The Conversion of Saint Paul
We have already seen how the Gentiles, in the person of the Three Magi, offered their mystic gifts to the Divine Child of Bethlehem, and received from Him, in return, the precious gifts of faith, hope, and charity. The harvest is ripe; it is time for the reaper to come. But who is to be God’s labourer? The Apostles of Christ are still living under the very shadow of mount Sion. All of them have received the mission to preach the gospel of salvation to the uttermost parts of the world; but not one among them has, as yet, received the special character of Apostle of the Gentiles. Peter, who had received the Apostleship of Circumcision (Gal. ii. 8), is sent specially, as was Christ Himself, to the sheep that are lost of the house of Israel (St. Matth. xv. 24). And yet, as he is the Head and the Foundation, it belongs to him to open the door of Faith to the Gentiles (Acts, xiv. 26); which he solemnly does, by conferring Baptism on Cornelius, the Roman Centurion.
But the Church is to have one more Apostle–an Apostle for the Gentiles–and he is to be the fruit of the martyrdom and prayer of St. Stephen. Saul, a citizen of Tarsus, has not seen Christ in the flesh, and yet Christ alone can make an Apostle. It is then, from heaven, where He reigns impassible and glorified, that Jesus will call Saul to be His disciple, just as, during the period of his active life, He called the fishermen of Genesareth to follow him and hearken to His teachings. The Son of God will raise Saul up to the third heaven, and there will reveal to Him all his mysteries: and when Saul, having come down again to this earth, shall have seen Peter (Gal. i. 18), and compared his Gospel with that recognised by Peter (Ibid. ii. 2)–he can say, in all truth, that he is an Apostle of Christ Jesus (Gal. i. I), and that he has done nothing less than the great Apostles (II. Cor. xi. 5).
It is on this glorious day of the Conversion of Saul, who is soon to change his name into Paul, that this great work is commenced. It is on this day, that is heard the Almighty voice which breaketh the cedars of Libanus (Ps. xxviii. 5), and can make a persecuting Jew become first a Christian, and then an Apostle. This admirable transformation had been prophesied by Jacob, when, upon his death-bed, he unfolded, to each of his sons, the future of the tribe of which he was to be the father. Juda was to have the precedence of honour; from his royal race, was to be born the Redeemer, the Expected of nations. Benjamin’s turn came; his glory is not to be compared with that of his brother Juda, and yet it was to be very great– for, from his tribe, is to be born Paul, the Apostle of the Gentile nations.
These are the words of the dying Prophet: Benjamin, a ravenous wolf, in the morning shall eat the prey, and in the evening shall divide the spoil (Gen. xlix. 27). Who, says an ancient writer (These words are taken from a Sermon, which for long time was thought to be St. Augustine), is he, that in the morning of impetuous youth, goes like a wolf, in pursuit of the sheep of Christ, breathing threatenings and slaughter against them? Is it not Saul on the road to Damascus, the bearer and doer of the high-priest’s orders, and stained with the blood of Stephen, whom he has stoned by the hands of all those, over whose garments he kept watch? And he, who, in the evening, not only does not despoil, but with a charitable and peaceful hand, breaks to the hungry the bread of life–is it not Paul, of the tribe of Benjamin, the Apostle of Christ, burning with zeal for his brethren, making himself all to all, and wishing even to be an anathema for their sakes?
Oh! the power of our dear Jesus! how wonderful! how irresistible! He wishes that the first worshippers at His Crib should be humble Shepherds–and He invites them by His Angels, whose sweet hymn was enough to lead these simple-hearted men to the Stable, where lies, in swaddling-clothes, He who is the hope of Israel. He would have the Gentile Princes, the Magi, do Him homage–and bids to arise in the heavens a Star, whose mysterious apparition, joined to the interior speaking of the Holy Ghost, induces these men of desire to come from the far East, and lay, at the feet of an humble Babe, their riches and their hearts. When the time is come for forming the Apostolic College, He approaches the banks of the sea of Tiberias, and with this single word: Follow me, He draws after Him such as He wishes to have as His Disciples. In the midst of all the humiliations of His Passion, He has but to look at the unfaithful Peter, and Peter is a penitent. Today, it is from heaven that He evinces His power: all the mysteries of our redemption have been accomplished, and He wishes to show mankind, that He is the sole author and master of the Apostolate, and that His alliance with the Gentiles is now perfect:–He speaks; the sound of His reproach bursts like thunder over the head of this hot Pharisee, who is bent on annihilating the Church; He takes this heart of the Jew, and, by His grace, turns it into the heart of the Apostle, the Vessel of election, the Paul who is afterwards to say of himself: I live not I, but Christ liveth in me (Gal. ii. 20).
