“C’mon, Phil, stay with me here!” -Jesus

Rubens_apostel_philippusThis week’s apostle is St. Philip, who shares a feast day with St. James the Just and his native town with St. Peter and St. Andrew. He came from Bethsaida, and was called by Jesus there, shortly after the calling of Sts. Peter and Andrew.

The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) say very little about him, but St. John’s Gospel gives a few more details about his life as one of the apostles. After having been called by Jesus, he must have been overwhelmingly inspired in his discipleship, as he then introduced Nathanael (called Bartholomew for short) to Jesus, saying “Come and see.”

Like the other apostles, St. Philip had a hard time grasping some of the things that Jesus said. We usually think of St. Peter asking all the questions, but in John’s Gospel, Philip asks quite a few as well. In some cases, we can almost feel Jesus’ frustration. Jesus said at one point (Jn 14:7-9), “I am the way…if you know me, then you will also know my Father. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.” Now, I know that’s confusing, but St. Philip doesn’t seem to get it at all. “Master, show us the Father, and that will be enough for us.” Jesus probably face-palmed and said, “Have I been with you for so long a time and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”

Well, St. Philip got it eventually, because like the other apostles, he preached along the Mediterranean coast, particularly in Greece, Phrygia (modern day Western Turkey), and Syria. Now, just as a caveat, the sources for much of St. Philip’s post-resurrection information are pretty shifty, but we know that St. Philip preached and evangelized, and was eventually martyred. According to the Acts of Philip, he was doing missionary work with his fellow apostle Bartholomew, and his healing miracles and preaching were so successful in Hierapolis (a great ancient city in Western Turkey), that he converted the wife of the proconsul of the province. This didn’t sit well with the proconsul, and he tortured the two apostles and crucified them upside-down (How do all these evil guys know to martyr them the same way? Was there a mass e-mail or something?). Philip continued preaching from the cross, and even convinced the crowd and the proconsul to release Bartholomew, while Philip embraced martyrdom.

Interestingly enough, Philip’s tomb was recently discovered in July of 2011 in the ruins of the ancient church dedicated to his honor in Hierapolis. His relics were no longer there, but other accounts have them likely brought to Constantinople, and then moved to Rome to protect them from invaders.

I think one of the most striking qualities of St. Philip was his willingness to invite others, namely Nathanael, to follow Christ. He wasn’t told to do so by Jesus, and he wasn’t forced – when he understood what great things Christ had already done for him, he wanted others to experience it. When was the last time you invited someone to church with you? When was the last time you invited someone to share a quiet moment of prayer at adoration? Let us ask that St. Philip would pray for us, that we too might give thanks for what God has done for us, and invite others to that joy also!

James, the Bro of the Lord

"James the Less" by El Greco, 16th Century
“James the Less” by El Greco, 16th Century

Our apostle for this week is St. James. No, not that one, the other one – St. James the Lesser. It’s not the greatest nickname, but it was used to distinguish him from the other St. James, the son of Zebedee, who we learned about a short time ago. St. James the Lesser was also called James the Just, a much better nickname I would say, and was the son of Alphaeus.

St. James is sometimes referred to as the “brother of the Lord.” This can sometimes be deceiving for us, because we often think of “brother” as a biological term. In ancient Jewish culture, however, this phrase could be interpreted a number of ways other than being an actual biological brother of Jesus. James’ mother, who was also named Mary (this is starting to get confusing, isn’t it), was either a sister or a close relative to the Blessed Mother, and so according to the custom of the time, James would be referred to as the “brother of Jesus.”

After the Resurrection, St. James was made the first bishop of Jerusalem, taking care of the infant Church in what seemed a pretty prestigious honor. Tradition holds that he was the author of the Letter of James in the New Testament. Now, this isn’t specifically stated in the letter, but evidence suggests that it was written some time after St. Paul’s writings, meaning that it was probably written around 59 AD. Well, the other St. James had been dead for 14 years by that point, so there you go! Also, many of the early Fathers of the Church support the claim.

The Letter of James was written against some of those who were preaching and teaching things about Jesus that weren’t true, and abusing some of the teachings that had gone before, especially from St. Paul. It is a very interesting and valuable letter. It much of the basis for our understanding of the relationship between faith and works, that “faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” (2:17) It also discusses the means to live a holy life, and makes specific reference to the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick: “Is anyone among you sick? He should summon the presbyters of the church, and they should pray over him and anoint [him] with oil in the name of the Lord.” (5:14)

And here is a cool icon of St. James celebrating Mass!
And here is a cool icon of St. James celebrating Mass!

