by Joel V. Ocampo
Every January 25, the Catholic Church celebrates the Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul the Apostle.
Conversion? Yes, conversion. Why? Because St. Paul was a former persecutor before He had a “Dominus est” (It is the Lord) experience on his way to Damascus.
Blasphemer and Persecutor
In his first letter to Timothy, St. Paul himself said, “I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and an arrogant man” (1 Tim. 1:13a). He also said, “I persecuted this Way to death, binding both men and women and delivering them to prison” (Acts 22:4). St. Paul, also known as ‘Saul’ in the past, “was trying to destroy the church; entering house after house and dragging out men and women, he handed them over for imprisonment” (Acts 8:3).
During the stoning of St. Stephen, the witnesses laid down their cloaks at the feet of Saul (Acts 7:58). The Scriptures tells us plainly that “Saul, still breathing murderous threats against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, that, if he should find any men or women who belonged to the Way, he might bring them back to Jerusalem in chains” (Acts 9:1-12).
From Saul to Paul
The conversion experience of St. Paul was so significant to the Christian community that St. Luke, the author of the Acts of the Apostles, recorded it three times.
In the first record, St. Luke tells us, “On his journey, as Saul was nearing Damascus, a light from the sky suddenly flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ He said, ‘Who are you, sir?’ The reply came, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. Now get up and go into the city and you will be told what you must do.’ The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, for they heard the voice but could see no one. Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him to Damascus. For three days he was unable to see, and he neither ate nor drank” (Act 9:3-9).
Then, “Ananias went and entered the house; laying his hands on him, he said, ‘Saul, my brother, the Lord has sent me, Jesus who appeared to you on the way by which you came, that you may regain your sight and be filled with the holy Spirit.’ Immediately things like scales fell from his eyes and he regained his sight. He got up and was baptized, and when he had eaten, he recovered his strength” (Acts 9:17-19a).
After his conversion, “Saul stayed some days with the disciples in Damascus, and he began at once to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, that he is the Son of God. All who heard him were astounded and said, ‘Is not this the man who in Jerusalem ravaged those who call upon this name, and came here expressly to take them back in chains to the chief priests?’ But Saul grew all the stronger and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus, proving that this is the Messiah” (Acts 9:19b-22).
St. Luke also recorded this story of the conversion of St. Paul in Acts 22:6-21 and Acts 26:12-18. In his letters, St. Paul also mentioned this great Dominus Est experience: Galatians 1:13-17 and 1 Timothy 1:12-16 among others.
The Greek words “μετανοεῖτε” (metanoeite) or “μετάνοια” (metanoia) are sometimes used for the word conversion or repentance. Metanoia can be translated into “re-orientation of one’s life”, “to go beyond the mind”, “change of mind”, or “repentance”.
As for St. Paul, his metanoia experience is a “total change of heart.” Such was his metanoia experience that he said to Timothy, his disciple, “I have been mercifully treated because I acted out of ignorance in my unbelief. Indeed, the grace of our Lord has been abundant, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. This saying is trustworthy and deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Of these I am the foremost. But for that reason I was mercifully treated, so that in me, as the foremost, Christ Jesus might display all his patience as an example for those who would come to believe in him for everlasting life” (1 Tim. 1:13b-16).
Because of this great mercy, St. Paul dedicated his life to proclaiming the mercy of God, even to the Gentiles. Because of this metanoia experience and his zeal in proclaiming the mercy of God, we have now the Letters of St. Paul to the Romans, Corinthians, Ephesians, Galatians, Philippians, Colossians, Thessalonians, Timothy, Titus, and Philemon. There were even some letters of St. Paul that were lost like the Letter to the Laodiceans (Col. 4:16), or not preserved because of the persecution of Christians in the first century.
Thanks be to God who called St. Paul to become an Apostle, the Good News of Salvation reached Asia Minor (now Turkey), Syria, Europe: Thessalonica, Beroea, Athens, etc. He even planned to go as far as Spain (Romans 15:28).
From Persecutor to Persecuted
Being a zealous apostle, St. Paul was not exempted from persecution. The Lord himself said to Ananias (the one who baptized Saul), “Go, for this man is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before Gentiles, kings, and Israelites, and I will show him what he will have to suffer for my name” (Acts 9:15-16).
In his second letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul enumerated all the hardships and persecutions that he experienced because of his mission. He said, “Are they ministers of Christ? I am still more, with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, far worse beatings, and numerous brushes with death.”
St. Paul also narrated his sufferings (2 Cor. 11:23-27):
five times at the hands of the Jews I received forty lashes minus one;
three times I was beaten with rods,
once I was stoned (Acts 14:19),
three times I was shipwrecked (Acts 27:43–44),
I passed a night and a day on the deep;
on frequent journeys,
in dangers from rivers,
dangers from robbers,
dangers from my own race,
dangers from Gentiles,
dangers in the city,
dangers in the wilderness,
dangers at sea,
dangers among false brothers;
in toil and hardship, through many sleepless nights,
through hunger and thirst,
through frequent fastings,
through cold and exposure.
He added, “apart from these things, there is the daily pressure upon me of my anxiety for all the churches…At Damascus, the governor under King Aretas guarded the city of Damascus, in order to seize me, but I was lowered in a basket through a window in the wall and escaped his hands” (2 Cor. 11:28, 32-33).
Persecuted, Not Abandoned
He was able to bear all these persecutions because of his deep faith in God.
St. Paul proudly said, “We are afflicted in every way, but not constrained; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our body. For we who live are constantly being given up to death for the sake of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you” (2 Cor. 4:8-12).
What is the goal of St. Paul?
Well, he himself said, “All I want is to know Christ and to experience the power of his resurrection, to share in his sufferings and become like him in his death, in the hope that I myself will be raised from death to life” (Phil. 3:10-11).
By participating in the mission of salvation, St. Paul says, “I have been crucified with Christ; yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me; insofar as I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself up for me” (Gal. 2:19b-20). He further said, “More than that, I even consider everything as a loss because of the supreme good of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have accepted the loss of all things and I consider them so much rubbish, that I may gain Christ” (Phil. 3:8).
Indeed, because of his Dominus Est and metanoia experiences, St. Paul became an outstanding example that God can write a straight line with one’s crooked life.
Journeying with St. Paul
As the world responds to Pope Francis’ Synod on Synodality, we will seek to be guided by our saints so that we journey with them, too. This month, we will be #journeyingwithStPaul. Watch out for our bible quotes from St. Paul every Tuesday on Facebook.com/DominusEstPH and on Instagram @dominusestwebministry.