All of us have heard this statement of St. Vincent:
“In the month of January 1617, on the twenty-fifth, the feast of the Conversion of Paul,that lady [Madame de Gondi] asked me to preach a sermon in the church of Folleville to urge the people to make a general confession, which I did, pointing out to them its importance and usefulness. Then I taught them how to make it properly; and God…blessed what I said… . That was the first sermon of the Mission and the success that God gave it on the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul.” (CCD 11 #2, pp. 3-4)
At this time of the year, I sometimes wonder at the content which accompanied these words of our Founder on this significant occasion. I am struck by the way in which “the feast of the Conversion of Paul” creates a context at beginning and end with which Vincent’s bounds his remembrance. What further role might that occasion have played in the preaching of this day?
Paul stands as one of the central figures in the New Testament. The Acts of the Apostles records his conversion story three times to emphasize its importance. It holds pride of place as the key experiences in the life of the great apostle as it brings his whole being into focus. Paul had been a zealous Jew, persecuting the Jewish-Christians because of their compromise of the ancestral faith. This “way” had proclaimed some prophet as the long-awaited Messiah, and Paul could not bear that kind of sacrilege. He sought to destroy this affront to his faith by any means necessary. This purpose puts him on the road to Damascus and into the path of the resurrected Lord.
Paul’s question as he lies on the road receives the answer which turns his whole world around, words which will make him the man who will proclaim the Christian faith without compromise:
As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. (Acts 9:3-5)
These last words change everything for Paul. He had heard the belief that the Christians placed in Jesus and all the stories told about him, but now he receives the one piece which had eluded him: “Jesus is Lord.” Everything which he had learned about Jesus now became the highest truth. His faith becomes more than a measure of doctrine and well-articulated belief, it becomes personal. Paul becomes the unstoppable force which will proclaim Jesus in every city and to every ear that he encounters. His conversion is to a person and the direction of his life will only find meaning in that person.
As Vincent preaches in Folleville, I wonder about how much of the story of Paul he recounts, and about the way in which he invites his hearers to follow the lead of the great Apostle to the Gentiles. Vincent recounts how he instructs the people to make a general confession and how to make one properly. How much did he speak about the nature of sin as a personal rejection of the Lord and about repentance as a turning back to him with a changed life? These dynamics rest at the heart of Paul’s conversion.
I am attracted to both Vincent and Paul. The opportunity to reflect on them together in this foundational Vincentian story attracts me.