The Liturgical Year
Dom Prosper Gueranger, O.S.B.
The Conversion of Saint Paul
We have already seen how the Gentiles, in the person of the Three Magi, offered their mystic gifts to the Divine Child of Bethlehem, and received from him, in return, the precious gifts of faith, hope, and charity. The harvest is ripe; it is time for the reaper to come. But who is to be God’s labourer? The Apostles of Christ are still living under the very shadow of mount Sion. All of them have received the mission to preach the gospel of salvation to the uttermost parts of the world; but not one among them has, as yet, received the special character of Apostle of the Gentiles. Peter, who had received the Apostleship of Circumcision, (Gal. 2:8) is sent specially, as was Christ himself, to the sheep that are lost of the house of Israel. (Matt. 15:24) And yet, as he is the Head and the Foundation, it belongs to him to open the door of Faith to the Gentiles; (Acts 14:26) which he solemnly does, by conferring Baptism on Cornelius, the Roman Centurion.
But the Church is to have one more Apostle—an Apostle for the Gentiles—and he is to be the fruit of the martyrdom and prayer of St. Stephen. Saul, a citizen of Tarsus, has not seen Christ in the flesh, and yet Christ alone can make an Apostle. It is then, from heaven, where he reigns impassible and glorified, that Jesus will call Saul to be his disciple, just as, during the period of his active life, he called the fishermen of Genesareth to follow him and hearken to his teachings. The Son of God will raise Saul up to the third heaven, and there will reveal to him all his mysteries: and when Saul, having come down again to this earth, shall have seen Peter, (Gal. 1:18) and compared his Gospel with that recognised by Peter (Ibid 2:2)—he can say, in all truth, that he is an Apostle of Christ Jesus, (Gal. 1:1) and that he has done nothing less than the great Apostles. (II Cor. 11:5)
It is on this glorious day of the Conversion of Saul, who is soon to change his name into Paul, that this great work is commenced . It is on this day, that is heard the Almighty voice which breaketh the cedars of Libanus, (Ps. 28:5) and can make a persecuting Jew become first a Christian, and then an Apostle. This admirable transformation had been prophesied by Jacob, when, upon his death-bed, he unfolded, to each of his sons, the future of the tribe of which he was to be the father. Juda was to have the precedence of honour; from his royal race, was to be born the Redeemer, the Expected of nations. Benjamin’s turn came ; his glory is not to be compared with that of his brother Juda, and yet it was to be very great— for, from his tribe, is to be born Paul, the Apostle of the Gentile nations.
These are the words of the dying Prophet: Benjamin, a ravenous wolf, in the morning shall eat the prey, and in the evening shall divide the spoil. (Gen. 49:27) Who, says an ancient writer, is he, that in the morning of impetuous youth, goes like a wolf, in pursuit of the sheep of Christ, breathing threatenings and slaughter against them? Is it not Saul on the road to Damascus, the bearer and doer of the high-priest’s orders, and stained with the blood of Stephen, whom he has stoned by the hands of all those, over whose garments he kept watch? And he, who, in the evening, not only does not despoil, but with a charitable and peaceful hand, breaks to the hungry the bread of life—is it not Paul, of the tribe of Benjamin, the Apostle of Christ, burning with zeal for his brethren, making himself all to all, and wishing even to be an anathema for their sakes?
