VATICAN CITY, DEC. 5, 2008 (Zenit.org).- The conversion of St. Paul is for the Christian a model of true conversion, says Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa.
The preacher of the Pontifical Household said this today upon delivering the first of a series of Advent sermons at the Vatican in the presence of Benedict XVI and the Roman Curia. The address was titled “But Whatever Gain I Had, I Counted as a Loss for the Sake of Christ.”
The series of meditations are centered on the theme “‘When the Fullness of Time Had Come, God Sent his Son, Born of a Woman: Going With St. Paul to Meet the Christ Who Comes.” The next two sermons will be held Dec. 12 and 19.
“The best explanation of St. Paul’s conversion,” the preacher began, “is the one he himself gives when he speaks of Christian baptism as being ‘baptized into the death of Christ’ — ‘buried with him’ to rise with him and ‘walk in newness of life’ (cf. Romans 6:3-4). He relived in himself the paschal mystery of Christ, around which, in turn, all his thought will revolve.”
Father Cantalamessa noted that, similar to Christ, Paul withdrew to the desert immediately after his baptism: “After being baptized by Ananias, he withdrew to the desert of Arabia, namely, the desert around Damascus. Exegetes estimate that there were some 10 years of silence in Paul’s life between the event on the road to Damascus and the start of this public activity in the Church.
“The Apostle had a long novitiate; his conversion did not last a few minutes. And it is in this his kenosis; in this time of deprivation and silence that he accumulated that bursting energy and light that one day would pour over the world.”
The preacher explained there are two descriptions of Paul’s conversion: one that is objective and one that is subjective. That is, one that describes the event from the outside, and Paul’s own account that describes it from within.
For the subjective account, Father Cantalamessa points to Chapter 3 of the Letter to the Philippians, “in which the Apostle describes what the encounter with Christ meant to him subjectively, what he was before and what he became afterward; in other words, in what the change in his life consisted existentially and religiously.”
“We will concentrate on his text that, by analogy with the Augustinian work, we can describe as ‘the confessions of St. Paul,'” said the preacher.
He pointed to the Philippians 3:7-8, which the Capuchin said marks a break in Paul’s account of his life: “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed I count everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ” (Philippians 3:7-8).
Father Cantalamessa explained: “In this brief text the name of Christ appears three times. The encounter with him has divided his life in two, has created a before and an after.
“It was a very personal encounter (it is the only text where the Apostle uses the singular “my,” not “our” Lord) and an existential encounter more than a mental one. No one will ever be able to know in-depth what happened in that brief dialogue […]
“He describes it as a ‘revelation’ (Galatians 1:15-16). It was a sort of fusion of fire, a beam of light that even today, at a distance of 2,000 years, illuminates the world.”
“Up to now Paul believed he could save himself and be righteous before God through the scrupulous observance of the law and the traditions of the fathers,” said Father Cantalamessa. “Now he understood that salvation is obtained in another way.
“I want to be found, he says, ‘not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith’ (Philippians 3:8-9). Jesus made him experience in himself that which one day he would proclaim to the whole Church: justification by grace through faith (cf. Galatians 2:15-16; Romans 3:21 ff.).”
The preacher said that this is the essence of the Christian message, “which distinguishes it from every other religion or religious philosophy.”
“Every religious proposal begins by telling men what they must do to save themselves or to obtain ‘illumination,'” he said. “Christianity does not begin by telling men what they must do, but what God has done for them in Christ Jesus. Christianity is the religion of grace.”
“We are not saved by good works,” added Father Cantalamessa, “though we are not saved without good works. It is a revolution of which, at a distance of 2,000 years, we still try to be aware.”
Regarding the question of conversion, the preacher said that it “is seen as a condition for salvation.”
He explained, “Repent and you will be saved; repent and salvation will come to you. This is the predominant meaning that the word conversion has on the lips of John the Baptist (cf. Luke 3:4-6). However, on Jesus’ lips this moral meaning takes second place (at least at the beginning of his preaching) in regard to a new meaning, unknown until now.”
“However,” Father Cantalamessa continue, “we have seen that evangelical conversion is not about denying something or going back, but a reception of something new, a leap forward.”
He adds: “In this light Paul’s conversion appears to us as the model of true Christian conversion that consists first of all in accepting Christ, in ‘turning’ to him through faith. It is a finding, not a giving up.
“Jesus does not say: A man sold all he had and began to look for a hidden treasure; he said: A man found a treasure and because of this sold everything.”