Votive Mass, Conversion of St. Paul
Knights of Columbus Board
Feb. 12, 2020
Surrounded by History
We come now to the concluding Mass of our Roman pilgrimage, these grace-filled days in which we have celebrated the 100th anniversary of the mission and ministry of the Knights of Columbus here in the Eternal City. We are blessed to celebrate Mass here in the Pauline Chapel – it is a sign of the Order’s closeness to our Holy Father, Pope Francis. This Chapel is not on ordinary tours or pilgrimages but is reserved to the Holy Father; how privileged we are and how grateful we are to be here!
We are, of course, surrounded by history. Construction was begun in 1537 by order of Pope Paul III and was dedicated to the Conversion of St. Paul in 1540 by the same Pontiff. The magnificent frescos by Michelangelo were not finished until 1549 – the Conversion of Saul and the Crucifixion of St. Peter – and they were his last. Some historians of art contrast the style of these paintings with those in the nearby Sistine Chapel. These are said to be less stylized and to speak more plainly, as if to communicate to each of us the power of God’s abundant graces.
It is also in this Chapel that the Cardinals gather before proceeding to the Sistine Chapel to elect a new Pope. This is also where the Cardinals celebrate Mass during the days of the Conclave. Perhaps Pope Paul III and Michelangelo hoped that these images would inspire the Cardinals as they gather to fulfill their critically important responsibility.
Surrounded By Mystery
For now, let us focus our attention on Michelangelo’s fresco, “The Conversion of Saul.” I’m not competent to unpack all that is going on in this fresco but I am struck by the extended arm of the Risen and Exalted Christ reaching down out of heaven to touch and transform the life of Saul. Saul is on the ground, his eyes blinded, his companions stunned, with Damascus lying off in the distance. The mission which Saul planned to accomplish did not come about. Rather, God gave him a new mission, to preach the Gospel to the Gentiles.
Turning our gaze toward Saul, lying on the ground, his eyes blinded by ‘the light of God’s glory shining on the face of Christ’ (2 Cor. 4:6), our own hearts should be filled with the light of God’s glory. For this is the moment when Saul encountered the Lord, and, in effect, became an eyewitness of the Crucified and Risen Lord. This encounter profoundly and forever changed his life. Even as his eyes were blinded, the inner recesses of his heart were enlightened, just as later he would utter this prayer for the Ephesians and for us: “I pray that the eyes of your heart might be enlightened that you may know the hope to which you have been called…” (Eph. 1:18). From the moment of his conversion, Paul began to “consider everything as a loss because of knowing the supreme good of knowing Christ Jesus as […] Lord.” From that moment on, he “accepted the loss of all things” and regarded them as “so much rubbish” so that he “might gain Christ” (Phil. 3:8).
The conversion of St. Paul – depicted on the wall of this Chapel and described for us in today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles – this conversion is arguably the most important in the history of the Church. For once Paul’s sight was restored and he was baptized in the Name of the Lord, he became the Apostle to the Gentiles—spreading the Gospel to the ends of the earth. In the Acts of the Apostles and in his Letters, Paul describes his missionary journeys during which he fearlessly and brilliantly preached the good news of “Christ crucified” – “Christ the wisdom of God and [Christ] the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:24). Along the way he established local Churches in places like Ephesus, Philippi, and Corinth. And to the end of his life, good pastor that he was, he felt anxiety for the Churches and suffered every kind of indignity to serve the cause of the Gospel, culminating in his own martyrdom, his last and greatness witness to the Risen Lord whom he had encountered on the road to Damascus.
Conversion and Missionary Discipleship
It is clear how the lessons of this fresco apply to us, the Knights of Columbus. As we seek to be a global force for the new evangelization, a force that is constituted by members who are missionary disciples, members who are courageous in professing their faith and virtuous in living it, you and I must attend always, first and foremost, to our own ongoing conversion. We who seek to evangelize must ourselves be evangelized. We who seek to be the Lord’s instruments in bringing about the conversion of those who are lukewarm in the practice of their faith – … we ourselves must constantly allow the strong right arm of Christ’s grace and mercy to reach down out of heaven to open our eyes to the wonder of his truth and love, to transform our hearts, to set them aflame, to put us on course for the missionary journeys that each of us has been called to undertake.
As I look at Paul on the ground, his eyes overwhelmed by the light, I see more clearly with the passage of years, what ongoing conversion means. It is not a mere in-flight adjustment, as if the Lord simply diverted Saul from to Damascus to Antioch. No, conversion means being knocked off of one’s horse, and the higher the horse the harder the fall! It means for me and indeed for all of us, coming to a point in our lives in which we cease to value the earthly things we used to value and instead find our total joy and hope in Jesus, in Christ crucified, in the One whose life we hope to share so that we might proclaim him by word and deed, to the very ends of the earth.
Through the intercession of St. Peter, St. Paul, and Ven. Fr. Michael McGivney, may we go forth from this place with our hearts transformed and our spirits renewed, so as to engage the mission of the Knights of Columbus as never before. Vivat Jesus!