Oh! the power of our dear Jesus! how wonderful! how irresistible! He wishes that the first worshippers at his Crib should be humble Shepherds—and he invites them by his Angels, whose sweet hymn was enough to lead these simple-hearted men to the Stable, where lies, in swaddling-clothes, He who is the hope of Israel. He would have the Gentile Princes, the Magi, do him homage—and bids to arise in the heavens a Star, whose mysterious apparition, joined to the interior speaking of the Holy Ghost, induces these men of desire to come from the far East, and lay, at the feet of an humble Babe, their riches and their hearts. When the time is come for forming the Apostolic College, he approaches the banks of the sea of Tiberias, and with this single word: Follow me, he draws after him such as he wishes to have as his Disciples. In the midst of all the humiliations of his Passion, he has but to look at the unfaithful Peter, and Peter is a penitent. To-day, it is from heaven that he evinces his power: all the mysteries of our redemption have been accomplished, and he wishes to show mankind, that he is the sole author and master of the Apostolate, and that his alliance with the Gentiles is now perfect:—he speaks; the sound of his reproach bursts like thunder over the head of this hot Pharisee, who is bent on annihilating the Church; he takes this heart of the Jew, and, by his grace, turns it into the heart of the Apostle, the Vessel of election, the Paul who is afterwards to say of himself: I live not I, but Christ liveth in me. (Gal. 2:20)
The commemoration of this great event was to be a Feast in the Church, and it had a right to be kept as near as might be to the one which celebrates the martyrdom of St. Stephen, for Paul is the Protomartyr’s convert. The anniversary of his martyrdom would, of course, have to be solemnized at the summer-solstice; where, then, place the Feast of his Conversion if not near Christmas, and thus our own Apostle would be at Jesus’ Crib, and Stephen’s side? Moreover, the Magi could claim him, as being the conqueror of that Gen tile-world, of which they were the first-fruits.
And lastly, it was necessary, in order to give the court of our Infant-King its full beauty, that the two Princes of the Church—the Apostle of the Jews, and the Apostle of the Gentiles—should stand close to the mystic Crib; Peter, with his Keys, and Paul, with his Sword. Bethlehem thus becomes the perfect figure of the Church, and the riches of this season of the Cycle are abundant beyond measure.
Let us borrow from the ancient Liturgies a suitable expression of our admiration of our Apostle’s Conversion. The following Sequence, which belongs to the 10th century, is found in the old Missals of the Churches of Germany. It is full of mysterious allusions, which bear a certain grandeur of thought.
Dixit Dominus: Ex Basan convertam, convertam in profundum maris.
Quod dixit et fecit, Saulum ut stravit, Paulum et statuit,
Per Verbum suum incarnatum, per quod fecit et saecula.
Quod dum impugnat, audivit: Saule, Saule, quid me persequeris?
Ego sum Christus: durum est tibi ut recalcitres stimulo.
A facie Domini mota est terra, contremuitque mox et quievit .
Dum cognito credidit Domino, Paulus persequi cessat Christianos.
Hic lingua tuorum est canum, ex inimicis ad te rediens, Deus;
Dum Paulus in ore omnium sacerdotum jura dat praeceptorum,
Docens crucifixum non esse alium praeter Christum Deum,
Cum Patre qui regnat et Sancto Spiritu, cujus testis Paulus.
Hinc lingua sacerdotum, more canis dum perlinxit legis et Evangelii duos molares in his contrivit,
Corrosit universas species medicinarum, quibus curantur saucii, reficiuntur enutriendi.
Per quem conversus ad nos tu vivifices, Christe, peccatores:
Qui convertendis conversum converteras Paulum, vas electum.
Quo docente Deum, mare vidit et fugit, Jordanis conversus est retrorsum;
Quia turba gentium, rediens vitiorum profundo, Og rege Basan confuso,
Te solum adorat Christum creatorem, quem et cognoscit in carne venisse redemptorem. Amen.
The Lord said: I will turn him from Basan (the land of barrenness); I will turn him into the deep sea (of my faith).
What he said he did, when he prostrated Saul, and raised him up Paul,
By his Incarnate Word, by whom also he made the world.
It was whilst opposing this Word, that the Jew heard the voice: Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?
I am Christ: it is hard for thee to kick against the goad.
The earth was moved at the presence of the Lord; it trembled and then was at rest .
Paul, when he knew the Lord Jesus, believed, and ceased to persecute the Christians.