St. James was martyred in Jerusalem – we know that much. But what is interesting is that one of the sources we have isn’t a religious source, but the famous secular historian Josephus, who himself was a Jew. Apparently, St. James was accused of violating the Jewish Law in Jerusalem. The Roman procurator at the time had just died, and the new one had not yet arrived in office, so the high priest took advantage of the confusion to condemn James to death by stoning. And so St. James shared the crown of martyrdom, just as so many other apostles had done before.

Really not as much is known about St. James the Just than other apostles, and there certainly aren’t as many fantastic legends. But what we do know is that James was one of the human men who became the foundation of the Church. This wasn’t an achievement of St. James by his own right, but as a gift from God, and he was able to share more deeply in Christ’s life through his own suffering. Let’s pray that we too can be instruments of grace for Christ to use and build up his Church!

Doubt Once, and Those Disciples Never Let You Forget It

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas By Caravaggio
The Incredulity of Saint Thomas
By Caravaggio

The next apostle on our list is St. Thomas, who we are all very familiar with. We really don’t know how he was called, but we know that he was originally a Jew and that he left it all to follow Jesus. He is mentioned briefly here and there throughout the Gospels.

But of course, what everyone knows St. Thomas for is his reaction to the Resurrection. When all his brothers told him that they had seen the Lord, he refused to believe until he touched Jesus himself and felt his wounds. Well, I guess he opened his big mouth too far, because that’s exactly what happened!

Say what you will about “Doubting Thomas”, but that experience clearly changed him. His immediate response was, “My Lord and my God!”, but that was only the beginning. Whereas many of the apostles went north and west to preach to the people of Asia Minor, Greece, and Rome, St. Thomas went to the almost complete geographical and cultural opposite. He started going north through Syria to Edessa (southern Turkey), but then made a u-turn and headed south. He preached to the Parthians, Persians, and Medes through what is now Iran, and kept going south to India.

Tradition tells us that St. Thomas encountered King Gondophernes (a historical king featured on ancient coins!), and eventually converted him and his brother. The king must have wanted to put Thomas to work, because he was put in charge of building projects, several of which were churches. Apparently, this didn’t sit well with a number of the local priests, because they chased him up a mountain (now called St. Thomas Mount – original, I know), and killed him with a lance. His body was buried at the church he built in Mylapore, India. The tomb remains there even to today, although a significant portion of the relics were moved back to Edessa.

Much of the story about St. Thomas in India comes from the Acts of Thomas, which is pretty shifty, and probably not very reliable. It was probably written by Gnostics, who tried to incorporate a warped form of Christianity into their mystical religion. What is true, however, is that later missionaries found a large number of Christians that had been in India for a very long time, some of whom still speak Syriac, a dialect of the language that St. Thomas probably spoke. Even Marco Polo visited the tomb of St. Thomas on his journeys and learned the stories, so if nothing else, there is probably a kernel of truth to these legends.

So what can we learn from St. Thomas? One thing is that as doubtful or weak as we might consider St. Thomas, Jesus doesn’t pick worthless men and women to do his work. St. Thomas’s human weakness, and our human weaknesses as well, point out the fact that real Christian holiness is a gift from God, not something we do on our own. God uses our doubt and weaknesses to transform us, and to do great things through us, just as he did through St. Thomas. Let us entrust ourselves even more to God through the prayers of St. Thomas, that he would make us better disciples!

Jesus’ Favorite…Er, Beloved Disciple

St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City
St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City

The next apostle up on our list is St. John, the brother of last week’s saint, St. James the Greater. St. John is an Evangelist, literally from Greek a “giver of good news”. Multiple early Church Fathers support the claim that St. John was the author of the 4th gospel, the Gospel of John (hence the name?), written before 95 AD.

John’s gospel is the same story as the others, obviously, but goes about recounting it in a very different way. It is a much more reflective, symbolic, and theological approach. In the eastern Churches, this gives him the name St. John the Theologian. In some ways, he seems to presuppose things already in the other gospels. For example, in John’s gospel, Jesus never says the words “This is my body” or “This is my blood.” Instead, John presupposes that and focuses on the meaning of the Eucharist – service (washing of the feet) and sacrifice (blood flowing from Jesus’ side on the Cross).

