St. Paul, Admitted Malefactor and Heavenly Authority

Caravaggio Conversion on the Way to Damascus Paul

Saul, meanwhile, was trying to destroy the Church. Acts 8:3.

Who wrote this–the human author? Did St. Paul want St. Luke to write this?

Well, we can safely presume that St. Luke wrote the whole book of Acts in consultation with St. Paul. After all, St. Luke narrates significant stretches of his account of St. Paul’s work using the pronoun “we.” St. Luke traveled with St. Paul from Asia Minor to Greece, from Greece to Jerusalem four years later, and from the Holy Land to Rome two years after that.

We can rest assured that St. Paul gladly approved of St. Luke reporting for all the world how the younger Saul originally tried to destroy the Church. St. Paul referred to the same fact in his own letters. To the Galatian Christians, Paul wrote: “You have heard of my former way of life, how I persecuted the Church.” To the Corinthian Christians, he wrote: “I am not worthy to be called an apostle, since I persecuted the Church.” To the Philippians: “With zeal I persecuted the Church.”

Now, yes, the younger Saul had acted out of ignorance of the truth of Christianity. But he knew that didn’t exonerate him of the malice he had shown. Paul admitted openly, without fear, that he had sinned grievously. He had received mercy from Christ. Paul responded to that mercy with pure honesty and love.

St. Paul went on to co-found the Holy and Apostolic Church of Rome. Throughout the ages, popes have invoked the authority not just of St. Peter, but of St. Paul as well. Even though Paul had done such great evil. The truth had come out, God had shown mercy, and no one has ever doubted the heavenly authority of St. Paul of Tarsus. His sins do not taint his authority—because he freely admitted everything, holding nothing back.

(And of course we could say all of that about St. Peter, also.)

mccarrick and wilton gregory

Would that we found ourselves now in such a situation, when it comes to our pope and bishops! But let’s look at what happened in Washington, D.C., Newark, N.J., and Rome, over the course of the past year.

In all three of these churches, the successors of the apostles had participated in a massive cover-up of sex-abuse crimes by Theodore McCarrick. Last June a little of the truth came out, from another source. Despite the pope and bishops’ multiple-decade effort to keep it all hidden.

Did the cover-uppers come clean then? To the contrary, they tried to put a lid on it. Then a little more of the truth came out. They tried another lid. Then even-more-damning facts came out. Yet another ploy to keep a lid on it. By the beginning of October, all three of the incumbents had promised “full reports.”

But that empty promise was: just another lid they tried to put on the steaming mess.

Where are those accountings, those reports, those acknowledgements? Where are the fearless admissions that can restore trust?

(They are nowhere, my friends. They don’t exist. Last month, the New Yorker magazine published an interview with the original source of the original McCarrick revelation, Ms. Camille Biros. She revealed that there are as many as seven sex-abuse cases against McCarrick pending in the Archdiocese of New York.)

See, here’s our problem. Paul admitted the worst of all the things he had done. The worst part of the truth was out there, freely acknowledged.

But when a guilty party won’t even openly admit the facts that we already know, we can only assume that the reason is: There’s worse. What we know about the McCarrick cover-up is bad. But there’s actually much worse that we don’t know. That’s the only reasonable conclusion.

St. Paul, repentant enemy of the Church and protector of the Holy See of Rome, pray for us!

St. Paul and Vatican II

Caravaggio Conversion on the Way to Damascus Paul

Lord Jesus died, rose again, ascended into heaven bodily, and reigns over all things, at the right hand of the Father.

The original Apostles witnessed some of these events, from the point-of-view of Planet Earth. St. John saw Jesus die. They all saw Him after He rose. They watched Him ascend into the clouds.

The Apostles proceeded to testify orally and in writing. All except John suffered execution, rather than deny what they had seen, and what they believed about the One they had seen. Namely: that He is the Christ of God, the incarnate eternal Word, Who has made Himself the new Adam of the redeemed human race.