He became, O God, the tongue of thy faithful ones; leaving thine enemies, he returned to thee.
For it is Paul, who. by the mouth of the Priests throughout the world, proclaims the commandments,
Teaching that the Crucified is no other than God, the Christ,
Who reigneth with the Father and the Holy Ghost; and Paul is his witness.
By Paul the Priests have ruminated the law and the Gospel; and by these, as with two mill-stones, have pounded
And prepared every spiritual medicine, whereby the wounded are healed, and the hungry are fed.
O Jesus! hear his prayers for us sinners; turn to us; give us life;
Who didst turn Paul into a true convert, for the sake of all who are to return to thee, and didst make him the vessel of election.
When he preached God to men, the sea beheld and fled, the Jordan was turned back,
Because the multitude of the nations, returning from the depths of sin, to the confusion of Og the King of Basan,
Now adore but thee, O Christ! their creator, whom they believe to have come, in the flesh, to redeem them. Amen.
The Roman-French Missals give us this beautiful Hymn of Adam of Saint-Victor.
Corde, voce pulsa coelos,
Triumphale pange melos,
Paulus Doctor gentium
Triumphans in gloria.
Hic Benjamin adolescens,
Lupus rapax, praeda vescens,
Hostis est fidelium.
Mane lupus, Bed ovis vespere,
Post tenebras luceute sidere,
Hic mortis viam arripit,
Quem vitae via corripit,
Dum Damascum graditur.
Spirat minas, sed jam cedit;
Sed prostratus jam obedit;
Sed jam vinctus ducitur.
Ad Ananiam mittitur:
Lupus ad ovem trahitur;
Mens resedit effera.
Fontis subit sacramentum:
Mutat virus in pigmentum
Vas sacratum, vas divinum,
Vas propinans dulce vinum
Christi fidem astruit
Verbum crucis protestatur:
Causa crucis cruciatur:
Mille modis moritur:
Sed perstat vivax hostia:
Et invicta constantia
Omnis pcena viucitur.
Segregatus docet gentes:
Mundi vincit sapientes
Raptusad coelum tertium,
Videt Patrem et Filium
In una substantia.
Roma potens et docta Graecia
Praebet colla, discit mysteria:
Fides Christi proficit .
Crux triumphat: Nero saevit,
Quo docente, fides crevit,
Paulum ense conticit.
Sic exutus carnis molem
Paulus, videt verum Solem
Lumen videt in lumine,
Cuius vitemus numine
Gehennalem gemitum. Amen.
Church of the Gentiles! sing with heart and voice thy hymn of triumph, and make the heavens echo.
Paul, the Doctor of the Gentiles, has finished his course, and triumphs in glory.
This is he that was the youthful Benjamin, the ravenous wolf, the devourer of the prey, the enemy of the Faithful
He was a wolf in the morning, but in the evening, a lamb. The night was past, the day-star rose, and he preaches the Gospel.
This is he that marched in the road of death, but was stayed, as he goes to Damascus, by Him who is the Way of Life.
He had breathed forth threats, but at length he yields; he prostrates, and obeys; he is made captive, and goes whither he is led.
He is sent to Ananias—the wolf to the lamb: his stormy heart is calm.
He receives the sacrament of the font; its saving waters turn the venom of his soul into the fragrance of love.
He becomes a sacred vessel, a vessel divine, a vessel that gives forth to men the sweet wine of the grace of doctrine.
He visits the synagogues, and proves the christian faith by unfolding the prophets.
He preaches the cross of Christ; and for that Cross’ sake himself does bear the cross, dying a thousand deaths.
Yet dies not, but is a living victim, conquering every pain by unconquered courage.
He is set apart by God as the teacher of the Gentiles; and by the wisdom of God he overcomes the wise ones of the world.
Rapt to the third heaven, he sees the Father and Son in one substance.
The mighty Rome, and the learned Greece—both bow down their heads, and learn the Mysteries, and embrace the Faith of Christ.
