The year of Saint Paul

The Conversion of St. Paul by Gerald Roach

Here are portions of the homily of Benedict XVI given at Evening Prayer on Thursday, June 28, 2007 at the Basilica of St. Paul Outside-the-Walls in Rome. At this liturgy the pope formally announced a Pauline Year celebrating the bimillenium of St. Paul's birth. This special year begins this weekend, June 29, 2008 with the Solemnity of the Saints Peter and Paul and will conclude on the same liturgical feast in 20009.

Although Paul's conversion is very often depicted and spoken of as his falling from a horse, there is no scriptural source for this image. Here's Paul's own account of his conversion:
"On that journey as I drew near to Damascus,
about noon a great light from the sky suddenly shone around me.
I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me,
‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’
I replied, ‘Who are you, sir?’
And he said to me,
‘I am Jesus the Nazorean whom you are persecuting.’
My companions saw the light
but did not hear the voice of the one who spoke to me.
I asked, ‘What shall I do, sir?’
The Lord answered me, ‘Get up and go into Damascus,
and there you will be told about everything
appointed for you to do.’
Since I could see nothing because of the brightness of that light,
I was led by hand by my companions and entered Damascus."
- Acts 22:3-16
More information on the Pauline year can be found at the US Bishops website and the complete text of the pope's homily is on the Vatican website.

Dear Brothers and Sisters:

At this First Vespers of the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul, let us commemorate with gratitude these two Apostles whose blood with that of so many other Gospel witnesses made the Church of Rome fruitful.

This Basilica, which has hosted profoundly significant ecumenical events, reminds us how important it is to pray together to implore the gift of unity, that unity for which St Peter and St Paul spent their lives, to the point of making the supreme sacrifice of their blood.

A very ancient tradition which dates back to apostolic times claims that their last meeting before their martyrdom actually took place not far from here: the two are supposed to have embraced and blessed each other. And on the main portal of this Basilica they are depicted together, with scenes of both martyrdoms.

Thus, from the outset, Christian tradition has considered Peter and Paul to have been inseparable, even if each had a different mission to accomplish.

Peter professed his faith in Christ first; Paul obtained as a gift the ability to deepen its riches. Peter founded the first community of Christians who came from the Chosen People; Paul became the Apostle to the Gentiles. With different charisms they worked for one and the same cause: the building of Christ's Church.

(T)he liturgy offers us for meditation this well-known text of St Augustine: "One day is assigned for the celebration of the martyrdom of the two Apostles. But those two were one. Although their martyrdom occurred on different days, they were one. Peter went first, Paul followed. We celebrate this feast day which is made sacred for us by the blood of these Apostles" (Sermon 295, 7, 8).

And St Leo the Great comments: "About their merits and virtues, which surpass all power of speech, we must not make distinctions, because they were equal in their election, alike in their toils, undivided in their death" (In natali apostol., 69, 7).

In Rome, since the earliest centuries, the bond that unites Peter and Paul in their mission has acquired a very specific significance. Like Romulus and Remus, the two mythical brothers who are said to have given birth to the City, so Peter and Paul were held to be the founders of the Church of Rome.


However humanly different they may have been from each other and despite the tensions that existed in their relationship, Peter and Paul appear as the founders of a new City, the expression of a new and authentic way of being brothers which was made possible by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. For this reason, it can be said that the Church of Rome is celebrating her birthday today, since it was these two Apostles who laid her foundations.


We will commemorate St Peter specifically tomorrow, celebrating the Divine Sacrifice in the Vatican Basilica, built on the site of his martyrdom. This evening we turn our gaze to St Paul, whose relics are preserved with deep veneration in this Basilica.

At the beginning of the Letter to the Romans, as we have just heard, St Paul greeted the community of Rome, introducing himself as "a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle" (1: 1). He uses the term "servant", in Greek, doulos, to indicate a relationship of total and unconditional belonging to the Lord Jesus; moreover, it is a translation of the Hebrew, 'ebed, thus alluding to the great servants whom God chose and called for an important and specific mission.

Paul knew he was "called to be an apostle", that is, that he had not presented himself as a candidate, nor was his a human appointment, but solely by a divine call and election.

The Apostle to the Gentiles repeats several times in his Letters that his whole life is a fruit of God's freely given and merciful grace (cf. I Cor 15: 9-10; II Cor 4: 1; Gal 1: 15). He was chosen to proclaim "the Gospel of God" (Rom 1: 1), to disseminate the announcement of divine Grace which in Christ reconciles man with God, himself and others.

From his Letters, we know that Paul was far from being a good speaker; on the contrary, he shared with Moses and Jeremiah a lack of oratory skill. "His bodily presence is weak, and his speech of no account" (II Cor 10: 10), his adversaries said of him.

The extraordinary apostolic results that he was able to achieve cannot, therefore, be attributed to brilliant rhetoric or refined apologetic and missionary strategies.

