Father Joseph V. Corpora, CSC | February 13, 2018
Every year, the Church celebrates the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, the Apostle, on January 25. When we hear the words “conversion of St. Paul,” most often we think of the reading from the Acts of the Apostles, chapter 22, verses 3-16. The passage tells how Saul had been persecuting the followers of Jesus when he was knocked off his horse by a blinding light. As we hear in the Scripture, he eventually becomes a follower of Jesus under the new given name Paul, and he goes on to spend the rest of his life spreading the faith everywhere he can.
But what does conversion mean? From what is Paul converted? I recently read a reflection from Sister Ruth Burrows, OCD (a Carmelite nun at Quidenham, Norfolk, England), that helped me understand the deeper conversion that took place in this famous apostle.
Let’s look more closely at the conversion of St. Paul. To speak of Paul’s conversion as the conversion of a sinner in the sense that we usually mean is inaccurate. This is not like the conversion of Alessando Serenelli, who murdered Maria Goretti. While serving 27 years in prison for his crime, Serenelli reported seeing a vision of his victim in which she repeated to him how she had forgiven him on her deathbed. From this point, he was converted and became a model prisoner. Upon his release, he worked as a gardener and porter in a convent of Capuchin friars.
Paul was not a sinner in this sense. Rather, he was a deeply religious man, a devout Jew, and was blameless in the keeping of the law. He strove for purity of heart. Paul was not a hypocrite, not an outward boaster like the Pharisees that are portrayed in the Gospels. He acted from a sincere heart.
The sudden encounter with the Lord that we hear about in the reading from Acts turned his whole world upside down. To Paul, the story of Jesus was a revolting scandal. A man crucified as a criminal and condemned by the law was, in fact, God’s Messiah and Promised One? How could this be? Everything about Paul’s world was turned upside down by this revelation. Maybe this is why he had to be knocked off his horse — so that he could see correctly!