St. Paul did not witness the things that the original Apostles witnessed. But he did encounter some of those Apostles personally, as well as other original Christians.

At first Paul not only did not believe them, he despised them. He counted them blasphemers, criminal enemies of true religion.

But then, on this holy day, He, too, encountered Jesus. The Lord spoke to Paul from heaven. Why do you persecute Me? Why do you kick against the pricks? You love God and desire only to serve God. I, Jesus, am God—the true God of love and mercy, in Whom your father Abraham believed.

St. Paul had the faith and courage to embrace Jesus with every fiber of his being.

One thing that makes Christianity so believable is this: The New Testament depicts the human countenances of some absolutely believable people. Jesus Himself. His mother. St. Peter. St. John. And St. Paul.

John XXIII Vatican IIProbably St. Paul more than any other. After all, he wrote half the New Testament. Plus, almost half of St. Luke’s second book is about Paul.

Many passages of St. Paul’s letters pose extreme challenges to the reader. He had a mind of encyclopedic complexity, and he lived a pilgrim life ten times more adventuresome than Indiana Jones.

A lot of Paul’s writing requires careful study in order to understand–precisely because it is all so absolutely real. The whole thing is geographically coherent, religiously consistent–full of human love, human impatience, webs of relationships, and fatherliness.

Speaking of which: sixty years ago today, the new pope, John XXIII, visited the tomb of the Apostle Paul. The pope gave a little speech. He declared that he would soon summon all the world’s bishops to the Vatican, for an ecumenical council.

I think I may be one of the last of a dying breed: an incorrigibly conservative priest who loves Vatican II. Who loves it more, not less, with each passing year.

Conversion. Pope St. John XXIII had enough faith in Christ, and enough courage, to imagine that the indefectible Church could convert—in those aspects of Her life that can, and have, gone wrong. The pope believed that the true Church of Jesus—Who is the same yesterday, today, and forever—could adapt Herself better to what the Lord asks of Her now. Which differs somewhat from what He asked of Her yesterday.

St. Paul trusted totally and completely in Christ—enough to change. We can, too.

What Do You Mean, We? A Quiz and Two Lessons in Honor of St. Paul’s Conversion

Who wrote the Acts of the Apostles? St. Luke.

What is the book about? The beginnings of the Church. The beginnings of the mission entrusted by Christ to us human beings who humbly put our faith in Him.

For whom did St. Luke originally write the book? For Christians who spoke Greek, which means both Gentile and Jewish converts. At that time, Greek was the language that the world had most in common.

Saint Luke
St Luke

Who are the two most significant heroes of the Acts of the Apostles—other than the Holy Spirit, of course? Saints Peter and Paul.

How many times do we read about St. Paul’s conversion to Christ in the Acts of the Apostles? Three times. St. Luke narrates the event once, in chapter 9. Then St. Luke recounts St. Paul telling the story of his conversion twice. Once before to the Jews in Jerusalem, and once before the Roman procurator, on the Mediterranean coast.

The details remain the same in all three accounts. Lord Jesus spoke from heaven to the zealous Pharisee, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?”

But when St. Paul told the story to his final audience, which included non-Jews, he added something. When the Lord spoke from heaven, He asked Saul about persecuting Him, and He also employed a common Greek expression to try to help St. Paul come to his senses: Saul, why do you kick against the pricks?

A yoked ox must learn to submit to the farmer. A prick, or goad, will stir an idle ox to action. But at first the ox doesn’t understand that the goad means, “Move!” So the ox kicks when pricked, instead of stepping forward. The kick just makes matters worse and exacerbates the pain. The ox has to learn that the prick means, “Step forward, dummy!”

Let’s take a lesson from Lord Jesus saying this to the young Paul. A farmer driving an ox knows more about what’s good for the ox than the ox does. Likewise, God knows more about what’s good for us than we do, left to our own devices. We prosper when we submit to God and obey Him.

