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St. Paul's Conversion can become Our Own: Jesus and the Church Are Inseparable

By Deacon Keith Fournier
April 19th, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

Before his conversion, Saul was complicit in the martyrdom of the first deacon and of the Church, Stephen. What was his response afterward? He became even more virulent. He breathed 'murderous threats' against the believers and sought to bring them back in chains. He set off on a journey to Damascus in hot pursuit. But, the Risen Lord had other plans for Saul.

CHESAPEAKE, VA (Catholic Online) - The first reading at Mass (Acts 9:1-20) was the account of the conversion of the rabbi named Saul. He was one of the most passionate among the growing number of those who persecuted the early followers of Jesus Christ.

Before his conversion, Saul was complicit in the martyrdom of the first deacon and of the Church, Stephen. What was his response afterward? He became even more virulent. He breathed 'murderous threats' against the believers and sought to bring them back in chains. He set off on a journey to Damascus in hot pursuit. But, the Risen Lord had other plans for Saul.

"On his journey, as he was nearing Damascus, a light from the sky suddenly flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?" He said, "Who are you, sir?" The reply came, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting." 

Saul heard Jesus ask him that probing question which changed his life, "Why do you persecute me?" As far as we can tell through either Biblical or historic evidence, Saul had never even met Jesus, at least during His earthly ministry. Yet, because Jesus the Head is inseparably joined to His Church, he was being persecuted by Saul when the disciples were being persecuted by Saul. They were members of His Body.

In this encounter, Saul became a witness to the Resurrection, a prerequisite to being an apostle. This experience opened up for him a life filled with responding to the continual invitations of Jesus Christ. It became the framework for continuing conversion and the driving force behind his apostolic mission to spread the Gospel and plant the Church throughout the known world. The man who had once persecuted the Way, became the Apostle who walked with Jesus along that Way - and invited so many others to do the same. 

Before they were called Christians in Antioch (Acts 11:26) they were often referred to as the Way. Paul, prior to his encounter with the Risen Lord on the Road to Damascus, speaks of having persecuted this Way (Acts 22: 3-16). The expression - the Way -  revealed a profoundly important aspect of the self understanding of the early Christians.

They lived the Christian faith as a new way of living, a new way of being human. They saw their lives as being lived in Christ - joined to Jesus, and with one another, for the sake of the world. Their Christianity was not about 'me and Jesus' but 'me in Jesus'. They knew they that as members of His Body they were called to continue his ongoing work.

Jesus is still identified with His Church. He is the Head and we are the Body. Our own ongoing conversion should involve ongoing conversion to the truth about the Church. The early fathers of the Church would have found the notion that one could be a Christian without being a member of the Church incomprehensible.

Here are but three of a myriad of oft quoted tests confirming this identification between belonging to Jesus and belonging to His Church: Let us love the Lord our God; let us love His Church. Let us love Him as our Father and her as our mother.(St. Augustine)

No one can have God as his Father who does not have the Church as his Mother. (St. Cyprian) For where the Church is, there the Spirit of God is also; and where the Spirit of God is, there the Church is, and all grace. And the Spirit is truth"   (St. Irenaeus of Lyons)

Have we experienced this identification with the Church? Do we really think we live in the Church and go into the world? Is this experience supposed to only be the experience of the mystics? Is it just the talk of the Saints and Fathers? Or, is it supposed to be the truly common experience of every Christian? I believe it is supposed to be the common experience of all who bear the name Christian.

The Church is not some "thing" outside of us, which we try to fix or have our "issues" with. Upon our Baptism, the Church becomes our home, our mother, the place in which we now live our lives in Christ. That is not to say we do not sometimes have struggles with our mother. However, she always remains our mother.

This kind of ecclesial identification can become the pervading reality of our lives.  To perceive, receive and to live this reality requires a continuing and dynamic conversion. We are sons and daughters of the Church. In living our lives in her we now carry forward in time the continuing redemptive mission of Jesus Christ who her Head.

The early Church Fathers often spoke of the Church as the world reconciled. In the Eastern Christian tradition, Catholic and Orthodox, we find a deep understanding of  the mission of the Church, and our place in it, as participating in the ongoing re-creation of the world in Christ.

In its treatment of the mystery of the Church, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states: "To reunite all his children, scattered and led astray by sin, the Father willed to call the whole of humanity together into his Son's Church. The Church is the place where humanity must rediscover its unity and salvation."

"The Church is "the world reconciled." She is that bark which "in the full sail of the Lord's cross, by the breath of the Holy Spirit, navigates safely in this world." According to another image dear to the Church Fathers, she is prefigured by Noah's ark, which alone saves from the flood." (#845)

Of course, until the Lord returns, the Church is still composed of human members and thus, she is both human and divine. She is often wounded and in need of healing. However, she still offers the means through which we participate in the very life of God. To her has been entrusted the Sacraments and the Word, along with the gift of a teaching office upon which we can depend. 

The Church is our life, because we now live in Christ, from whose wounded side she was birthed at the tree of Calvary. Through faith we are invited into a deeper conversion which will enable us to grasp this truth.Prayer is the path to a fuller encounter with the Risen Lord. In that encounter we change.

Like St Paul, this kind of real, tangible experience of living in the heart of the Church for the sake of the world can become our lived, daily experience.  For that to happen, we need, above all else, to pray. Let's ask the Risen Lord who spoke to Saul to open our own eyes to see Him - and our ears to hear His voice. St. Paul's Conversion can become our own. Jesus and the Church Are Inseparable

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