The Cross triumphs! Then does Nero rage to see this Paul spreading the Faith by his preaching, and sentences him to die by the sword.
Thus disburthened from the flesh, Paul sees the true Sun, the Only Begotten of the Father.
He sees the Light in Light,
by whose almighty power we
shun the pains of hell. Amen.
The ancient Sacramentaries give us nothing upon the Conversion of St. Paul. We take the following Prayer and Preface from the Gallican Missal published by Dom Mabillon, under the title of Missale Gothicum.
Deusqui Apostolum tuum Paulum insolentem contra Christiani nominis pietatem, coelesti voce cum terrore perculsum, hodierna die Vocationis ejus, mentem cum nomine commutasti: et quem prius persecutorem metuebat Ecclesia: nunc coelestium mandatorum laetatur se habere Doctorem: quemque ideo foris caecasti, ut introrsus videntem faceres: cuique post tenebras crudelitatis ablatas, ad evocandas Gentes divinae legis scientiam contulisti: sed et tertio naufragantem pro fide quam expugnaverat, jam devotum in elemento liquido fecisti vita incolumen. Sic nobis, quaesumus, ejus et mutationera et fidem colentibus, post caecitatem peccatorum, fac te videre in coelis, qui illuminasti Paulum in terris.
O God, who, by a voice from heaven,didst strike with terror thine Apostle Paul when raging against the holiness of the Christian Religion, and, on this the day of his Vocation, didst change him both in his heart and his name: and him, whom the Church once dreaded as her persecutor, she now rejoices in having as her Teacher in the commandments of God: whom, also, thou didst strike with exterior blindness, that thou mightest give him interior sight: to whom, moreover, when the darkness of his cruelty was removed, thou didst give the knowledge of thy divine law, whereby he might call the Gentiles: and didst thrice deliver him from shipwreck, which he suffered for the Faith, saving this thy devoted servant from the waves of the sea: grant also to us, we beseech thee, who are solemnising both his conversion and his faith, that, after the blindness of our sins, we may be permitted to see Thee, in heaven, who didst enlighten Paul, here on earth.
Dignum et justum est; vere aequum et justum est: nos tibi gratias agere, Domine sancte, Pater omnipotens, aeterne Deus: qui, ut ostenderes te omnium cupere indulgere peccatis, persecutorem Ecclesiae tuae, ad unum verbum tuae vocationis lucratus es, et statim fecisti nobis ex persecutore doctorem: nam qui alienas epistolas, ad destructionem. Ecclesiarum acceperat, coepit suas ad restaurationem earum scribere; et ut seipsum Paulum factum ex Saulo monstraret, repente architectus sapiens, fundamentum posuit, ut sancta Ecclesia tua Catholica, eo aedificante, gauderet, a quo fuerat ante vastata; et tantus ejus defensor existeret, ut omnia supplicia corporis, et ipsam caedem corporis non timeret: nam factus est caput Ecclesiae, qui membra Ecclesiae conquassaverat: caput terreni corporis tradidit, ut Christum caput in suis omnibus membris acciperet, per quod etiam vas electionis esse meruit; qui euiudem Dominum nostrum Jesum Christum Filium tuum in sui pectoris habitationem suscepit.
It is meet and just, yea it is right and just, that we should give thanks to thee. O Holy Lord, Almighty Father, Eternal God: who, to show that thou desirest to forgive all men their sins, didst win over the persecutor of thy Church with one word of thy calling, and straightways made the persecutor our teacher: for, he that had received epistles from others unto the destruction of the Churches, began to write his own unto their restoration: and who, to show that Saul had become Paul, did immediately, as a wise architect, lay the foundation, giving joy to thy holy Catholic Church, by becoming her builder after being her destroyer: and in such wise did he defend her, that he feared neither tortures nor very death, and became a Head of the Church after having crushed the members of the Church, delivering up the head of his own body, that he might be united with the Divine Head Christ, in all His members, by whom also he merited to be made a vessel of election, and received into the dwelling of his own heart this same Jesus Christ thy Son, our Lord.
