“What shall I do, sir?”: On the conversion of Saint Paul

Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?Will Catholics Be “Left Behind”?, coeditor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the “Catholicism” and “Priest Prophet King” Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to “Our Sunday Visitor” newspaper, “The Catholic Answer” magazine, “The Imaginative Conservative”, “The Catholic Herald”, “National Catholic Register”, “Chronicles”, and other publications.

On the Readings for the Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul

Detail from “Conversion on the Way to Damascus” (c. 1600-01) by Caravaggio (WikiArt.org)

• Acts 22:3-16 or Acts 9:1-22
• Psa 117:1bc, 2
• Mk 16:15-18

Horse or no horse, it’s a powerful, moving story.

My pastor and I have a running joke about the conversion of St. Paul. Perhaps I should say a “galloping joke.” And, actually, it’s about a certain historical detail. Many pieces of Western art depict St. Paul as having been thrown from a horse while on the road to Damascus. But, as my pastor likes to point out, there are three accounts of that dramatic event (Acts 9:1-22; 3-16; 26:9-18), and none mention a horse.

So, was Paul actually thrown from a horse or not? That equestrian mystery might not be solved this side of heaven, but what we do know about St. Paul’s encounter with Jesus the Nazorean is, of course, far more important. And since his conversion on a dusty desert road is given three times in Scripture, we have good reason to conclude it was a significant, even monumental, event.

It’s difficult to overstate the significance of St. Paul. Pope Benedict XVI, in one of his audiences dedicated to St. Paul (Oct. 25, 2006), stated that the Apostle “shines like a star of the brightest magnitude in the Church’s history …” He was brilliant and complex, always unrelenting in his desire to preach the Gospel, sometimes harsh to those needing correction (see the Epistle to the Galatians, for example), but filled with a profound and vibrant love for his fellow man.

St. John Chrysostom, in his homilies on the Acts of the Apostles, noted that while nearly all of the first converts, such as the Ethiopian eunuch, learned about Christ from the apostles, St. Paul “was drawn by no other than Christ himself, for this was too great a work for the apostles. … Like a consummate physician, Christ brought help to him, once the fever reached its height.”

That fever was the relentless rage and cold efficiency with which the young Paul—a brilliant Pharisee who was taught by the renowned rabbi Gamaliel—persecuted the first Christians, both men, and women. “In zeal, I persecuted the church,” he later told the Christians at Philippi (Phil. 3:6). Addressing a riotous crowd in Jerusalem, he explained how he, as a devout Jew, “was zealous for God” and that he had “persecuted this Way to death,” referring to the budding Christian movement. There was no doubt as to his credentials within Judaism. There was also no doubt that something profound had happened to him.

St. Paul was intellectually brilliant and almost ruthlessly logical, but his conversion noted Benedict, “was not the result of a development of thought or reflection, but the fruit of divine intervention, an unforeseeable, divine grace.” Like Moses before the burning bush, St. Paul talked directly to God; like Moses on Mount Sinai, he was suddenly surrounded by brilliant, flashing light. And after the light, blindness. And after the blindness, a new light—the transforming grace of baptism.

One of the many important subjects St. Paul eventually addressed was the nature of the Church and her relationship to Christ. The basis for his insights is found in his encounter with the risen Lord. Notice that Jesus says to him, “Saul, Saul, why are persecuting me?”—not “Why are you persecuting my followers?” There is an intimate relationship between Christ and his followers, so intimate that St. Paul told the Corinthians: “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it” (1 Cor. 12:27).

This point was not a mere theological abstraction, as the blinded Paul also learned. Without sight, he was entirely dependent on others. Needing to be healed, he is directed to Ananias, a member of the body of Christ, who lays his hands on him and says, “Saul, my brother, the Lord has sent me …” He was both physically and spiritually healed, filled with the Holy Spirit.

I don’t know if Paul was thrown from a horse. I know he met Jesus, and asked, “What shall I do, sir?” Yes, Lord, what would you have us do?