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“WHY ARE YOU PERSECUTING ME?”

Father Francis's picture
The Conversion of Saint Paul

The first time we meet Saul of Tarsus is at the scene of an execution. While Stephen, the first Christian martyr, was being stoned to death, his killers placed their coats at the feet of this young man.

It was the beginning of a time of great persecution for the Church in which Saul took a very active part. So eager was he to destroy Christ’s followers that he obtained letters from the High Priest in Jerusalem authorizing him to go to Damascus and arrest any Christians he found there.

What happened to Saul on the road to Damascus is one of the most famous and dramatic stories in the New Testament. As he and his companions rode along, looking forward to the success of their mission, there was a blinding flash of lightning and Saul heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, I am Jesus. Why are you persecuting Me?” Saul was led into Damascus where he remained blind for three days until Ananias, prompted by a vision of Jesus, went to visit him, laid his hands on him and told him that He was the Lord’s chosen instrument. It was then that Saul’s sight was restored and he realized the full significance of Jesus’ words. By persecuting the followers of Jesus he had been attacking Jesus Himself, because He and the Church are one body. This theme of the Mystical Body of Christ was to feature in all Paul’s letters. Saul immediately asked to be baptized and became known as Paul.

Naturally, everyone in Damascus was astonished when Paul began witnessing and preaching openly about Jesus. When he returned to Jerusalem he tried to join the disciples there, but they didn’t trust him. They knew his reputation only too well and they were afraid of him. Only Barnabas was prepared to speak up for him, taking him by the hand and introducing him to the apostles.

Conversions are not necessarily as sudden and spectacular as Paul’s. For some it may take years of study, discussion, prayer and inward struggle before receiving the grace to say, as St. Paul did, “Jesus is Messiah, the Son of God.” But the road taken by each convert is very similar. No doubt at some point along the road there will be an Ananias who puts his hands on their shoulders to give them encouragement, and a Barnabas who takes them by the hand in friendship.

That is only the beginning of the story. Paul’s first problem was to convince his fellow disciples that he really had changed, and was no longer Saul, the persecutor. It wasn’t enough to be baptized and to change his name; he had to prove his sincerity by putting his faith into action. All of us, converts or cradle Catholics, face the same challenge. How can we prove that we are genuine followers of Christ? Jesus said to Paul, “I Myself will show you what to do.” Perhaps in different ways Jesus is telling each of us what to do. Are we listening to the voice of Jesus, as did Saul of Tarsus?

Lord Jesus, there are many people who are searching for the truth. We pray that You will lead them to You and that they, in turn, will bring others to know and love You.