The commemoration of this great event was to be a Feast in the Church, and it had a right to be kept as near as might be to the one which celebrates the martyrdom of St. Stephen, for Paul is the Protomartyr’s convert. The anniversary of his martyrdom would, of course, have to be solemnized at the summer-solstice; where, then, place the Feast of his Conversion if not near Christmas, and thus our own Apostle would be at Jesus’ Crib, and Stephen’s side? Moreover, the Magi could claim him, as being the conqueror of that Gentile-world, of which they were the first-fruits.
And lastly, it was necessary, in order to give the court of our Infant-King its full beauty, that the two Princes of the Church–the Apostle of the Jews, and the Apostle of the Gentiles–should stand close to the mystic Crib; Peter, with his Keys, and Paul, with his Sword. Bethlehem thus becomes the perfect figure of the Church, and the riches of this season of the Cycle are abundant beyond measure.
Sequence: Corde, voce pulsa caelos
Church of the Gentiles! sing with heart and voice thy hymn of triumph, and make the heavens echo.
Paul, the Doctor of the Gentiles, has finished his course, and triumphs in glory.
This is he that was the youthful Benjamin, the ravenous wolf, the devourer of the prey, the enemy of the Faithful.
He was a wolf in the morning, but in the evening, a lamb. The night was past, the day-star rose, and he preaches the Gospel.
This is he that marched in the road of death, but was stayed, as he goes to Damascus, by Him who is the Way of Life.
He had breathed forth threats, but at length he yields; he prostrates, and obeys; he is made captive, and goes whither he is led.
He is sent to Ananias–the wolf to the lamb: his stormy heart is calm.
He receives the sacrament of the font; its saving waters turn the venom of his soul into the fragrance of love.
He becomes a sacred vessel, a vessel divine, a vessel that gives forth to men the sweet wine of the grace of doctrine.
He visits the synagogues, and proves the christian faith by unfolding the prophets.
He preaches the cross of Christ; and for that Cross’ sake himself does bear the cross, dying a thousand deaths.
Yet dies not, but is a living victim, conquering every pain by unconquered courage.
He is set apart by God as the teacher of the Gentiles; and by the wisdom of God he overcomes the wise ones of the world.
Rapt to the third heaven, he sees the Father and Son in one substance.
The mighty Rome, and the learned Greece– both bow down their heads, and learn the Mysteries, and embrace the Faith of Christ.
The Cross triumphs! Then does Nero rage to see this Paul spreading the Faith by his preaching, and sentences him to die by the sword.
Thus disburthened from the flesh, Paul sees the true Sun, the Only Begotten of the Father.