Anyway, in his own gospel, John refers to himself as the “beloved disciple”. He defines himself not by his own achievements, but by his relationship to Jesus. He is one of the core group of disciples, but had a special place in Jesus’ heart. We hear that he rested his head on Jesus’ breast at the Last Supper, and that he was the only apostle not to abandon Jesus. With Peter, he is the first to receive news of the Resurrection and go to the tomb, and we hear that “he saw, and believed.”

One of the greatest privileges that St. John was entrusted with was the care of Jesus’ mother – “Woman, behold your son. Behold your mother.” The tradition is that he cared for her in Jerusalem, and later in Ephesus in present-day Turkey. In fact, an ancient house in Ephesus is still commemorated as the home of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

You might recall from last week that it was John, along with his brother James, who had inquired about being seated at Jesus’ side, and that he would indeed drink the cup of suffering. John wasn’t martyred like his brother, but he experienced suffering in a different way. He supervised and governed the Church in Asia Minor (Turkey), and when persecutions broke out under the Emperor Domitian, was taken to Rome and boiled in oil! Or at least they tried, to boil him in oil, but nothing happened! He walked out of it, and the legend says that all the spectators in the Coliseum who witnessed the miracle were instantly converted. I suppose I would be too if I just saw some guy walk out of a vat of boiling oil!

Coptic Icon of St. John on the island of Patmos
Coptic Icon of St. John on the island of Patmos

St. John was exiled to the island of Patmos, where he wrote the Book of Revelation, before returning to Ephesus, where his earthly life came to an end. For 900 years, the Basilica of St. John stood over his tomb, until it was destroyed by invading armies.

St. John was indeed the “beloved disciple,” and it is said that his parishioners grew tired of his sermons, because they relentlessly emphasized the need to “love one another.” But truly, we can see the courage and zeal that comes from a heart that knows God’s love for itself and gives entirely out of love for others. Do we know that love for ourselves? How do we live it? May St. John inspire us and pray for us, so that we too can claim our identity as beloved disciples!

St. James the Awesome (or the Greater, whatever…)

Statue of St. James the Greater at the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome
Statue of St. James the Greater at the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome

As we move on to the next of our apostles, we focus on St. James the Greater. He is usually called “the Greater” to distinguish him from the other St. James among the apostles. He was the son of Zebedee and the brother of St. John, and in fact, they were all together on the seashore when Jesus called James and John to follow him. St. James was part of the core group of the apostles, along with St. Peter and St. John, and was one of the few chosen to witness the Transfiguration.

The most noteworthy occasion where St. James finds his name in the Gospels was when he had the…ahem… *boldness* to request that he and his brother would stand at Jesus’ left and right in the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus asked them, “Can you drink the chalice that I drink?” Now remember, this is the same chalice that Jesus asked would pass from him at Gethsemane before the Passion – the chalice of suffering. Confidently, James said he could! What a great and zealous faith! And of course, Jesus assured him that he would indeed share in that chalice.

Moving forward, according to tradition, St. James travelled to Spain to preach the Gospel after the Ascension. He may have been having a pretty tough time doing so (maybe he didn’t pay attention to his Spanish classes, although I guess Spanish didn’t exist yet). Near present-day Zaragoza, he had a vision of the Blessed Virgin Mary on a pillar where she encouraged him and assured him that his efforts would not be in vain. Inspired, James returned to Judea, which speaking of that chalice…

James would drink the chalice of suffering, as he was the first of the apostles to share it and the glory that Christ promised along with it. The Acts of the Apostles relates that Herod Agrippa, the nephew of the Herod who had questioned Jesus, “killed James, the brother of John, with the sword.” (Acts 12:1-2)

Stjacquescompostelle1Supposedly, after his martyrdom, his body was claimed by his loving followers and returned to Spain, where he was buried at the site of the great Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. For over 1000 years, pilgrims have travelled to the cathedral to venerate St. James’ relics via the Way of St. James. There are several points of origin on this pilgrimage, but the Way of St. James is a minimum of 100 km, and has become one of the greatest Christian pilgrimages. In fact, the 2010 World Cup winners from Spain dedicated their win to St. James, and several of the players made the Way of St. James in gratitude!

Ultimately, I think the example of St. James invites us to think about how willing we are to drink the chalice of suffering offered to us by Christ. The Way of St. James can be an analogy for us in that sense. The journey of discipleship is long and hard, and we have to be sure we prepare ourselves well during this life. But after the suffering of the journey, we arrive at the fullness of joy at the end of the pilgrimage. For the Way of St. James, it’s the glorious cathedral and relics; for our pilgrimage of faith, it is the joy of heaven. Are we willing to drink the chalice of suffering in order to attain the overflowing chalice of joy?

