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Getting knocked off our high horse

Archbishop Wenski's homily on the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul

Archbishop Thomas Wenski preached this homily during a Mass he celebrated with archdiocesan employees at the Pastoral Center on the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, Jan. 25, 2023.

Today, the Church celebrates the Conversion of St. Paul – or about how when he encountered the Risen Christ along the road to Damascus, a Pharisee named Saul became Paul, the great apostle to the Gentiles. It wasn’t a gentle encounter: Jesus knocked him off his high horse.

The first thing we can say about Paul’s conversion is the same thing that we can say about every conversion. Conversion is the fruit of prayer, sometimes long, insistent prayer. It is for a good reason we were taught to pray in the Hail Mary: pray for us, sinners, now and at the hour of our death.

For example, St. Augustine was converted through the tearful prayers of his mother, St. Monica. And Paul – to be sure – was converted by the prayers of the first martyr, St. Stephen. Saul held the garments of those who stoned Stephen to death – but Stephen prayed, “Do not hold this sin against them.” Repeating the very words of Jesus, he cried out: “Father, forgive them. They know not what they do.” Paul getting knocked off his horse was the answer to Stephen’s prayers.

Another thing we can say about conversion is that it’s not just about leaving an immoral life to live a moral one. Of course, most times it means just that – because to follow Christ we must reject any lifestyle or way of living not compatible with our life in Christ. But Paul was a deeply religious man. He called himself the Pharisee of Pharisees: he knew his Scripture, he prayed, he followed the Torah. Yes, he was an accomplice to the murder of Stephen; but they all saw themselves as doing what God had commanded, to punish what they thought was blasphemy. And when he set out to Damascus to harass and arrest those Christians, he thought he was doing God’s holy work.

What made Saul into Paul was his conversion to a new horizon and a decisive direction.

He converted from believing he could save himself to believing that he is saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. He converted from believing he could become holy by following to the letter the external laws of Moses to believing that holiness – which is simply union with God – happens when we learn to die to ourselves so that the Risen Christ can live within us.

And while being knocked off his horse marked a before and after in the life of Saul-become-Paul, conversion is not a one-time thing. Our conversion must be ongoing – as Christ seeks to form us more and more in his image. That was true for Paul, and it is true for us. Just as Paul continued to grow in the Gospel that he was fearlessly and faithfully proclaiming, so must we.