The Conversion of Saint Paul
(Feast Day 25 January)

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The Conversion of Saul - by MICHELANGELO di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni - from Cappella Paolina, Palazzi Pontifici, Vatican


First Reading: Acts 22:3-16

Paul told the people: "I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but I was brought up in this city. Here I sat at the feet of Gamaliel and was educated strictly in the law of our fathers. I was a staunch defender of God, just as all of you are today. Furthermore I persecuted this new way to the point of death. I arrested and imprisoned both men and women.

"On this point the high priest and the whole council of elders can bear me witness, for it was from them that I received letters to our brother Jews in Damascus. I set out with the intention of bringing the prisoners I would arrest back to Jerusalem for punishment. As I was traveling along, approaching Damascus around noon, a great light from the sky suddenly flashed all about me. I fell to the ground and heard a voice say to me, 'Saul, Saul, why do you persecute Me?' I answered, 'Who are You, Sir?' He said to me, 'I am Jesus the Nazorean Whom you are persecuting.' My companions saw the light but did not hear the voice speaking to me. 'What is it I must do, sir?' I asked, and the Lord replied, 'Get up and go into Damascus. There you will be told about everything you are destined to do.' But since I could not see because of the brilliance of the light, I had to be taken by the hand and led into Damascus by my companions.

"A certain Ananias, a devout observer of the law and well spoken of by all the Jews who lived there, came and stood by me. 'Saul, my brother,' he said, 'recover your sight.' In that instant I regained my sight and looked at him. The next thing he said was, 'The God of our fathers long ago designated you to know His will, to look upon the Just One, and to hear the sound of His voice; before all men you are to be His witness to what you have seen and heard. Why delay, then? Be baptized at once and wash away your sins as you call upon His name.'"

Gospel: Mk 16:15-18

Jesus appeared to the Eleven and said to them: "Go into the whole world and proclaim the good news to all creation. The man who believes in it and accepts baptism will be saved; the man who refuses to believe in it will be condemned. Signs like these will accompany those who have professed their faith: they will use My name to expel demons, they will speak entirely new languages, they will be able to handle serpents, they will be able to drink deadly poison without harm, and the sick upon whom they lay their hands will recover."


The Conversion of Saint Paul

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Apostle Paul - by REMBRANDT Harmenszoon van Rijn - from Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

From Saint Paul himself we know that he was born at Tarsus in Cilicia, of a father who was a Roman citizen, of a family in which piety was hereditary and which was much attached to Pharisaic traditions and observances. As he belonged to the tribe of Benjamin he was given at the time of his circumcision the name of Saul, which must have been common in that tribe in memory of the first king of the Jews. As a Roman citizen he also bore the Latin name of Paul. It was quite usual for the Jews of that time to have two names, one Hebrew, the other Latin or Greek. It was natural that in inaugurating his apostolate among the Gentiles, Paul should have adopted his Roman name. As every respectable Jew had to teach his son a trade, young Saul learned how to make tents, or rather to make the mohair of which tents were made. He was still very young when sent to Jerusalem to receive his education. Possibly some of his family resided in the holy city. From that time it is absolutely impossible to follow him until he takes an active part in the martyrdom of Saint Stephen. He was then qualified as a young man between twenty and forty.

We read in the Acts of the Apostles three accounts of the conversion of Saint Paul (Acts 9:1-19, 22:3-16, 26:9-23) presenting some slight differences, which it is not difficult to harmonize. After his conversion, his baptism, and his miraculous cure, Paul set about preaching to the Jews. He afterwards withdrew to Arabia-probably to the region south of Damascus doubtless less to preach than to meditate on the Scriptures. On his return to Damascus the intrigues of the Jews forced him to flee by night. He went to Jerusalem to see Peter, but remained only fifteen days, for the snares of the Greeks threatened his life. He then left for Tarsus and is lost to sight for five or six years. Barnabas went in search of him and brought him to Antioch where for a year they worked together and their apostolate was most fruitful. Together also they were sent to Jerusalem to carry alms to the brethren on the occasion of the famine predicted by Agabus. They do not seem to have found the Apostles there; these had been scattered by the persecution of Herod.

