Converted and Converting

Our patron, St. Paul, isn’t any ordinary saint. He’s a singularity. He’s unique. And the Church calendar reflects the extraordinary role he played in God’s revelation. It was he who brought the Gospel to the world beyond Israel — the Gentiles. He’s credited as author of more than half the books of the New Testament, and it was under Paul’s tutelage that Luke composed his Gospel and Acts./p>

The Apostle to the Gentiles gets not one but two feasts on the Church’s Western calendar. In June he shares a feast with St. Peter, with whom he died as a martyr as they consecrated Rome with their blood.

Novena to St. Paul the Apostle

On January 25, however, we at the St. Paul Center mark our patronal feast: the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul. It’s a glorious day, quite unlike other feasts. For Paul’s conversion marks a milestone not only in his own life, but in the life of God’s people. Once a persecutor of Christ, he became the Lord’s preacher. Once an impediment to the Gospel, he became its great champion. Once a guardian of Israel as an ethnic preserve of holiness, Paul came to serve as a father in the worldwide (literally, catholic) Church that included both Jews and Gentiles.

The story of St. Paul’s conversion is told repeatedly in the New Testament, three times in the Acts of the Apostles and then, briefly, in Paul’s own correspondence with the Galatians and Corinthians. In all of history, no other conversion gets that kind of special coverage, with God himself as primary author of the narrative!

It’s possible, though, to over-emphasize the uniqueness of Paul’s conversion. When we consider the lives of the saints — and especially saints as extraordinary as Paul — we can be tempted to miss the lessons of their lives. We can miss the lessons that apply especially to us.

More than a decade ago, with my wife Kimberly and a few colleagues, I founded this apostolate, and we decided to name it after St. Paul. Most of us were converts to the Catholic faith, having come into full communion with the Church as adults. St. Paul, the “adult convert,” was a special guide for us.

But even that application is too narrow for this saint and this feast. For he’s not just a patron to those who change religious affiliation. In fact, it’s debatable whether he would have considered his affiliation to be different after he met the Lord.

No. St. Paul is everyone’s patron because we’re all called to conversion — and we’re always called to conversion, even if we’ve been Catholics since the cradle and attending Mass daily for decades.

Jesus said: “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3). The word he used for “turn” is at the root of all our Christian terms and notions about conversion.

Conversion is a turning toward God. It is a turning away from sin and from attachment to worldly things and worldly cares. This is the work of a lifetime. It’s not the matter of a moment. It’s not just “once and done.”

Unless we turn — unless we become “converts” — we’re not Christian. Unless we make a habit of repentance, we’re not disciples of Jesus Christ. We must convert again and again. We celebrate our conversions whenever we go to Confession. We celebrate our conversions, in fact, whenever we resist distraction and turn to our Father God in prayer.

In his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, on the joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis makes this matter abundantly clear. He is worried less about the enemies “out there” in the world than the enemies within — the vices and the unconverted habits that tempt us away from Christ and threaten our perseverance in the faith. He calls baptized Christians to “experience a conversion which will restore the joy of faith to their hearts and inspire a commitment to the Gospel.” He defines conversion as “openness to a constant self-renewal born of fidelity to Jesus Christ.” He emphasizes that even the pope must undergo such a conversion.

If we work on this, he says, all else will fall into place, in society and in the Church.

St. Paul should be our model for conversion. His conversion was ongoing, lifelong, never easy, but always joyful. “Rejoice in the Lord always,” he said in his Letter to the Philippians (4:4). “Again I will say, Rejoice.” Paul is joyful not because of how good things are getting, but how good God is. That’s the fruit of true conversion.

And that’s a great reason to celebrate on January 25. I hope you’ll join me in a special observance of the day. Be bold in asking God for graces. Be importunate, too, as you beg on my behalf and on behalf of the St. Paul Center.

Novena to St. Paul the Apostle

Entrust your intention to St. Paul and offer the following prayer.
O St. Paul, the Apostle, preacher of truth and Doctor of the Gentiles, intercede for us to God, who chose you.
You are a vessel of election, O St. Paul the Apostle, preacher of truth to the whole world.
O God, you have instructed many nations through the preaching of the blessed apostle Paul. Let the power of his intercession with you help us who venerate his memory this day.

Conclude with an
Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory Be.