Second, let’s take a lesson from St. Luke writing the Acts of the Apostles the way he did. Submission to God involves participating in the living, breathing institution that Jesus founded when He was on earth.

One thing St. Paul never thought was, “My relationship with God is my own independent, personal business.” He knew that he needed to belong to the People of God. The question was, “Who is the we? Who are we, the People of God?”

The answer he got: the one, visible Church founded by Jesus, presided over by St. Peter and his successors in office. An institution full of foibles, to be sure. But united nonetheless by the divine Gift, the Holy Spirit of Christ.



True Self


During the Easter season we read from the Acts of the Apostles. It takes us back to that original time, when the Lord Jesus first demonstrated how Christian life works. That is, how He gives us a share in His transcendent power, how He unites Himself with us from within, how He grafts us onto the living vine and makes us His branches.

The young Saul of Tarsus thought he was ‘being himself’ by prosecuting strict fidelity to the Law of Moses, the law of his people. Saul thought that he was really coming into his own as a man, marching east and west, north and south, to stamp out all the foolish nonsense about a so-called Galilean Messiah who had risen from the dead. Then Christ showed Saul how “coming into your own” really works.

One of the most important ideas we have to help others grasp is this: There can be no ‘competition’ between me and God, when it comes to determining who I really am. If I try to assert myself over against God, with God as a rival for power in my life, then up in heaven all the angels look down and laugh sadly at the spectacle.

Trying to compete with Almighty God is patently ridiculous. And it’s sad. He made me, after all, and He alone can open up the path for me, by which I really can ‘find’ myself. He does not see our relationship as a contest. God no more thinks of competing for power with me than a mighty killer whale thinks of racing a tadpole across the Arctic Sea. If I try to beat God at the game that only He truly understands, I lose before I even begin. Why would I fight?

Prince WilliamOn the road to Damascus, Saul beheld the truth of Christ: God united with man. Saul heard the voice of the Creator, and it was the voice of the Galilean, the one whom all these rubes were calling the Messiah.

Saul realized: I am fighting a pointless battle. I am actually a million miles away from my true self, with all this self-righteous militancy of mine. If I really want to come into my own, I have to try and forget about what I think, and learn what God thinks.

And God thinks this: I will take a beautiful Bride to myself! The Church. I will unite the scattered individuals of this lonely world, whose pride isolates them from the people they need the most—I will unite them by loving them Myself, through each other.

Let’s try to imagine for a moment just how little Saul of Tarsus had in common with the other Christians he met when he was first converted. Saul grew up a well-to-do diaspora Jew, in a commercial city in what is now Turkey. Saul was a Roman citizen. He had received a meticulous education. If Saul had ever gone fishing, it was when he was a kid, just for fun.

When Saul first went to Straight Street in Damascus, to meet up with Ananias for baptism, it was kind of like a member of the British royal family going to a backstreet in Tijuana, looking for a guy named Pepe to give him a tattoo.

Christ wills to love us Himself—through each other. We become ourselves together. If we don’t come together, each of us individually trails off, into some strange, distorted side-street of my particular personality.

But by coming together regularly—by learning that who we are is: branches on the living vine of Christ… All of us, totally dependent on Him, rejoicing to share in that utter dependence together… When we become, and live for years as, people who attend Mass every Sunday—by doing that, we open ourselves up to the possibility of becoming the loving brothers and sisters in God’s family that He made us to be.

pope-francis_2541160kHere’s a little quiz. I can’t claim to have the answer to this one. I just have my impression… What is Pope Francis’ favorite image of the Church?

Certainly not “institution.” Of course, the Church is an institution, but that’s not all She is. And Pope Francis clearly does not think of the Church as primarily “an institution.”

I don’t think “Bark of Peter” is Pope Francis’ favorite image for the Church, either–though we certainly do sail in a windswept sea these days, as a world-wide family of faith. At one point, the pope said the Church must see herself as a ‘field hospital.’