The period of twelve years (45-57) was the most active and fruitful of Paul's life. It comprises three great Apostolic expeditions of which Antioch was in each instance the starting-point and which invariably ended in a visit to Jerusalem.


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First mission

Set apart by command of the Holy Ghost for the special evangelization of the Gentiles, Barnabas and Saul embark for Cyprus, preach in the synagogue of Salamis, cross the island from east to west doubtless following the southern coast, and reach Paphos, the residence of the proconsul Sergius Paulus, where a sudden change takes place. After the conversion of the Roman proconsul, Saul, suddenly become Paul, is invariably mentioned before Barnabas by Saint Luke and manifestly assumes the leadership of the mission which Bamabas has hitherto directed. The results of this change are soon evident. Paul, doubtless that Cyprus, the natural dependency of Syria and Cilicia, would embrace the faith of Christ when these two countries should be Christian, chose Asia Minor as the field of his apostolate and sailed for Perge in Pamphylia, eight miles above the mouth of the Cestrus. It was then that John Mark, cousin of Barnabas, dismayed perhaps by the daring projects of the Apostle, abandoned the expedition and returned to Jerusalem, while Paul and Barnabas labored alone among the rough mountains of Pisidia, which were infested by brigands and crossed by frightful precipices. Their destination was the Roman colony of Antioch, situated a seven day's journey from Perge. Here Paul spoke on the vocation of Israel and the providential sending of the Messias, a discourse which Saint Luke reproduces in substance as an example of his preaching in the synagogues. The sojourn of the two missionaries in Antioch was long enough for the word of the Lord to be published throughout the whole country. When by their intrigues the Jews had obtained against them a decree of banishment, they went to Iconium, three or four days distant, where they met with the same persecution from the Jews and the same eager welcome from the Gentiles. The hostility of the Jews forced them to take refuge in the Roman colony of Lystra, eighteen miles distant. Here the Jews from Antioch and Iconium laid snares for Paul and having stoned him, left him for dead, but again he succeeded in escaping and this time sought refuge in Derbe, situated about forty miles away on the frontier of the Province of Galatia. Their circuit completed, the missionaries retraced their steps in order to visit their neophytes, ordained priests in each Church founded by them at such great cost, and thus reached Perge where they halted to preach the Gospel, perhaps while awaiting an opportunity to embark for Attalia, a port twelve miles distant. On their return to Antioch in Syria after an absence of at least three years, they were received with transports of joy and thanksgiving, for God had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles.

The problem of the status of the Gentiles in the Church now made itself felt with all its acuteness. Some Judeo-Christians coming down from Jerusalem claimed that the Gentiles must be submitted to circumcision and treated as the Jews treated proselytes. Against this Paul and Barnabas protested and it was decided that a meeting should be held at Jerusalem in order to solve the question. At this assembly Paul and Barnabas represented the community of Antioch. Peter pleaded the freedom of the Gentiles; James upheld him, at the same time demanding that the Gentiles should abstain from certain things which especially shocked the Jews. It was decided, first, that the Gentiles were exempt from the Mosaic law. Secondly, that those of Syria and Cilicia must abstain from things sacrificed to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from fornication. Thirdly, that this injunction was laid upon them, not in virtue of the Mosaic law, but in the name of the Holy Ghost. This meant the complete triumph of Paul's ideas. The restriction imposed on the Gentile converts of Syria and Cilicia did not concern his Churches, and Titus, his companion, was not compelled to be circumcised, despite the loud protests of the Judaizers. However, the decision of Jerusalem did not do away with all difficulties. The question did not concern only the Gentiles, and while exempting them from the Mosaic law, it was not declared that it would not have been counted meritorious and more perfect for them to observe it, as the decree seemed to liken them to Jewish proselytes of the second class. Furthermore the Judeo-Christians, not having been included in the verdict, were still free to consider themselves bound to the observance of the law. This was the origin of the dispute which shortly afterwards arose at Antioch between Peter and Paul. The latter taught openly that the law was abolished for the Jews themselves. Peter did not think otherwise, but he considered it wise to avoid giving offence to the Judaizers and to refrain from eating with the Gentiles who did not observe all the prescriptions of the law. As he thus morally influenced the Gentiles to live as the Jews did, Paul demonstrated to him that this dissimulation or opportuneness prepared the way for future misunderstandings and conflicts, and even then had regrettable consequences. His manner of relating this leaves no room for doubt that Peter was persuaded by his arguments.


