In 1954, Pope Pius XII's Commission that was preparing for the eventual reform of the sacred liturgy discussed - seriously - the abolition of today's feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul. Several speakers seemed to favor reducing its rank and combining it with the Commemoration of Saint Paul (at that time another Pauline feast still celebrated on June 30). One Monsignor, however, highlighted the importance of Paul's conversion in the history of the Church, which he felt rendered the feast "indispensable." Fortunately, for whatever reason, that argument eventually prevailed. And so we still celebrate the feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul today.
Pius Parsch called Paul's conversion "a most decisive moment in the development of God's kingdom on earth." After the Ascension and Pentecost, the only moment in the Acts of the Apostles as decisive as Paul's conversion would have been the "Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15). But in the complex collection of events subsumed under that heading, Paul's role was paramount.
Most saints are celebrated on the anniversary of their death. Indeed, if the saint was a martyr, his or her death is itself often the principal claim on our attention. Along with the Apostle Peter, Paul was martyred in Rome, and the two are celebrated together every year on June 29. But then, every January 25, we have - thankfully still - this additional celebration of St. Paul, focused on the event in his life that we commonly call his “conversion.” That great event transformed Paul into a disciple of Jesus and put him on an equal footing with the others to whom the Risen Christ had appeared, highlighting what it means for someone to be converted to Christ and to become a disciple of Jesus, his witness in the world, and an apostle sent with mission to evangelize, to make disciples of all peoples.
Paul was, first and foremost, a devout Jew well educated in the Law and a Pharisee, a member of the 1st-century lay group most zealous about Jewish religious observance. But he was also a Greek-speaking Jew, from the Diaspora. (More Jews lived outside of Israel than in it at that time.) He grew up in what is today Turkey, in a Greek city, and enjoyed Roman citizenship.
All of this proved to be so very important, because one of the defining issues which confronted the 1st century Church was figuring out how Jews and Gentiles were connected in God’s plan for the salvation of the world through Jesus Christ – and how they should relate to one another within the one and the same community of the Church. The way this issue was eventually resolved (thanks in no small part to Paul) helped transform what would otherwise have been a small Jewish sect into the biggest and longest-lasting multi-cultural institution in the world - the Roman Catholic Church.
What Paul experienced when he met the Risen Lord on the way to Damascus was a revelation of God’s plan to include all people in the promises originally made to Abraham and his descendants and now being finally fulfilled in Jesus. The God who revealed himself to Paul in the person of Jesus was the same God whom Paul had always served so enthusiastically as a Jew. What changed was that now Paul now recognized Jesus as the One, though whom all people are included in God’s plan of salvation.
And because the converted Paul now understood that it was Jesus that ultimately mattered, he also recognized that there need be no conflict between Gentile culture and faith in Christ. For the pagan peoples of the Roman Empire, that was good news indeed. It’s easy to see why Paul’s mission was so successful among different types of people.
Paul was not one of the original 12. He wasn’t there when Jesus said to his disciples: “go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature.” But he absorbed those words as surely as if they had been initially addressed to him – as we also must do, as the Church continues to fulfill its destiny to become a truly global community in which faith in Christ simultaneously transcends and accommodates the diverse multiplicity of human cultures, languages, and ways of life.