Conversion of St. Paul.
Pope Francis has been the talk of the town , rather of the world, ever since he appeared on the Vatican gallery with his first humble utterance “pray for me”. Just a few years in the Chair of St. Peter and our Holy Father has attracted the respect of world leaders in the corridors of power and the gratitude of poor refugees and immigrants on the periphery of society. And yet, when a journalist asked him: “Who is Jorge Mario Bergolio?” “I am a sinner” came the frank and humble public confession from one whom we all address as the Holy Father.
Our self-conceited and self-righteous society of today, trapped by inhuman rivalry and cruel violence, lives in a world of damaging denials. We maliciously hide our sins and stubbornly deny we are sinners. We always accuse the other and never admit our own faults, falsely pretending that we seek peace and justice, and we moan: “Isn’t it , isn’t it terribly sad, I am so good and the world is so bad”. Notice however, that we Catholics, Like Pope Francis, admit that we are sinners.
At every Holy Mass we begin with the humble acknowledgement of our sins, saying: “Through my fault, through my fault to my most grievous fault” and then we pray: Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy. In the Sacrament of Reconciliation, we begin by saying:“Bless me father, for I have sinned,” and then we are absolved with the words: “May Almighty God have mercy on you, forgive you, your sins and lead you to eternal Life. Indeed, we confess we are sinners and God declares us sainta!
Today, in the feast of the conversion of St. Paul , we have an edifying example of the power of God’s mercy transforming a notorious sinner into a notable saint, a Hebrew Saul to a Christian Paul. The story reported by St. Luke in the Acts of the Apostles in Chptrs: 9, 22 and 26; and in St. Paul’s own letters to the Galatians 1, 13-17; and Phillipians 3,4-7 tells us of a self-righteous and self-conceited Saul, a young Orthodox educated Jew and a Roman citizen. Saul is all set on a vicious mission to imprison the disciples of Jesus Christ and wipe out their Resurrection claims. But suddenly, Saul’s journey to Damascus is intercepted by a bright light; he falls blindly to the ground, and a voice calls him by name, Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?; a dialogue ensues; Who are you, Lord” ? Asks the blind Saul, “I am Jesus the Nazarene whom you are persecuting,”, admonishes Jesus. Saul is repentant and asks: What am I to do? And Jesus directs him to the devout Ananias who is himself inspired in a vision to restore Saul’s sight and set him on a path pf conversion, from Saul, a fanatical persecutor of Christians to Paul, a zealous Apostle of the Gentiles. This genuine conversion from sinner to saint offers us three reflections:
First, that spiritual Conversion is always an initiative of our merciful God; It is Jesus who first confronts Saul and admonishes him for his vicious plans;
Secondly, Conversion takes place only in a repentant sinner, open to God’s forgiveness. Shocked to realise who he was persecuting, Saul does not defend nor deny his sin but seeks a solution: What am I to do?
Thirdly, true Conversion is the gift of God’s mercy, turning a sinner into a saint. Saul the over-zealous Jew, becomes by the mercy of God, Paul the committed Christian; from an aggressive persecutor to a zealous proclaimer of the Faith.
In St. Paul conversion means to be totally focussed on Jesus Christ; Now on his slogans are: I live not I, Christ lives in me; For me to live is Christ; Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel; All I want is to know Christ and Him crucified. I long to be dissolved and be with Christ. Now on, graced by God’s mercy, St. Paul commences a “spiritual work of mercy” of admonishing the Christians to shun sin and embrace sanctity.
We have other Conversion stories in the Gospel of Sinner-Saints, like Mary Magdalene, Peter, Zacheus, etc. and what is most characteristic about them is not so much the turning away from sin as the permanent following of Christ and no turning back.
The Lives of all Saints reflect this “Conversion” spirituality. We notice also a Conversion pattern in the life of a nine year old country boy, Johnny whom Jesus admonishes in a dream: “not with blows” and sets him on a mission to be the Father of youth, a channel of God’s mercy to the young. Here too, it is Jesus who initiates the conversion of Don Bosco who wholeheartedly devoted himself to the conversion of the young and the poor, transforming them from street boys to altar boys. He did so, particularly through the sacraments of the Holy Eucharist and Reconciliation (Confession)
God acts in our lives too. He takes the initiative and admonishes us too. Through our conscience or through our family or good friends, Jesus admonishes us and invites us to the Sacrament of mercy to be embraced by his forgiving love. Are we in denial declaring ourselves: I am not a sinner! Listen, Jesus says “I have come for sinners” and repeatedly assures us: Go, your sins are forgiven. Let us recall also that scene in the Gospel where Jesus declares that the Publican at the backdoor who prayed, “Lord forgive me a sinner” was more pleasing to God that the self-righteous Pharisee at the altar.
Confession of our sins draws down the mercy of God and is the surest path to personal holiness, family peace and world harmony. Don Bosco’s pedagogy of sanctity was to help his boys to understand that the Confessional is God’s throne of mercy and not a seat of judgement and condemnation. He made himself available at all times and in all places, for this ministry of mercy. Holiness flourished among the youth in his oratory.
May the Sacrament of Reconciliation for us, young and old, be an experience of conversion of a prodigal son or daughter being embraced by an all forgiving merciful Father who says: Even if you sins are red as scarlet will make them white as snow. "Go and sin no more".