We give thee thanks, O Jesus! who hast, this day, prostrated thine enemy by thy power, and raised him up again by thy mercy. Truly art thou the Mighty God, and thy victories shall be praised by all creatures. How wonderful art thou, in thy plans for the world’s salvation! Thou makest men thy associates in the work of the preaching of thy word, and in the dispensing of thy Mysteries; and, in order to make Paul worthy of such an honour, thou usest all the resources of thy grace. It pleased thee to make an Apostle of Stephen’s murderer, that so thy sovereign power might be shown to the world, thy love of souls be evinced in its richest gratuitous generosity, and grace abound where sin had so abounded. Sweet Saviour! often visit us with this grace which converts the heart; for we desire to have the life of grace abundantly, and we feel that its very principle is often in danger within us. Convert us, as thou didst thine Apostle; and after having converted us, assist us; for, without thee, we can do nothing. Go before us, follow us, stand by our side; never leave us, but as thou hast given us the commencement, secure to us our perseverance to the end. Give us that christian wisdom, which will teach us how to acknowledge, with fear and love, that mysterious gift of grace, which no creature can merit, and to which, nevertheless, a creature’s will may put an obstacle. We are captives: thou alone art master of the instrument, wherewith we can break our chains; thou puttest it into our hands, bidding us make use of it; so that our deliverance is thy work, not ours—but our captivity, if it continue, can only be attributed to our negligence and sloth. Give us, 0 Lord, this thy grace; and graciously receive the promise we now make, that we will render it fruitful by co-operating with it.
Assist us, thou holy Apostle of Jesus! to correspond with the merciful designs of God in our regard; obtain of him, for us, that we may be overcome by the sweetness of an Infant-God. His voice does not make itself heard; he does not blind us by the glare of his divine light; but this we know—he often complains that we persecute him! Oh! that we could have the courage to say to him, with a heart honest like thine: Lord! what wilt thou that we do f He would answer, and tell us, to be simple, and to become little children, like himself—to recognise now, after so many Christmases of indifference, the love he shows us in this mystery of Bethlehem—to declare war against sin—to resist our evil inclinations—and to advance in virtue, by walking in his divine footsteps. Thou hast said, in one of thine Epistles: If any man love not our Lord Jesus Christ, let himbe anathema! (I Cor. 16:22) Oh! teach us to know this dear Jesus more and more, that so we may grow in his love ; and, by thy prayers, preserve us from that ingratitude which turns even the sweet Mysteries of this holy season into our own greater condemnation.
Glorious Vessel of election! pray for the conversion of sinners, who have forgotten their God. When on this earth, thou didst spend thyself for the salvation of souls; continue thy ministry, now that thou art reigning in heaven, and draw down, upon them that persecute Jesus, the graces which triumph over the hardest hearts. Apostle of the Gentiles! look with an eye of loving pity on so many nations, that are still sitting in the shadow of death. During thy mortal life, thou wast divided between two ardent desires—one, to be with Christ, the other, to remain longer on earth labouring for the salvation of immortal souls: now, that thou art united for ever with the Jesus thou didst preach to men, forget not the poor ones to whom their God is a stranger. Raise up in the Church apostolic men, who may continue thy work. Pray to our Lord that he bless their labours, and the blood of such among them as are Martyrs of zeal. Shield, with thy protection, the See of Peter, thy Brother-Apostle and thy Leader. Support the authority of the Church of Rome, which has inherited thy power, and looks upon thee as her second defence. May thy powerful intercession lead her enemies into humble submission, destroy schisms and heresies, and fill her Pastors with thy spirit, that, like thee, they may seek, not themselves, but solely and in all things the interests of our Lord Jesus Christ.