Conversion of St. Paul

            I’m sure many of you know of Jacques Parizeau.  Mr. Parizeau led the Parti Quebecois during parts of the 1980s and ‘90s, and was the Premier of Quebec for a few years.  In the mid-90s, he led the movement for the separatist referendum in Quebec.  He thought that Quebec should be independent from Canada.  Many people in the rest of Canada were very angry with Mr. Parizeau.  Most Canadians wanted to keep the country together – they were called Federalists.  And for the Federalists, Jacques Parizeau was the face of separatism.

            Now imagine that Mr. Parizeau is driving from Montreal to Quebec City one day, and he sees a very bright light that blinds him.  He runs his car into a ditch, and when the other passengers ask him if he’s OK, he tells them he can’t see.  After a couple of days, he regains his sight and starts talking to the people around him about how he truly believes that Canada should stay together – all of the provinces and territories.  And he believes it so strongly, that for the rest of his life, he travels across Canada – North to South, East to West, speaking passionately – encouraging people to see Canada as a single, unified country.

            Perhaps that gives you some insight into the shock and disbelief that people felt when they heard St. Paul preaching about Jesus.  St. Paul, who was then known as Saul of Tarsus, was the arch-enemy of Jesus’ followers.  He actually killed Christians.  About a month ago, we celebrated the feast of St. Stephen.  St. Stephen was one of the first deacons and he was our first martyr.  He was stoned to death after a trial in front of the high priest – a trial that resembled Jesus’ trial before Pilate.  So we read from the Acts of the Apostles:  “Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. [This is the Saul who would become St. Paul.] While they were stoning Stephen he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”  Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.  And Saul approved of their killing him. That day a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria.  Devout men buried Stephen and made loud lamentation over him.  But Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison.”

            So you can understand why, in the first reading, when Jesus spoke to Saul, he said: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”  And then when the Lord spoke to Ananias, asking him to help Saul regain his sight, Ananias answered him saying: “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem.”  And what did Jesus say to Ananias?  “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel.”

            Again, this would be like Stephen Harper picking Jacques Parizeau today to travel the country to promote Canadian unity.  Couldn’t Jesus have picked someone better?  Was someone sleeping at the switch in Jesus’ human resources department?

            Before I continue, I should clarify that while Jacques Parizeau promoted an agenda that many Canadians found offensive and hurtful, I’m not suggesting that his actions were comparable to those of Saul of Tarsus, who became St. Paul.  Mr. Parizeau was not having Quebec Federalists stoned on street corners in Montreal.  By comparing these two people, I’m trying to help you understand the phenomenal transformation in St. Paul after he was blinded on the road to Damascus.  And I think we can take away two thoughts.  The first is comforting, and the second is challenging.

            The comforting thought is that Jesus chose the most unlikely person to spread his message to the world.  If you’ve been attending Father Paul’s sessions on St. Paul on the first Monday evening of each month, you’ve gained an appreciation of the critical role that St. Paul played in establishing Christianity.  The first reading today began: “Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord…”  If Jesus could trust such an important job to someone who hated him and his followers, then don’t we have a chance?  Won’t Jesus forgive us when we mess up?  Can’t Jesus trust us with an important job?

            I don’t know if you notice that before I come to read the Gospel, I get a blessing from Father Paul.  On my way over to the ambo, I stop in front of the altar and look at the crucifix for a while.  As I look at the image of Jesus on the cross, I feel sorrow, because I put him there.  Because of my sins, it was necessary for him to suffer and die.  I feel unworthy to proclaim his Gospel.  And yet I feel joy that despite my sinfulness Jesus has forgiven me.  Despite my unworthiness, Jesus has chosen me to proclaim his Gospel to you.

            So that’s the comforting thought.  The challenging thought is that before St. Paul could preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ, he had to undergo a conversion, and his conversion was so dramatic – and so vital to the establishment of the Church, that we celebrate it every January 25th.  This is not the feast of St. Paul.  We celebrate the feast of St. Peter and St. Paul on June 29th.  But the Church feels so strongly about importance of this event – Paul’s conversion – that it has its own feast, and this year, because it falls on a Sunday and because we are celebrating the Pauline year, it even surpasses the usual Sunday celebration – and that doesn’t happen very often.

            Our challenge is to experience our own conversion.  Conversion means letting Christ enter into our lives.  When we do that, we become a different person – a new creation.  Now I don’t think any of us routinely go around stoning Christians – at least I hope we don’t – so our conversion won’t be as dramatic as St. Paul’s, and maybe not as noticeable, but it will be just as important – to us. 

            After St. Paul’s conversion, he stopped persecuting Christians and began baptizing Christians.  What would conversion look like to you?  What would you do differently if you truly let Jesus into your life?  Instead of gossiping about someone you know, you might look for kind things to say about that person.  Instead of cursing and using God’s name when you’re angry, you might find other, less offensive words – heck, you might not even get angry as often!  Instead of loading your closet with new clothes every season, you might organize a clothing drive for the less fortunate.  Or if you tend to judge people by the clothes they wear, you might look beyond those externals, and try to find the good.

            And if you had really experienced a conversion, none of these things would feel forced – they wouldn’t feel like an obligation or a burden – they would just feel like the right thing to do – and they would bring you joy!

            I pray that each of you experiences conversion – I pray that each of you experiences the joy.