(By the way, the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela is known for it’s GIGANTIC incense thurible.  Check out the video below.  I asked our pastor if we could get one, but it might be out of our budget…for now…)

That One Guy Who Was St. Peter’s Brother

Statue of St. Andrew St. Peter's Basilica Vatican City
Statue of St. Andrew
St. Peter’s Basilica
Vatican City

So what do we know about St. Andrew? Umm…I guess he’s patron saint of Scotland, and therefore patron saint of golf? Hence, we get the famous St. Andrew’s Golf Course. But really, what else?

The point is that there’s not much we know about him. We do know that he was the brother of Simon Peter. I guess he’s kind of like Shelley Duncan, the brother of former Cardinal outfielder Chris Duncan. Shelley was a great player in his own right for the New York Yankees and Cleveland Indians (ok, maybe not a “great” player), but to St. Louisans, he will forever be known as Chris Duncan’s brother and Dave Duncan’s son.

But St. Andrew was actually pretty important among the apostles. There are two versions of his call. The first, from the Gospel of Matthew, is that he was fishing with his brother Simon Peter when Jesus called them to be fishers of men. In the Gospel of John, however, he was a disciple of St. John the Baptist, and when St. John pointed out Jesus as the “Lamb of God,” St. Andrew knew that Jesus was worth following. He asked Jesus, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” And Jesus responded in that beautiful and teasing invitation, “Come and see.”

What about after the Ascension? Now we’re getting into some fuzzy area. Various church historians like Origen and Eusebius of Caesarea tell us that St. Andrew preached his way to north of the Black Sea, through modern-day Russia and Ukraine. He then went across to Byzantium, modern-day Constantinople/Istanbul, and over to Macedonia and Greece.

One common point of agreement is that St. Andrew was crucified in Patras, Greece. The non-canonical Acts of Andrew tells us that he was tied, not nailed to the cross, and remained there for two days, preaching and converting those who listened to him, until he finally gave up his spirit. Legends have it that St. Andrew asked to be crucified in a different way than Jesus out of respect, and was tied to an X-shaped cross, which to this day, is called a St. Andrew Cross. In 1964, in an outreach to our Greek Orthodox brothers and sisters, Pope Paul VI returned the relics of St. Andrew from the Vatican to the Basilica of St. Andrew in Patras, Greece, where we can still see them today.

So back to the original question, what do we know about St. Andrew? Not much at all. The Gospels give us little about his holiness. But he was an apostle, and that is enough. He was called personally to “come and see”, and then to proclaim the Good News, sharing in Jesus’ life and ultimately, his death. Holiness today is no different. It’s a call to be a follower, to “come and see.” Let’s pray for the intercession of St. Andrew today, that we would respond to that invitation, and then spread that message of hope with our lives.

“Domine, Quo Vadis?”

"Domine Quo Vadis" By Annibale Carracci
“Domine Quo Vadis”
By Annibale Carracci

Who better to start our discussion on the saints than with Peter, the first pope and Prince of the Apostles? Many of us are probably familiar with his life from the Gospels, but how many of us are familiar with some of the wider traditions of his life?

Conveniently, we just heard a lot about St. Peter in the Sunday Gospels the past few weeks. Originally, he was “Simon”, until Jesus changes his name, which is actually a pretty big deal! In the Bible, only God has the authority to change names – like Abram to Abraham, Jacob to Israel, and so on. So Jesus tells Simon, “You are Peter, and upon this rock, I will build my church.” Jesus is pretty witty, actually, because Petrus (Latin) and Petros (Greek) actually mean “rock”! As the first pope, Peter really is the rock – the unifier on which Jesus lays the stones of the Church. He is usually pictured with keys, signifying that binding and loosing power that Jesus with the Church.

Now one of my pet peeves is when people, especially priests, make fun of Peter. We always joke that he was impulsive and dumb, never seeming to get what Jesus was saying. And those things are true, I guess. But St. Peter is an incredibly brave example of faith! After the Resurrection, he preached in Jerusalem for a long time, and was the first apostle to perform miracles in Jesus’ name. He then journeyed to some of the major pagan cities of the age including Antioch and Corinth, and then of course, Rome.

