By June Klins
Last June Pope Benedict XVI proclaimed this the year of St. Paul. The following month when Redemptorist priest Fr. John Murray spoke at our annual St. Ann Novena, he used as his theme the life and writings of St. Paul. I would like to share some of the highlights that compare to Our Lady’s messages.
St. Paul was born about the year 8 A.D. in Tarsus. He lived there till he was 13 and then he went to Jerusalem to study, and when he was done with his studies he was designated to be a Pharisee. Paul was about 26 years old when he had his conversion experience. After his conversion he spent 3 years doing penance for his past sins. (Does not Our Lady ask us to penance?)
St. Paul is best known for his letters which take up more than half of the New Testament, and are the oldest writings in the New Testament. Although St. Paul was small in stature, he had a strong personality and was very passionate. His mission was not to baptize, but to preach. He was the greatest evangelist of all times. Although St. Paul never witnessed the life of Jesus, he called himself an “apostle” and used the word “apostle” 56 times in his letters. He has been dubbed “the apostle to the Gentiles.” At that time Gentiles were not allowed in the temple, but were permitted in the synagogue, so that is where he preached. Fr. John said that we are called to witness what God has done in our lives (likewise, Our Lady has asked us many times to witness), but like Paul we should go to “fertile ground” and not to just anyone.
Paul saw himself as a Christian Jew who had met Jesus. He converted from his Pharisee attitude, in which it was thought holiness could be earned. In his conversion experience Paul realized that he had done nothing to merit it, and the focus of his theology after that became grace, a gift which cannot be earned or merited. Paul saw everything as God’s gift and would praise and thank God. The fact that grace builds on nature is an axiom of theology. Grace fulfills us and completes us, and never suppresses us. Self-fulfillment is about cooperating with God’s grace. Grace is recognizing God acting in your life 24 hours a day. Sometimes God comes to us through other people, especially those in need and those who love us. Grace always comes as a response to prayer. (Is that why Our Lady tells us to pray, pray, pray?) Grace can be targeted too, for example, you can say a little prayer when being tempted to gossip, and then cooperate with that grace.
Fr. John said that St. Paul can teach us much through his conversion story. So significant is it, that his conversion story is told four times in the Scriptures. The Church even sets aside a day every year to remember St. Paul’s conversion, January 25, which also just happens to be “Medjugorje message day.” Father said that a conversion experience is an experience of loving forgiveness, often experienced in a special way in Confession. Father said that conversion is a lifelong process. (Have we not heard the visionaries tell us that?)
Father said that in any conversion, like in Paul’s, God takes the first step. It is up to the person to recognize the grace and respond and cooperate with that grace. Herod chose to refuse the grace, and we do the same thing when we respond a little bit or miss it altogether.
Paul’s conversion was a “metanoia,” a Greek word which means to change your life, to change your way of thinking. (This is what Our Lady asks us to do too – a conversion of heart.) This is opposed to the Greek word “paranoia,” which means to be obsessed with fear. Paul put aside his fear, in following Jesus, who says 33 times in the Gospels “fear not.”
Fear is the opposite of trust. Conversion is not so much about changing your behavior, but learning to trust God.
St. Paul wrote twelve letters with his name attached to them, and most of them dealt with problems of the communities to whom he was writing. The only letter that does not deal with problems is his letter to the Philippians. This was a letter of gratitude. Paul is the most consistent model of gratitude in the Bible. We can learn much from him. We should count our blessings, starting with our families, and thank God for everything. We should even thank God for the difficult people in our lives. One of the keys to holiness is to slow down and be grateful for our blessings.
During this year of St. Paul, it would be a good time to read his letters, in fulfillment of Our Lady’s request to spend time daily in reading the Scriptures. St. Paul, please intercede for us in our conversion of heart.