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Why do we celebrate the Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul?

On January 25, the faithful celebrate the Conversion of Saint Paul, one of the great events of the early Church. Saul, a student of the great Pharisee rabbi Gamaliel, had persecuted Christians, but was suddenly converted on the road to Damascus when our Lord appeared to him in His resurrected glory (Acts 9:1-9). From this point, he took the name Paul, and would become the “Apostle to the Gentiles.”

CONVERSION OF ST PAUL

What was Saint Paul like before his conversion?

Born into a well-to-do Jewish family of Tarsus, the son of a Roman citizen, Saul (as we shall call him until after his conversion) was sent to Jerusalem to be trained in the famous rabbinical school headed by Gamaliel. Here, in addition to studying the Law and the Prophets, he learned a trade, as was the custom. Young Saul chose the trade of tent-making. Although his upbringing was orthodox, while still at home in Tarsus he had come under the liberalizing Hellenic influences which at this time had permeated all levels of urban society in Asia Minor. Thus the Judaic, Roman, and Greek traditions and cultures all had a part in shaping this great Apostle, who was so different in status and temperament from the humble fishermen of Jesus' initial band of disciples. His missionary journeys were to give him the flexibility and the deep sympathy that made him the ideal human instrument for preaching Christ's Gospel of world brotherhood. In the year 35 Saul appears as a self-righteous young Pharisee, almost fanatically anti-Christian. He believed that the trouble-making new sect should be stamped out, its adherents punished. We are told in Acts chapter 8 that he was present, although not a participator in the stoning, when Stephen, the first martyr, met his death.

Why was Saul on his way to Damascus?

Before his conversion, Saul was fervently anti-Christian. In the book of Acts, we see that Saul was present for the stoning of the first Christian martyr, Saint Stephen. In fact, Acts 8 begins with the words, “And Saul approved of their killing him.” In the fury of his zeal, he applied to the high priest and Sanhedrin for a commission to take up all Jews at Damascus who confessed Jesus Christ and bring them bound to Jerusalem, that they might serve as public examples for the terror of others. But God was pleased to show forth in him his patience and mercy: and, moved by the prayers of St. Stephen and his other persecuted servants, for their enemies, changed him, in the very heat of his fury, into a vessel of election, and made him a greater mall in his church by the grace of the apostleship, than St. Stephen has ever been, and a more illustrious instrument of his glory.

“Thus St. Paul was not transformed by a thought but by an event, by the irresistible presence of the Risen One whom subsequently he would never be able to doubt, so powerful had been the evidence of the event, of this encounter. It radically changed Paul’s life in a fundamental way; in this sense one can and must speak of a conversion.” (Pope Benedict XVI)

When was St. Paul converted to Christianity?

St. Paul was converted to Christianity on his way to Damascus, in the 30s of the first century A.D.. On his journey to Damascus, the Resurrected Christ appeared to him and it was this encounter that brought about his dramatic and immediate conversion. In commenting on the conversion of St. Paul, Pope Benedict XVI states that when Paul met Christ on the road to Damascus, “…it was not simply a conversion… but rather a death and a resurrection for Paul himself. One existence died and another, a new one was born with the Risen Christ.”

How many years after Jesus’ death was Paul converted?

Though we don’t know exactly how many years after Jesus’ death Paul was converted, we do know for a fact that it was shortly after the stoning of St. Stephen. It is said that Paul was converted approximately two years after Jesus’ death.

“[I]t was not simply a conversion … but rather a death and a resurrection for Paul himself. One existence died and another, new one was born with the Risen Christ.” – Pope Benedict XVI

Did Saint Paul see Jesus after the Resurrection?

Yes, Paul did see Jesus after the Resurrection. Acts 9 and Acts 22 document the first encounter of Paul with Jesus after the Resurrection. Saul was on his way to Damascus when suddenly “a light from heaven flashed about him” (Acts 9), Jesus then revealed his name to Saul. Acts 22 also recounts this event when Paul said, “About noon as I came near Damascus, suddenly a bright light from heaven flashed around me. I fell to the ground and hears a voice say to me, ‘Saul! Saul! Why do you persecute me?’” (Acts 22:6).


Who changed Saul to Paul?

It is often assumed that Saul’s name-change to Paul came with great significance after his conversion. In Sacred Scripture, the Lord would commonly change someone’s name to signify a change in their role or a significant change in their lives – for example, when God changed Abram to Abraham (Genesis 17:5) or when He changed Sarai/Sarah (Genesis 17:15). One could assume, therefore, that Jesus changed Saul’s name to Paul after his conversion. However, there is no specific moment recorded in Scripture in which Christ, or another, changes Saul’s name. The only comment is that of St. Luke in Acts 13:9, when he writes “But Saul, who is also called Paul…”