We know that St. Peter died in Rome in 64 AD under the Emperor Nero, and we know that he was martyred for his faith, as all the early Fathers of the Church attest. The legend is that he considered himself unworthy to die in the same manner as Christ, and so he asked to be crucified upside down. It might be easy to think that Peter’s story is all legend, but excavations under the present day St. Peter’s Basilica on the Vatican Hill have identified his ancient tomb, which was venerated even from the earliest days of the Church.

One of the most touching stories of Peter coming from our wider tradition is from the non-canonical Acts of Peter. It isn’t an official book of the Bible or anything, but it is an interesting and moving story. In this story, Peter was fleeing crucifixion in Rome, and as he was on his way out of the city, probably listening to his iPod or something to pass the time, who does he come across but Jesus! The Risen Christ was carrying a large cross and heading the other way towards the city. And Peter, shocked, asked that famous question, “Quo vadis?” “Where are you going?” Jesus smiled and answered, “I am going to Rome to be crucified again.” Moved by the Lord’s words, Peter gained the courage to bravely continue his ministry in Rome and was eventually martyred.

Even after the Ascension, Jesus doesn’t just leave us behind. Like Peter, he has commissioned us to do great things, but also like Peter, we are weak. But Christ assures us that we don’t offer ourselves alone. We walk with Christ, we offer ourselves with Christ, and we suffer with Christ. He is with us every step of the way, especially the tough steps. So take courage from the example of St. Peter, and let’s all strive to build on the firm foundations that he and his successors are for the Church!

Saints of the Roman Canon: St. Barnabas

stbarnToday’s saint sends us back to the Acts of the Apostles.  St. Barnabas was born in Cyprus of a Jewish family.  He was of the Tribe of Levi, the priestly tribe of Israel, and thus, it sounds as though he spent a lot of time travelling to Jerusalem to assist in the Temple duties.  He was the cousin of St. Mark the Evangelist, and worked frequently with him throughout his ministry.  The Acts of the Apostles tells us that he converted to Christianity after Pentecost, and sold all his property, giving the money to the Church to help the poor.  St. Barnabas is considered to be ranked among the Apostles, but not one of them, similar to St. Paul, and indeed, he was esteemed as the greatest Christian of the first generation aside from St. Paul and the Apostles.  St. Luke, who is usually pretty reserved, gushed about him in the Acts of the Apostles, saying that he was “a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith.”

St. Barnabas spent much of his ministry as a companion to St. Paul, and in fact, when many people didn’t believe that St. Paul’s conversion was authentic, Barnabas stood as his sponsor.  I guess that makes him the first RCIA sponsor or the first godparent!  With Paul, he worked in preaching to the gentiles in Antioch, then moved on to Cyprus, then Asia Minor.  It seems that his preaching was so eloquent that the Greek people in Asia Minor were trying to sacrifice bulls to him – they thought St. Paul was Hermes and St. Barnabas was Zeus!  St. Barnabas was present at the Council of Jerusalem, where he lobbied for a dispensation of circumcision and dietary laws for the gentiles he was preaching to.  So thank St. Barnabas the next time you eat bacon!

Not much is known about St. Barnabas after the Scriptural references in St. Paul’s letters and the Acts of the Apostles.  Some stories have him as the first Bishop of Milan.  Others have him preaching in Alexandria, and others Rome, where he supposedly converted St. Clement, who as you recall from a previous article, was the fourth pope.  Some Early Christian Fathers say that he wrote a document called the Epistle of Barnabas, but evidence suggests that it was written a century later by some quasi-Christian factions.  The document is very harsh on Jews, which seems odd, given that he had been a Jew (and a Levite at that!), and it is no wonder this document was not included among the inspired texts of the New Testament.

Traditions hold that he was martyred in Cyprus, his native country.  The story is that he was attacked by Jewish leaders who were annoyed and jealous of his success as he was preaching in their synagogues.  He was stoned to death by the crowds, bearing witness to Christ.  His cousin Mark was present for his martyrdom, and buried his body there.  Today, St. Barnabas is considered the patron of Cyprus (of course), peacemakers, and is invoked against hailstorms.  So there you go.

See you next week as we head back to the Early Church Fathers!

Saints of the Roman Canon: St. Matthias

MatthiasPoor St. Matthias.  Unfortunately, it seems he will forever be known as “the guy who replaced Judas”.  My goal this week, however, is to show you that he actually offered quite a bit in service to the Church!

Not a whole lot is known about St. Matthias before he was chosen as an apostle.  St. Matthias was probably one of the seventy-two disciples of Jesus who had been with him from the Baptism by John the Baptist all the way to the Ascension.  Thus, it seems pretty clear he had heard first-hand much of the public teaching of Jesus, and was familiar with what it meant to be an apostle.

