Beginning from the episode of the stoning of Stephen, a figure appears that, next to that of Peter, is the most present and incisive in the Acts of the Apostles: that of “a young man named Saul” (Acts 7:58). He is described at the beginning as one who approved Stephen’s death and wanted to destroy the Church (Cf. Acts 8:3); but then he became the instrument chosen by God to proclaim the Gospel to the Gentiles (Cf. Acts 9:15; 22:21; 26:17).
With the authorization of the high priest, Saul hunted Christians and seized them. You, who come from some peoples that were persecuted by dictatorships, you understand well what it means to hunt people and seize them. So did Saul. And he did so thinking that he was serving the Lord’s Law. Luke says that Saul “breathed threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord” (Acts 9:1): there was in him a breath that knew of death, not of life.
The young Saul is portrayed as intransigent, namely, as one who manifests intolerance towards those that think differently from him; he absolutizes his political or religious identity and reduces the other to a potential enemy to fight — an ideologist. In Saul, religion was transformed into an ideology: religious ideology, social ideology <and> political ideology. Only after having been transformed by Christ will he then teach that the true battle is not “against flesh and blood, but [. . .] against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness” (Ephesians 6:12). He will teach that one must not fight against people, but against the evil that inspires their actions.
Saul’s angry condition — because Saul was angry — and his conflictive condition invites each one to ask himself: how do I live my life of faith? Do I go to encounter others or am I against others? Do I belong to the universal Church (good <people> and bad <people>, all) or to I have a selective ideology? Do I adore God or do I adore dogmatic formulations? How is my religious life? Does the faith in God that I profess make me friendly or hostile towards those who are different from me?
Luke recounts that, while Saul is wholly intent on extirpating the Christian community, the Lord is on his trail to touch his heart and to convert him to Himself. It’s the Lord’s method: He touches the heart. The Risen One takes the initiative and manifests Himself to Saul on the road to Damascus, event that is narrated a good three times in the Book of the Acts (Cf. Acts 9:3-19; 22:3-21; 26:4-23). Through the binomial “light” and “voice,” typical of a theophany, the Risen one appears to Saul and asks him to account for his fratricidal rage: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute Me?” (Acts 9:4). The Risen One manifests here His being one with all those that believe in Him: to strike a member of the Church is to strike Christ Himself! Also, those that are ideologists because they want the “purity” — in quotation marks — of the Church, strike Christ.
Jesus’ voice says to Saul: “Rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do” (Acts 9:6). Once he is standing, however, Saul no longer sees anything, he has become blind, and from a strong, authoritative and independent man he becomes weak, needy and dependent on others, because he can’t see. The light of Christ has dazzled him and made him blind. “Thus, he seemed even exteriorly what his interior reality was, his blindness to the truth, to the light that is Christ” (Benedict XVI, General Audience, September 3, 2008).
From this “body to body” between Saul and the Risen One the transformation begins that shows Saul’s “personal Easter,” his passage from death to life: what before was glory becomes “rubbish” to reject, in order to acquire the true gain that is Christ and life in Him (Cf. Philippians 3:7-8).
Paul receives Baptism. Baptism thus marks for Saul, as for each one of us, the beginning of a new life, and it’s accompanied by a new look on God, on himself and on others, who from enemies now become brothers in Christ.
Let us ask the Father to make us also experience, as Saul did, the impact of His love, which can only make of a heart of stone a heart of flesh (Cf. Ezekiel 11:15), capable of receiving in itself “the same sentiments of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5).
I greet the English-speaking pilgrims and visitors taking part in today’s Audience, especially the groups from England, Scotland, Ireland, Denmark, Norway, Nigeria, Uganda, Belize, Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Korea, Canada, and the United States of America. Upon all of you, and your families, I invoke the joy and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ. May God bless you!