January 25, 2022
by Dennis Hamm, S.J.
Creighton University's Emeritus Theology
click here for photo and information about the writer

Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul, Apostle
Lectionary: 519

Acts 22:3-16 or Acts 9:1-22
Psalms 117:1BC, 2
Mark 16:15-18

Praying Ordinary Time

Pope Francis on this day- 2014

What If I Have Trouble Getting Better?

We celebrate our earliest saints not simply because they existed but also because they are models of Christian discipleship. But how about St. Paul? He is such a singular and towering figure that it seems presumptuous to presume I could aspire to imitate him. But this year I let Luke himself help me.  Luke knows well that he is stepping into a tradition of telling and retelling the story of Jesus, as he explains in his preface to his two-part work, his Gospel and Acts. Now, three generations on, it is time to tell the story of the Church. As he approaches this task, maybe for the first time, he knows that the figure of Paul is going to dominate this account of the Church’s growth. Talented literary artist that he is, he is very clever in the way he introduces Paul. By Luke’s time, of course, Paul is already famous, even legendary among Christians. But Luke wants to remind us that this is a man with an important and complicated past. After summarizing the growth of the early Christian community of Jerusalem that sprang up after the resurrection of Jesus and Pentecost, he takes up the story of one of the first exponents of the Christian mission (though first of seven named to serve as ‘deacon,’ Stephen, who also happens to be the first martyr.)

When Stephen’s preaching of the gospel is accompanied by signs and wonders and joy among the population, some other locals object to the way his speaking of Jesus challenges their way of understanding the Law. They instigate some false witness, take Stephen to the  Sanhedrin to charge that Stephen was uttering blasphemy about Moses and God. What follows is the longest speech in Luke’s second book, in which Stephen defends himself in the style of an Old Testament prophet, excoriating his own people for not living up their covenant with God. Some of his listeners—Luke doesn’t specify who—rush upon Stephen, throw him out of the city, and begin to stone him. Then comes a curious note: “The witness laid their cloaks at the feet of a young man named Saul.” Why import this detail? And why bother to give this young man his common Jewish name? 

Luke proceeds to  describe the death of Stephen in words that resonate with the death of Jesus:

“As they were stoning Stephen, he called out, ‘Lord, Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he fell to his knees and cried out in a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ And when he said this, he fell asleep.” 

Next, Luke adds, “NOW SAUL WAS CONSENTING TO HIS EXECUTION.” By this time in the narrative most first-time Christian readers likely realized that they are reading about the Saul they know best as Paul—now revealed as one who was on the wrong side, among Jews who rejected the beginning of Christian preaching of the good news. Saul/Paul—young but highly trained in the Law of his people.

Next, we hear of another of the ‘diaconal’ seven, Philip, who has success similar to Stephen’s evangelizing Judea, and Peter confronting Simon, about his desire to buy the power of controlling the Holy Spirit through his imitation of the apostles’ laying on of hands (the fraud we have come to call Simony!).

Now Luke is ready to give us the first account of the conversion of St. Paul. Having given us the back story of Saul’s surprising  allegiance with others who resist the prophetic power and authority of Stephen, reference to “uttering murderous threats against the disciples of the Lord” and then going to the high priest to secure letters authorizing him to bring followers of the Way back to Jerusalem in chains.

This brings us to the place in Acts where Luke provides his first account (of three!) of the Conversion of St. Paul. [This is Acts 9:1-22, which the Church provides as an alternate first reading for this feast.]

Remember, dear reader, that the whole point in my reviewing Luke’s careful introduction of the figure of Saul/Paul was that very personal one that Luke’s literary artistry is what helped me apply Luke’s presentation of this towering figure in a way that I could take personally as an example I could follow. In this way, Luke taught me that, in his own conversion Paul/Saul faced issues that I, too, as a third-millennium Catholic priest also face in my effort to be a faithful disciple in my own day. So, assuming that you are already familiar with Acts 9:1-22, please allow me to spell out my reflection in the form of a prayer:

Dear Lord, just when I thought I was stumped by the task for reflecting on this feast, you used Luke’s word itself as a way to awaken me to new possibilities of applying the biblical text. Just like Luke’s own readers, I thought I knew St. Paul. I thought it was presumptuous to think I could take him as a model. Take his status as a well-trained teacher of the traditions of his people, the people of Israel. Well, as a Catholic priest I have been given opportunities to learn much about the religious traditions of worldwide Catholicism, and that in the framework of the Society of Jesus, drawing on the wisdom not only of 400 years of the group’s history but also of the collective contemporary experience of ministry in all the continents of the world. Those opportunities could support the conviction that I am equipped to judge how our faith should be practiced in places where I have lived. But Luke reminded me that Saul/Paul’s expert training, bright as he was, had prepared him also to misjudge the movement of disciples of Jesus of Nazareth that was gaining popularity. Any movement that attributed such authority of a mere layman would have to be wrong and needed to be stopped in its tracks. A suffering Messiah doesn’t sound like a new David. And love of enemies—the leaders represented by the reigning high priest would be suspicious of that. The young scholar obviously needed ‘further training’ and Luke helped me see that the Lord saw that he got it--the example of Peter’s confrontation of Simon’s desire to buy spiritual power, being gracefully called to Christian baptism by Ananias of Damascus. Does my own practice of ministry require such challenges to further my own conversion? Well, in fact, my own physical vulnerability and dependence on others as I age has taught me that any power I may have gleaned from experience and study is entirely dependent on whether that ministry is governed by love and compassionate listening. Luke helped me see that Saul/Paul learned these things early. So help me, God.

Dennis Hamm, S.J. has been a reflection writer for this site since its beginning, over 20 years ago. This is his last reflection as he prepares to move to Milwaukee. We thank him for his fidelity to this ministry, for his life of scholarship, teaching, pastoral ministry and commitment to justice. We will miss him very much.                  

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