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From persecutor to Christian: The conversion of St. Paul

St. Paul’s conversion began when, with a flash of light, he fell from his horse. Shutterstock

One feast day that often slips by without notice is the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul. This miraculous event, which has been part of the Church calendar for more than 1,500 years, is an unmovable feast — that is, it is always on the same calendar date, Jan. 25. (Some years, the feast day falls on a Sunday, and because only a Solemnity or a feast of Our Lord can trump the Sunday liturgy, the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul is not always widely commemorated then.)

But these calendar circumstances in no way diminish the importance of Paul’s conversion, as he was among the greatest of the missionaries spreading the words of Jesus Christ. Further, he is an example that anyone, even the most hardened unbeliever or the vilest heretic, can be created anew by our loving Savior.

Road to Damascus

Saul, which is Paul’s given name, was born into a Jewish family in Tarsus (Turkey) around the year A.D. 8; he was also a Roman citizen, a fact that would play a large role later in his life. Schooled as a Pharisee, he was a tent maker by trade, but was most noted for his hatred of Christians. He believed the teachings of Jesus violated Mosaic Law and zealously harassed, and even jailed, anyone who followed those teachings.

The first scriptural mention of Saul is found in Acts 7:58, as he is a bystander watching his fellow Jews stone St. Stephen to death. An aggressive persecutor of Christians in Jerusalem, Saul sought and received permission from the high priest to proceed to Damascus for the purpose of imprisoning more followers of Christ.

Most Christians know the story of what happened on the Damascus road: the bright light that knocked Saul down, the voice of Jesus, Saul’s blindness and immediate response to the calling of Christ. In the manner of the first Apostles who, when beckoned by Christ, gave up their lifestyles to follow him, Saul too doesn’t hesitate. He says yes, just as the Blessed Mother said yes. Blinded from his encounter with Jesus, he allowed himself to be led into Damascus where he was baptized, after which he set out to spread the news of Jesus. Paul would repeat the story of his conversion again and again throughout his life, including to the different magistrates and kings who judged his activities. The book of Acts, in three places, tells the story of Saul’s experience on the Damascus road.

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