The success of his apostolate depended above all on his personal involvement in proclaiming the Gospel with total dedication to Christ; a dedication that feared neither risk, difficulty nor persecution.

"Neither death, nor life", he wrote to the Romans, "nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord" (8: 38-39).

From this we can draw a particularly important lesson for every Christian. The Church's action is credible and effective only to the extent to which those who belong to her are prepared to pay in person for their fidelity to Christ in every circumstance. When this readiness is lacking, the crucial argument of truth on which the Church herself depends is also absent.

Dear brothers and sisters, as in early times, today too Christ needs apostles ready to sacrifice themselves. He needs witnesses and martyrs like St Paul. Paul, a former violent persecutor of Christians, when he fell to the ground dazzled by the divine light on the road to Damascus, did not hesitate to change sides to the Crucified One and followed him without second thoughts. He lived and worked for Christ, for him he suffered and died. How timely his example is today!

And for this very reason I am pleased to announce officially that we shall be dedicating a special Jubilee Year to the Apostle Paul from 28 June 2008 to 29 June 2009, on the occasion of the bimillennium of his birth, which historians have placed between the years 7 and 10 A.D.

It will be possible to celebrate this "Pauline Year" in a privileged way in Rome where the sarcophagus which, by the unanimous opinion of experts and an undisputed tradition, preserves the remains of the Apostle Paul, has been preserved beneath the Papal Altar of this Basilica for 20 centuries.

It will thus be possible to have a series of liturgical, cultural and ecumenical events taking place at the Papal Basilica and at the adjacent Benedictine Abbey, as well as various pastoral and social initiatives, all inspired by Pauline spirituality.

In addition, special attention will be given to penitential pilgrimages that will be organized to the Apostle's tomb to find in it spiritual benefit. Study conventions and special publications on Pauline texts will also be promoted in order to make ever more widely known the immense wealth of the teaching they contain, a true patrimony of humanity redeemed by Christ.

Furthermore, in every part of the world, similar initiatives will be implemented in the dioceses, shrines and places of worship, by Religious and by the educational institutions and social-assistance centres which are named after St Paul or inspired by him and his teaching.

Lastly, there is one particular aspect to which special attention must be paid during the celebration of the various moments of the 2,000th Pauline anniversary: I am referring to the ecumenical dimension. The Apostle to the Gentiles, who was especially committed to taking the Good News to all peoples, left no stones unturned for unity and harmony among all Christians.

May he deign to guide and protect us in this bimillenial celebration, helping us to progress in the humble and sincere search for the full unity of all the members of Christ's Mystical Body. Amen.



  1. Looking at the picture, all I can think is that he couldn't have been very comfortable riding like that!

  2. Why doesn't he have clothes on???
    I could see if he was Adam? (As in "Adam & Eve".

    I know you wrote a lot concerning this post, and I suppose a whole lot of us can't get past the image of the "naked" Paul on the horse.

  3. The only person who could truly answer the question "Why doesn't he have clothes on?" would be Gerald Roach, the artist.

    It's interesting that Anonymous puts "naked" in quotes. Is that because Paul's nakedness in the painting is just about as discreet as nakedness can be?

    Here's my take on the subject. Paul's conversion took place at the height of his persecution of Christians. He had not received the gospel from the preaching of others, he had not been baptized: his acceptance of Christ was from this dramatic experience on the road to Damascus.

    Is it possible that Roach (whose work does not characteristically include nudes) wants to depict the nakedness of Paul in the face of God's revelation? Might there even be baptismal imagery here? These are observations, not conclusions. Roach is not a religious man but I think the painting captures well the experience described by Paul in the Acts of the Apostles. Paul's world, religion and life were turned upside down, inside out in his conversion: perhaps he felt naked before God...

    Having a difficult time getting past the image? Try an old cyber-ploy: scroll down!

  4. Concord Pastor, I agree with your observations. Another observation is that the image shows Saul as half naked. You can see that his cloak is covering half his body but looks like it is coming off of him. The important thing is that it is coming off of him and he is not covering up before God.

  5. Do I detect a New England puritanical streak with regard to St. Paul on the horse?! I barely (no pun intended) noticed, as I had thought St. Paul was not knocked off a horse contrary to this widely held belief.

  6. No, not puritanical in the least. Just someone noticing a very good looking St. Paul. :-)

  7. Too bad for you, you barely noticed!!

    In my eyes, you may be the one who is puritanical. The sight of St. Paul on the horse ... without anything on .. is beautiful.

  8. OK! We're far, far away from the purpose of this post. Got something to say about the Pauline Year? Go for it! Enough about the painting, already!

  9. I love reading Paul's letters. Often they seem to have been written to us and our modern world.
    This is one of my favorite quotes about Christian unity:
    "Lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, ... making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, ... one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all" (Ephesians 4:1-4).

    Just one more comment on the painting if i could....
    I see a reference to Galatians.
    Paul is discarding his robe to be clothed in Christ.
    "In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ."


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