I think Pope Francis’ favorite image for the Church is: A loving mother.

The pope invoked that image in his Apostolic Exhortation on the New Evangelization. And he also invoked it as he concluded his declaration of the upcoming Jubilee Year of Mercy. If I might, let me quote a sentence from his Apostolic Exhortation. The paragraph is entitled “Mother with an open heart,” and the pope writes:

If something should rightly disturb us and trouble our consciences, it is the fact that so many of our brothers and sisters are living without the strength, light and consolation born of friendship with Jesus Christ, without a community of faith to support them, without meaning and a goal in life.

Mother Church can give birth to our truest selves. Mother Church has the sap of the ancient vine living in her. She gives birth to us, to the people God made us to be, by the power of divine love that comes from Christ. To be a branch on that vine is the greatest thing any of us could ever aspire to be, and the vine grows in church. The sap flows from the altar.

We can go ‘looking for ourselves’ hither and yon, from Milwaukee to Timbuktu, from yoga classes to Springsteen concerts to off-road derbies with Jason Aldean blasting from somebody’s boom box. But the only place any of us can really find ourselves is under the roof of Mother Church, together. Because who we are is: branches on the vine, the divine vine of Christ.

Benedict, Paul, Real Conversion

Caravaggio Conversion on the Way to Damascus Paul

Anybody remember what happened eight years ago today? Benedict XVI was elected the 264th successor of St. Peter.

During the Pauline Year in 2008, the Pope Emeritus spoke about St. Paul’s conversion (which we read about at today’s Holy Mass). Benedict said that what happened to St. Paul teaches us what makes a conversion a conversion—a real, genuine, true conversion–away from nothingness and to God.

Happy 8th Anniversary, Papa Emérito!
Happy 8th Anniversary, Papa Emérito!
Basically, the long and the short of it is:

A real conversion involves interacting with the actual living God-man Himself, Jesus Christ.

Saul did not ‘change his mind,’ or ‘embrace a new religion,’ or ‘undergo a paradigm shift.’ Rather, he was on the receiving end of some actions that Christ did.

The Lord Jesus, then, is in charge of genuine conversions. These conversions can take a while—maybe all our years on earth, plus some Purgatory time, too. Who knows? Christ is in charge of how long they take. He is completely in charge.

Maybe that’s the $10,000 question, then—the question I can ask myself, and thereby know if I am undergoing a real conversion, a conversion from bad to good, from death to life, from sin to God.

Am I undergoing a real conversion? Well, is Jesus Christ in charge? Is He in charge? If I can say, Yes, He is! then I guess I am undergoing a real conversion.

If I ask, “in charge of what?” then my answer is really No. Because Jesus Christ is in charge of everything.

Christ’s Calling Location: the new Me

Conversion on the Way to Damascus by Caravaggio

On Sunday we read about the Lord Jesus calling the first fishers of men—Peter, Andrew, James, and John. Today we read about Christ calling the Apostle Paul.

Something has changed between these two calling episodes. The Lord’s location has changed. When He called the first Apostles, Christ was still on earth. By the time He called St. Paul, the Lord had ascended to heaven.

Same act of calling, different location. The Lord will not stop summoning His champions, His co-workers, His friends—He will not stop calling until time ends.

St. Paul’s experience teaches us to stand ready for the invitation as it comes now, in the age of the Church.

Christ reigns above, invisible–for now–to our eyes. His Church on earth represents Him; Her works, Her teachings, and Her rules keep us close enough to Christ so that we can hear His voice. He speaks. Usually He speaks in such a way that only our quiet, deeply interior ears can hear.

He spoke to St. Paul in the very center of that pious, zealous Jew’s soul. The voice moved Saul to a new kind of religious obedience: the obedience of love.

God loves me. He loves me, myself, the person that I am—forgiving me all my evils. And He wills to use me as a means of communicating that love.

