, he wants to give us his grace to be a great saint, to be a great missionary disciple in our own portion of the world.