Of course, St. Matthias is known for replacing Judas as the twelfth apostle.  In the Acts of the Apostles 1:15-26, he is chosen to assume that ministry and be a coworker of St. Peter.  The choice came down to being between him and a certain Joseph, called Barsabas.  Both were chosen as candidates because they had accompanied Jesus most of the time, but also because they were superior examples of holiness of life.  The choice was drawn by lot, so as to be entrusted to the Holy Spirit, and what do you know, St. Matthias won!

Not much else is known about him, other than from legends and stories.  Unfortunately, not too many of these are reliable in his case, as they are sometimes contradictory or far-fetched.  Still, some are rather interesting, and probably have a basis in the truth.  St. Matthias is said to have begun his preaching in Judea, but as with most of the apostles, he expanded further out.  Some traditions suggest that he went to the area called “Ethiopia” (not that one, the other one) in present day Georgia (also not that one, the other one) in the Caucasus region.  One story says he was crucified, while another says he preached to the barbarians and cannibals there (yikes!) before travelling to Armenia and dying of old age.  Still another tradition holds that he never left Judea, and was stoned to death in Jerusalem before being beheaded.  Despite these seemingly contradicting traditions, the Church continues to celebrate St. Matthias as a martyr, and I suppose that’s what matters.

Little remains of the words or writings of St. Matthias, other than some quotations taken from his work by some of the early Church Fathers.  One old traditions remains, however, which is to say that the Feast of St. Matthias on May 14 is the luckiest day of the year, because…you know…Matthias was chosen by lot… (those Church Fathers are so witty).  So go buy a lottery ticket on May 14 –  just remember your 10%!

The Holy Apostles: St. Paul of Tarsus

Statue of St. Paul St. Peter's Square
Statue of St. Paul
St. Peter’s Square

And we’re back!  This week’s saint is St. Paul, known as the Great Apostle.  St. Paul wasn’t one of the original apostles, but we might consider him an apostle by adoption, an apostle by grace, or an apostle by influence.  We know so much about him because of his epistles.  In fact, 14 of the 27 letters in the New Testament are attributed to him.  This is incredibly important, because not only does he pass along to us the understanding and teaching of the Church from its first days (which is quite thorough already!), but he tells us much about himself in the process.  In fact, we know so much about him that I’m going to have to write this segment in two parts.  Also, this will keep these shorter, and might keep the secretary from getting too mad at me…

Paul’s father was a Roman citizen, and of a certain class that his citizenship passed on to Paul as well.  He was likely part of a devoutly Jewish merchant family, as Tarsus (where he was from) was one of the largest trade centers in the Mediterranean.  Originally, his name was Saul, possibly after the original King Saul, who like him, was of the Jewish tribe of Benjamin.

St. Paul spent much of his childhood selling tents, which later came in handy to fund his missionary journeys.  I mean, people in the ancient world loved tents!  He was very educated, and steeped in the Jewish faith as a member of the Pharisee class.  He studied under Gamaliel, one of the most famous rabbis in history, but he also learned Greek and studied the Greek philosophers as well, which his writings clearly reference.  He was so zealous as a Pharisee that he persecuted the early Christian community, and was even present at the death of the first Christian martyr, St. Stephen.

"The Conversion of Saint Paul" by Luca Giordano
“The Conversion of Saint Paul” by Luca Giordano

Of course, his conversion on the road to Damascus is well documented, so much so that it has it’s own feast day in the Church calendar.  Along the way, St. Paul was blinded, knocked off his horse, and heard a voice crying out, “Saul, Saul!  Why are you persecuting me?”  It was indeed Jesus, who felt the persecution of his Church as his own.  Christ told Paul to go to Damascus and meet Ananias, another Christian, who would teach him the ways of the faith, almost like a primordial RCIA program.  Good thing our RCIA team doesn’t have to heal blindness too often, eh?

The dramatic conversion of St. Paul calls us to our own continued conversion as well.  It shows us that anyone, even someone like Paul who threatened and persecuted and killed the early followers of Jesus, could be saved by God’s grace.  Even when we might think that we are too sinful and shameful to receive God’s forgiveness, he reaches out to us through the Sacrament of Reconciliation to bring us mercy and conversion of heart.  And then, like St. Paul, he sends us out to give thanks for his mercy and courageously and joyfully live as a witness to the world.  But we’ll save that part until next week.  Stay tuned!