He sees the Light in Light, by whose almighty power we shun the pains of hell. Amen
Prayer from the Gallican Missal:
O God, who, by a voice from heaven, didst strike with terror thine Apostle Paul when raging against the holiness of the Christian Religion, and, on this the day of his Vocation, didst change him both in his heart and his name: and him, whom the Church once dreaded as her persecutor, she now rejoices in having as her Teacher in the commandments of God: whom, also, thou didst strike with exterior blindness, that thou mightest give him interior sight: to whom, moreover, when the darkness of his cruelty was removed, thou didst give the knowledge of thy divine law, whereby he might call the Gentiles: and didst thrice deliver him from shipwreck, which he suffered for the Faith, saving this thy devoted servant from the waves of the sea: grant also to us, we beseech thee, who are solemnising both his conversion and his faith, that, after the blindness of our sins, we may be permitted to see Thee, in heaven, who didst enlighten Paul, here on earth. Amen
We give Thee thanks, O Jesus! who hast, this day, prostrated Thine enemy by Thy power, and raised him up again by Thy mercy. Truly art thou the Mighty God, and Thy victories shall be praised by all creatures. How wonderful art Thou, in Thy plans for the world’s salvation! Thou makest men thy associates in the work of the preaching of thy word, and in the dispensing of Thy Mysteries; and, in order to make Paul worthy of such an honour, Thou usest all the resources of Thy grace. It pleased Thee to make an Apostle of Stephen’s murderer, that so Thy sovereign power might be shown to the world, Thy love of souls be evinced in its richest gratuitous generosity, and grace abound where sin had so abounded. Sweet Saviour! often visit us with this grace which converts the heart; for we desire to have the life of grace abundantly, and we feel that its very principle is often in danger within us.
Convert us, as thou didst Thine Apostle; and after having converted us, assist us; for, without Thee, we can do nothing. Go before us, follow us, stand by our side; never leave us, but as Thou hast given us the commencement, secure to us our perseverance to the end. Give us that christian wisdom, which will teach us how to acknowledge, with fear and love, that mysterious gift of grace, which no creature can merit, and to which, nevertheless, a creature’s will may put an obstacle. We are captives: thou alone art master of the instrument, wherewith we can break our chains; thou puttest it into our hands, bidding us make use of it; so that our deliverance is thy work, not ours–but our captivity, if it continue, can only be attributed to our negligence and sloth. Give us, O Lord, this Thy grace; and graciously receive the promise we now make, that we will render it fruitful by co-oporating with it.
Assist us, thou holy Apostle of Jesus! to correspond with the merciful designs of God in our regard; obtain of Him, for us, that we may be overcome by the sweetness of an Infant-God. His voice does not make itself heard; He does not blind us by the glare of His divine light; but this we know–He often complains that we persecute him! Oh! that we could have the courage to say to Him, with a heart honest like thine: Lord! what wilt thou that we do? He would answer, and tell us, to be simple, and to become little children, like Himself–to recognise now, after so many Christmases of indifference, the love He shows us in this mystery of Bethlehem–to declare war against sin–to resist our evil inclinations–and to advance in virtue, by walking in His divine footsteps. Thou hast said, in one of thine Epistles: If any man love not our Lord Jesus Christ, let him be anathema (I. Cor. xvi. 22)! Oh! teach us to know this dear Jesus more and more, that so we may grow in his love; and, by thy prayers, preserve us from that ingratitude which turns even the sweet Mysteries of this holy season into our own greater condemnation.
Glorious Vessel of election! pray for the conversion of sinners, who have forgotten their God. When on this earth, thou didst spend thyself for the salvation of souls; continue thy ministry, now that thou art reigning in heaven, and draw down, upon them that persecute Jesus, the graces which triumph over the hardest hearts. Apostle of the Gentiles! look with an eye of loving pity on so many nations, that are still sitting in the shadow of death. During thy mortal life, thou wast divided between two ardent desires–one, to be with Christ, the other, to remain longer on earth labouring for the salvation of immortal souls: now, that thou art united for ever with the Jesus thou didst preach to men, forget not the poor ones to whom their God is a stranger. Raise up in the Church apostolic men, who may continue thy work. Pray to our Lord that He bless their labours, and the blood of such among them as are Martyrs of zeal. Shield, with thy protection, the See of Peter, thy Brother-Apostle and thy Leader.
Support the authority of the Church of Rome, which has inherited thy power, and looks upon thee as her second defence. May thy powerful intercession lead her enemies into humble submission, destroy schisms and heresies, and fill her Pastors with thy spirit, that, like thee, they may seek, not themselves, but solely and in all things the interests of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen
How much the Mercy of God Appears in the Conversions of St. Paul and David
When the Savior came into the world, men had arrived at the height of malice. Among the Jews, the laws “were in the hands of Annas and Caiphas, than whom none could be more wicked. Herod reigned in Galilee, Pontius Pilate presided in Judea.