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Second mission

The beginning of the second mission was marked by a rather sharp discussion concerning Mark, whom Saint Paul this time refused to accept as travelling companion. Consequently Barnabas set out with Mark for Cyprus and Paul chose Silas, a Roman citizen like himself, and an influential member of the Church of Jerusalem, and sent by it to Antioch to deliver the decrees of the Apostolic council. The two missionaries first went from Antioch to Tarsus, stopping on the way in order to promulgate the decisions of the Council of Jerusalem; then they went from Tarsus to Derbe, through the Cilician Gates, the defiles of Tarsus, and the plains of Lycaonia. The visitation of the Churches founded during his first mission passed without notable incidents except the choice of Timothy, whom the Apostle while in Lystra persuaded to accompany him, and whom he caused to be circumcised in order to facilitate his access to the Jews who were numerous in those places. It was probably at Antioch of Pisidia, although the Acts do not mention that city, that the itinerary of the mission was altered by the intervention of the Holy Ghost. Paul thought to enter the Province of Asia by the valley of Meander which separated it by only three day's journey, but they passed through Phrygia and the country of Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Ghost to preach the word of God in Asia. The missionaries having reached the Upper part of Mysia, attempted to enter the rich Province of Bithynia, which lay before them, but the Holy Ghost prevented them. Therefore, passing through Mysia without stopping to preach they reached Alexandria of Troas, where God's Will was again made known to them in the vision of a Macedonian who called them to come and help his country.

Paul continued to follow on European soil the method of preaching he had employed from the beginning. As far as possible he concentrated his efforts in a metropolis from which the Faith would spread to cities of second rank and to the country districts. Wherever there was a synagogue he first took his stand there and preached to the Jews and proselytes who would consent to listen to him. When the rupture with the Jews was irreparable which always happened sooner or later, he founded a new Church with his neophytes as a nucleus. He remained in the same city until persecution, general aroused by the intrigues of the Jews, forced him to retire. There were, however, variations of this plan. At Philippi, where there was no synagogue, the first preaching took place in the uncovered oratory called the proseuche, which the Gentiles made a reason for stirring up the persecution. Paul and Silas, charged with disturbing public order, were beaten with rods, imprisoned, and finally exiled. But at Thessalonica and Berea, whither they successively repaired after leaving Philippi, things turned out almost as they had planned. The apostolate of Athens was quite exceptional. Here there was no question of Jews or synagogue, Paul, contrary to his custom, was alone, and he delivered before the areopagus a specially framed discourse. He seems to have left the city of his own accord, without being forced to do so by persecution. The mission to Corinth on the other hand may be considered typical. Paul preached in the synagogue every Sabbath day, and when the violent opposition of the Jews denied him entrance there he withdrew to an adjoining house which was the property of a proselyte named Titus Justus. He carried on his apostolate in this manner for eighteen months, while the Jews vainly stormed against him; he was able to withstand them owing to the impartial, if not actually favorable, attitude of the proconsul, Gallio. Finally he decided to go to Salem in fulfillment of a vow made perhaps in a moment of danger. From Jerusalem according to his custom, he returned to Antioch.


