On July 7, 1858, Servant of God Isaac Hecker together with 3 others founded the Society of Missionary Priests of Saint Paul the Apostle, known ever since as “The Paulist Fathers.” Three days later they were assigned by Archbishop John Hughes the pastoral care of a new west-side parish, named for Saint Paul the Apostle. For more than 160 years, this parish - together with the Paulist Fathers’ life as a religious community in the Church and their wider missionary outreach - have been blessed by the patronage of Saint Paul the Apostle, the feast of whose Conversion we anticipate today.
Most saints are celebrated on the anniversary of their death. If the saint was a martyr, that itself is often his or her principal claim on our attention. Along with the Apostle Peter, Paul was martyred in Rome, the subject of Robert Reid’s impressive painting above the altar of Saint Paul on the south side of the church. Saints Peter and Paul are celebrated together every year on June 29. But then, every January, there is this additional celebration of Saint Paul – focused on the event in his life that we now commonly call his “conversion.” That great event, monumentally portrayed by Lumen Martin Winter over the main entrance to the church [photo], transformed Paul into a disciple of Jesus and put him on an equal footing with the others to whom the Risen Christ had appeared. Now as then, that event highlights for us what it means to be converted to Christ, 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. He became what the beautiful mosaic on the floor of the church behind the altar here calls “A Preacher of Truth in the whole world.” No wonder Hecker and his friends chose Paul as their patron!
To understand Paul and appreciate his impact, we do well to remember that Paul was, first and foremost, a devout Jew, well educated in the Law, a Pharisee, that is, a member of the group most zealous about religious observance. But he was also a Greek-speaking Jew, from what we call the Diaspora, those living outside the land of Israel. He grew up in what is today Turkey, in a Greek city, and enjoyed Roman citizenship.
All of this was very important, because one of the great 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 Jews and Gentiles should relate to one another within the one 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.
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 recognized Jesus as the One, though whom all people are included in God’s plan of salvation.
And because the newly converted Paul now understood that it was Jesus that ultimately mattered, he also recognized 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 and why he appealed to Hecker as a model – Hecker who was so convinced that the Catholic Church was just what American culture needed. The world has changed a lot since Hecker’s time (not to mention Paul’s time), but the Church’s mission - our mission - remains the same.
Paul had what Hecker so much wanted his Paulists to have, what Hecker called “zeal for souls.” 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 Pope Saint John Paul II famously said: “Those who have come into genuine contact with Christ cannot keep him for themselves, they must proclaim him.”
Homily for the (Anticipated) Parish Patronal Solemnity of the Conversion of Saint Paul, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, NY, January 23, 2022.