Yes. Of course I will co-operate. Yes, of course I will respond to love with love. What else could I do? The interior voice of Christ from heaven has awoken within me a me that I never even knew I had.

Another All-Star Week


Here in the mid-Atlantic, we are enjoying a winter wonderland. For a little perspective, let’s keep this in mind: Down in Melbourne it is 100 degrees on the court for the Australian Open. Novak Djokovic had to forfeit his semi-final match because of heat exhaustion.

Statue of St. Angela Merici in St. Peter's Basilica
Statue of St. Angela Merici in St. Peter's Basilica
Perhaps you remember: Back in early October, we highlighted an ecclesiastical “All-Star Week“. Well, we are in the middle of another one…

On Saturday, we kept the memorial of St. Francis de Sales, heroic bishop, consummate gentleman, and author of a very good book (a few very good books, in fact). Then on Sunday, we kept the feast of St. Paul’s conversion. Yesterday we kept the memorial of St. Paul’s most prominent disciples, Sts. Timothy and Titus.

These apostolic men alone could out-hustle any competitors. But there is more!

Today, we keep the memorial of St. Angela Merici, foundress of the Ursulines. St. Angela is the female equivalent of St. Ignatius Loyola, as Dr. Ann White pointed out in the Jan/Feb 1999 issue of “Review for Religious.”

St. John Bosco blessing some young men
St. John Bosco blessing some young men
Tomorrow, we keep the memorial of the Common Doctor, the Angelic Doctor, the Master of the Schools, the Patron of learning, the greatest genius of all time–St. Thomas Aquinas!

Then, on Saturday, we keep the memorial of St. John Bosco, a.k.a. Don Bosco.

All the other All-Star teams–N.H.L., Pro Bowl, N.B.A., you name it…they all take a back seat to the Church’s all-star team this week.

The Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul

Conversion on the Way to Damascus by Caravaggio
Conversion on the Way to Damascus by Caravaggio

I tell you, brothers and sisters, the time is running out.

From now on, let those having wives act as not having them,
those weeping as not weeping,
those rejoicing as not rejoicing,
those buying as not owning,
those using the world as not using it fully.

For the world in its present form is passing away.

(I Corinthians 7:29-31)

This year we mark 2,000 years since the birth of St. Paul the Apostle. Today we commemorate the day when St. Paul went from persecuting Christians to being a Christian.

Perhaps you noticed last week that in our second readings at Holy Mass we have begun to read from St. Paul’s letters to the Corinthians. We will continue reading from these letters until Ash Wednesday.

Continue reading “The Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul”

St. Paul will Guide Us through the Week

Gerald Henderson smoked us.
Gerald Henderson smoked us.
Please bear with me.

There are few things more painful to your preacher than watching Duke beat Georgetown. I would rather be beaten up by deranged Mormon missionaries.

For about ten minutes during the first half, it looked like Georgetown could actually win the game. Then things fell apart.

Monroe got in foul trouble, including a mysterious technical foul. Gerald Henderson scored three points every time he touched the ball. Summers played a great game but could not make his free throws. And poor Jessie Sapp was joined by Chris Wright on some planet in another solar system where no one ever scores any points.

Anyway, enough bellyaching. God is good, no matter what happens. Here is today’s homily…

penn-aveBrothers and sisters, we have an eventful week ahead of us. On Tuesday, our 44th President will be inaugurated. Before, that—tomorrow—we will observe the 80th birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King lived and died to vindicate the human rights of the weak and oppressed. That is why we keep a national holiday in honor of his birth.

Our eventful week will continue on Thursday with the March for Life. We will march for the same cause that Dr. King fought for—the rights of the weakest and most defenseless people.

But there is more. Next Sunday, we will keep one of the main feasts of the Year of St. Paul. January 25 is the feast of the Apostle’s conversion to Christ.

Continue reading “St. Paul will Guide Us through the Week”