Weekly General Audience September 3, 2008
Pope Benedict XVI continued his series of teachings on St. Paul Sept. 3, focusing on Paul’s dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus. The ultimate source of our own conversion does not lie in philosophical theories or moral codes, but in the person of Jesus and his Gospel. He alone defines our identity as Christians, and he alone gives ultimate meaning to our lives.
Dear brothers and sisters,
Today’s catechesis will be devoted to the experience St. Paul had on the road to Damascus, an experience that is commonly referred to as his conversion.
It was on the road to Damascus in the early 30s of the first century — and after a period during which he had persecuted the Church — that the decisive event of Paul’s life took place.
Much has been written about this experience, from a variety of viewpoints, naturally. What is certain is that a turning point — a complete reversal in his outlook — did occur. From then on, unexpectedly, Paul began to consider everything that he had previously held as the highest ideal — almost the very reason for his being — as “loss” and “rubbish” (see Philippians 3:7-8).
St. Luke’s Accounts
What happened? To answer this, we have two different sources. The first and best known source is the account written by Luke, who recounts this event three different times in the Acts of the Apostles (see 9:1-19; 22:3-21; 26:4-23).
The average reader might be tempted to dwell too much on certain details, such as the light from heaven, his fall to the ground, the voice that spoke to him, his sudden blindness, his healing when the scales fell from his eyes, as well as his fasting. But these details all point back to the core of the event: The risen Christ appeared as a shining light and spoke to Saul, transforming not only his thinking, but also his life.
The splendor of the risen Christ blinded him: This showed exteriorly Paul’s inner reality — his blindness to the truth, to the light that is Christ. His subsequent and definitive Yes to Christ in baptism opened his eyes again and enabled him to truly see.
In the early Church, baptism was also referred to as an “illumination” because the sacrament gives us light and enables us to truly see.
What is signified theologically also happened physically in Paul: Healed of his interior blindness, he was able to truly see. Thus, it was not some thought that transformed St. Paul, but rather an event — the irresistible presence of the risen Christ — which he could never afterwards doubt, so strong was the evidence of that event, of that encounter.
It changed Paul’s life in a fundamental way; in this sense we can and we must speak of a conversion. This encounter is the focal point of St. Luke’s account, and it is very probable that he made use of an account that originated in the community at Damascus.
The local color that the presence of
Ananias provides as well as the name of the street and the owner of the house
St. Paul’s Accounts
The second source for this conversion experience is the letters of St. Paul himself.
He never spoke in detail about this event, I suppose, because he supposed everyone knew the essentials of his history; everyone knew he was the persecutor who was transformed into a fervent apostle of Christ. This did not occur as a result of his own reflection, but as a result of a powerful event — an encounter with the risen Lord.
Even though he does not speak about the details, he referred several times to this very important fact: He, too, was a witness to Jesus’ resurrection, the revelation of which he received from Jesus himself along with his mission as an apostle.
The clearest statement on this point is found in his account of what constitutes the core of the history of salvation: the death and resurrection of Jesus and his appearances to witnesses (see 1 Corinthians 15).
Using words from the most ancient tradition, which he had received from the church in Jerusalem, Paul tells us that Jesus — who had died on the cross, was buried and rose from the dead — appeared after his resurrection first to Cephas, that is, Peter, then to the Twelve Apostles, and then to 500 other brothers, most of whom were still alive at the time.
He appeared later to James and then to all the apostles. To this account handed down by tradition, he added: “Last of all … he appeared to me” (1 Corinthians 15:8). Thus, he makes it clear that this was the foundation of his apostolate and his new life.
There are other passages where he says the same things: “Through him we have received the grace of apostleship” (see Romans 1:5) and “Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?” (1 Corinthians 9:1) — words with which he alludes to something that everyone knew.
Finally, the most widely known passage is found in Galatians 1:15-17: “But when (God), who from my mother’s womb had set me apart and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him to the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult flesh and blood, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me; rather, I went into Arabia and then returned to Damascus.”
In this “apologia” of his apostleship and mission, he resolutely emphasizes that he too was a true witness to the risen Christ, that he had received his personal mission directly from the risen Christ.
True Apostle, True Witness
We can see, therefore, that both sources — the Acts of the Apostles and the Letters of St. Paul — converge and agree on this fundamental point: The risen Christ spoke to Paul, called him to his apostolate, and made him a true apostle and witness to the resurrection with the specific task of proclaiming the Gospel to the pagans, to the Greco-Roman world.
At the same time, Paul also learned that, despite the immediacy of his relationship with the risen Christ, he had to enter into the communion of the Church, he had to be baptized, he had to live in harmony with the other apostles.
Only in communion with everyone could he truly be an apostle, as he explicitly writes in his first letter to the Corinthians: “Therefore, whether it be I or they, so we preach and so you believed” (1 Corinthians 15:11).
There is only one proclamation of the risen Christ because there is only one Christ.
As we can see from all these passages, Paul never considered this event a conversion. Why? There are so many hypotheses, but for me, the reason is very evident.
This turning point in his life, this transformation of his entire being, was not the result of some psychological process, of an intellectual and moral evolution or a process of maturity, but came from the outside: It was not the fruit of his thinking, but of his encounter with Christ Jesus. In this sense, it was not simply a conversion or the maturing of his “I”; it was, rather, the death and resurrection of himself — a life of his died and a new one was born from it through the risen Christ. Paul’s renewal cannot be explained in any other way.
All the psychological analyses cannot clarify and resolve the problem; the event itself — a powerful encounter with Christ — is the only key to understanding what happened: death and resurrection, as well as renewal through the One who showed himself to him and spoke with him. In this more profound sense then, we can and must speak of conversion.
This encounter was a real renewal that changed all his parameters. Now he could say that what had once been essential and fundamental for him had become “rubbish,” no longer a “gain” but a loss, because from then on, the only thing that mattered was life in Christ.
The Apostle to the Gentiles
We must not think, however, that Paul was enclosed in an isolated event. The opposite is true, since the risen Christ is the light of truth, the light of God himself. It enlarged his heart and opened it up to all.
At that moment, he did not lose all there was of goodness and truth in his life and in his heritage, but understood in a new way the wisdom, the truth and the depth of the Law and the Prophets, and appropriated them in a new way.
At the same time, he opened up his reasoning to the wisdom of the pagans. By having opened himself up to Christ with all his heart, he became capable of engaging in a wider dialogue with everyone, he became capable of making himself all things to all people. That is how he could truly be the apostle of the pagans.
As for us, we wonder what this means for us. It means that, for us too, Christianity is not some new philosophy or some new morality.
We are Christians only if we have an encounter with Christ. Of course, he does not reveal himself to us in the irresistible and luminous way he revealed himself to Paul in order to make him the Apostle of the Gentiles. But we too can encounter Christ by reading sacred Scripture, in prayer, and through the liturgical life of the Church.
We can touch the heart of Christ and sense that he touches ours. It is only in this personal relationship with Christ, only in this encounter with the risen Christ that we become truly Christian. In this way, we open our minds to all of Christ’s wisdom and to all the richness of truth.
Therefore, let us ask the Lord to give us his light and an encounter with his presence in our world, thereby giving us a living faith, open hearts and great love for all, capable of renewing the world.