It was at this time, I say, that God came into the world to redeem us, and to deliver us from the slavery of sin and the tyranny of our enemy: impelled by His immense goodness alone to communicate Himself to us. Truly the heart of our divine Savior and Master was all full of mercy and meekness towards the human race, and He gave many admirable proofs and testimonies of it on innumerable occasions when His mercy made His greatness shine forth, as we read in various portions of the Holy Scripture.
When was St. Paul forgiven, unless when he had arrived at the height of malice? Every one knows that at the time of his conversion, he was in the midst of his greatest hatred and fury against God, and unable to satisfy his rage against Our Savior, had turned his wrath against the Church, which, if possible, he would have driven from the face of the earth; breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord; and, nevertheless, it was then that the Lord vanquished his malice and ingratitude, touched his heart, converted him, forgave all his iniquities, even at the very time when he was most undeserving of mercy. O God! how great was the divine mercy in regard to this holy apostle! yet we every day see like effects of the goodness of God towards sinners; for when they are most hardened in their sins, and have come to such a degree of malice that they live as if there were neither a God, nor a heaven, nor a hell, it is then He manifests the bowels of His pity and His sweet compassion, sending a ray of His divine light into their souls, discovering to them their miserable condition, that they may arise from it.
But never do I read of the conversion of David without being astonished to see that this prophet, after having committed such great sins, remained for nearly a year without returning to himself, buried in a profound lethargy, never awaking or perceiving his miserable condition. O God! his sin would have been in some manner excusable, if it had been committed whilst he was yet a shepherd, tending his flocks; but that David should have sinned after having received so many and such great graces from the Divine Majesty, so many lights and favours, after having wrought such marvels and prodigies, after having been brought up in the bosom of the sweet clemency and mercy of God; that he should have committed such crimes, and remained afterwards for so long a time without recognizing them, oh, this is indeed a matter of the greatest amazement!
He commits many sins, heaping them upon one another, and lies stagnating in his iniquities for nearly a year, without perceiving his miserable state or remembering his God!Â Behold poor David then without any disposition for grace, through his forgetfulness of God; but the divine goodness, seeing his blindness, and to withdraw him from sin, sends him the prophet Nathan, who, wishing to make him recognize his fault, uses a parable: telling him that a rich man, who had a large number of sheep and oxen, had taken away from a poor man one single little lamb, which he had nourished in his house, and which he singularly loved. See, I beg of you, how wisely the prophet speaks to him in the third person of his fault, in order to make him recognize and confess it; but David, plunged in such complete blindness as not to see his sin, does not perceive that the prophet Nathan refers to him in any manner, and pronounces sentence of death against the man who had stolen the sheep, commanding him, moreover, to restore four-fold its value.
Consider, I beg of you, how hardened poor David was in his sin, of which he had not any sentiment; but as for the faults of others, he could very well be aware of them, and knew how to impose a punishment proportioned to their guilt. But the prophet Nathan, seeing that David did not recognize his sins, told him boldly that it was he who had stolen away the lamb, which poor David understanding, being struck with contrition, he cried out: “I have sinned against the Lord.” Peccavi Domino. Then Nathan said to him: “Because you have confessed your sin, God forgives you, and you shall not die.”
Now, what greater effect would you wish to see of the mercy of God than this? For, at the time when David would appear to have reached the very summit of his malice, God forgave his iniquity. But what a change did he manifest after recognizing his fault! He did nothing but weep and deplore his blindness; no other word was heard from him than this, Peccavi, and, crying to God for mercy, he went about continually repeating the psalm of penance, Miserere mei, Deus.
There are many other similar examples in the Holy Scriptures, by which God has displayed to us the greatness of His mercy, and from which we see the truth of these words of Isaias: “Because their malice has come to its height, it will be forgiven them.”
The Liturgical Year. 1904. Abbot Dom Gueranger, O.S.B. Translated from the French by Dom Laurence Shepherd, O.S.B. Imprimatur, 1910.