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Third mission

Paul's destination in his third journey was obviously Ephesus. There Aquila and Priscilla were awaiting him, he had promised the Ephesians to return and evangelize them if it were the Will of God, and the Holy Ghost no longer opposed his entry into Asia. Therefore, after a brief rest at Antioch he went through the countries of Galatia and Phrygia, and passing through "the upper regions" of Central Asia he reached Ephesus. His method remained the same. In order to earn his living and not be a burden to the faithful he toiled every day for many hours at making tents, but this did not prevent him from preaching the Gospel. As usual he began with the synagogue where he succeeded in remaining for three months. At the end of this time he taught every day in a classroom placed at his disposal by a certain Tyrannus "from the fifth hour to the tenth" (from eleven in the morning till four in the afternoon). This lasted two years, so that all the inhabitants of Asia, Jews and Greeks, heard the word of the Lord.

Naturally there were trials to be endured and obstacles to be overcome. Some of these obstacles arose from the jealousy of the Jews, who vainly endeavoured to imitate Paul's exorcisms, others from the superstition of the pagans, which was especially rife at Ephesus. The progress of Christianity having ruined the sale of the little facsimiles of the temple of Diana and statuettes of the goddess, which devout pilgrims had been wont to purchase, a certain Demetrius, at the head of the guild of silversmiths, stirred up the crowd against Paul. The Apostle had to yield to the storm. After a stay at Ephesus of two years and a half, perhaps more, he departed for Macedonia and thence for Corinth, where he spent the winter. It was his intention in the following spring to go by sea to Jerusalem doubtless for the Pasch, but learning that the Jews had planned his destruction, he did not wish, by going to sea, to afford them an opportunity to attempt his life. Therefore he returned by way of Macedonia. Numerous disciples divided into two groups, accompanied him or awaited him at Troas. These were Sopater of Berea, Aristarchus and Secundus of Thessalonica, Gaius of Derbe, Timothy, Tychicus and Trophimus of Asia, and finally Luke, the historian of the Acts, who gives us minutely all the stages of the voyage: Philippi, Troas, Assos, Mtylene, Chios, Samos, Nfiletus, Cos, Rhodes, Patara, Tyre, Ptolemais, Caesarea, Jerusalem. Three more remarkable facts should be noted in passing. At Troas, Paul resuscitated the young Eutychus, who had fallen from a third-story window while Paul was preaching late into the night. At Mietus he pronounced before the ancients of Ephesus the touching farewell discourse which drew many tears. At Caesarea the Holy Ghost by the mouth of Agabus, predicted his coming arrest, but did not dissuade him from going to Jerusalem.

Saint Paul's four great Epistles were written during this third mission: the first to the Corinthians from Ephesus, about the time of the Pasch prior to his departure from that city; the second to the Corinthians from Macedonia, during the summer or autumn of the same year; that to the Romans from Corinth, in the following spring- the date of the Epistle to the Galatians is disputed.


Concluding Remarks

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Beheading of Saint Paul - by ALGARDI, Alessandro. . . from San Paolo, Bologna

Ancient tradition makes it possible to establish the following final points: (1) Paul suffered martyrdom near Rome at a place called Aquae Salviae (now Tre Fontane), somewhat east of the Ostian Way, about two miles from the splendid Basilica of San Paolo fuori le mura which marks his burial place. (2) The martyrdom took place towards the end of the reign of Nero. (3) According to the most common opinion, Paul suffered death in the same year and on the same day as Peter; several Latin Fathers contend that it was on the same day but not in the same year; the oldest witness, Saint Dionysius the Corinthian, says "at the same time" or "about the same time". (4) From time immemorial the solemnity of the Apostles Peter and Paul has been celebrated on 29 June, which is the anniversary either of their death or of the translation of their relics. Formerly on the 29th of June the pope, after having pontificated in the Basilica of Saint Peter, went with his attendants to that of Saint Paul, but the distance between the two basilicas (about five miles) rendered the double ceremony too exhausting, especially at that hot season of the year. Thus arose the prevailing custom of transferring to the next day (30 June) the Commemoration of Saint Paul. The feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul which we celebrate today (25 January) is of comparatively recent origin. There is reason for believing that the day was first observed to mark the translation of the relics of Saint Paul at Rome.