The Catholic University of America

Very Rev. David M. O'Connell, C.M.
The Catholic University of America
Inauguration of the Year of St. Paul at The Catholic University of America
The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
August 28, 2008

Father O'Connell

Archbishop Wuerl and my Sisters and Brothers in the Lord:

How does one get to the point in life when he or she can accept the Lord's call to "go out to all the world and proclaim the good news (Mark 16: 15)?" Jesus was not speaking to people at the beginning of their lives in today's Gospel or at the moment of their first encounter with him. St. Matthew presents this commission taking place on the Mount of his Ascension (Matthew 28: 16 - 20). And St. Mark, in the passage we just heard (Mark 16: 15 -18), places Jesus at table with the eleven remaining disciples. In either case, the Lord's call is to people who have lived and worked and prayed and succeeded and failed, the youthful St. John as well as the mature St. Peter - people just like us. In either case, Jesus had captured their attention at some point in their lives and that created a change. It was he who made the difference.

St. Paul was not there at the time. He was not on the mountain; he was not at the table. His call, his commission came later, as we heard in our first reading from the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 22: 3 - 16). It happened on the road to Damascus.

This year is dedicated to the memory of St. Paul: his life, his message, his significance for the Church. In his homily inaugurating this year's commemoration, Pope Benedict XVI said: "Paul wants to speak to us - today. That is why I chose to establish this special "Pauline Year": in order to listen to him and learn today from him, as our teacher, "the faith and the truth" (Pope Benedict XVI, "Homily," St. Paul's-Outside-the-Walls, June 28, 2008)."

Today, we begin a new academic year at The Catholic University of America and we also inaugurate our own particular commemoration of the Pauline Year. "Paul wants to speak to us today" and he does so on the road to Damascus, the place where he first met Jesus Christ.

What we celebrate today is not so much who Paul was but, rather, what he became. Who he was, was a Pharisee and fervent Jew who knew the Mosaic law inside and out and who found in Christ, his preaching and his followers an enemy, an obstacle, a source of division, a way and a group worthy of persecution, of elimination. What he became was "Teacher of the gentiles, apostle, proclaimer of Jesus Christ (Pope Benedict XVI, "Homily," St. Paul-Outside-the-Walls, June 28, 2008)." He truly went out "to all the world" to "proclaim the good news," perhaps more so than any one man who ever lived. And the results of his preaching and teaching are a large part of what defines us as Christians. As he wrote, "With Christ, I am nailed to the cross. The life I live is not my own: it is Christ living within me (Galatians 2: 20)."

I could not begin to capture the essence of St. Paul for you today. We do not have time and, quite frankly, there are scholars on our faculty here who know so much more and so much better. But, then again, as Pope Benedict said, "Paul wants to speak to us today." And he does so, on the road to Damascus, through his conversion.

The conversion of St. Paul was the singular event that defined his whole life - everything leading up to his conversion and everything that followed.

For St. Paul, his life could not have been more established. He tells in Acts: I am a Jew, brought up in the city, educated strictly, a staunch defender of God and a persecutor of Christians. The script was written. But scripts change. "Saul, Saul why do you persecute me? I am Jesus the Nazorean." In that moment, on that road, with those words, Paul experienced conversion and became an "apostle."

If you examine his conversion, you will find three moments, three elements that seem common to the process. First, St. Paul met the Lord. Conversion is a life-altering change. It doesn't just happen on its own. Something, usually someone makes it happen. In his case, he met the Risen Lord. "What must I do, sir?" he asks. That came next. After he met the Risen Lord, he was dazzled, knocked off his feet, blown away. In Acts, Paul tells us he was blinded and had to be led by others. It took St. Paul a while to figure out what was going on. He needed help. Then he recovered his sight: he could see! And the third moment of his conversion was critical: he picked himself up and became a "witness" to and a "witness" for the Lord. Ananias told him: "be his witness to what you have seen and heard" in the same way that Jesus told the eleven in Mark's Gospel, "go out to all the world and proclaim the good news." St. Paul changed the world.

This story is full of hope, that conversion is possible, no matter how established you may be or think you are: no matter what your title or position, no matter what your age or experience, no matter what your life has been like or the state of your soul at this moment. "St Paul speaks to us today."

The conversion of St. Paul is a metaphor for us at The Catholic University of America, for all of us in Catholic education. The Lord appears to us in countless ways on campus: the lecture of a professor; the kindness of a staff member; the guidance of a campus minister; the love and consideration of a friend; the challenge posed to us when we have done something wrong; the opportunity to pick ourselves up and make it right.

"Saul, Saul why do you persecute me? I am Jesus the Nazorean." "What must I do, sir?"

Fall down on your knees: we are all sinners. Humble yourself before God: none of us is perfect. Open your eyes and see the Lord at work in your life: every one of us has room to grow and more to offer. Pick yourself up and change. If we always do what we've always done, we'll always get what we've always gotten. Conversion is not simply an intellectual or emotional thing. It is an act of the will.

Once you set out on the road to Damascus, it is amazing what you will discover.

We begin again, yet another academic year. We are grateful for our past. We are hopeful for our future. But we must live and love and work in the present so that our past has meaning and our future has direction. Cynicism, grudges, jealousies, attachment to things that bring us down, all these must go so that the good within us can dazzle and shine and change the world.

In this great New Year, dedicated to the Apostle to the nations, whether we are faculty or staff or students; whether we teach or learn theology or science or the humanities; whether we run a diocese or a university or a department or a classroom or a student organization or simply our own lives. In this great year, recognize that we are all Paul. And, like him, we are all on the road to Damascus.

Very Reverend David M. O'Connell, C.M., J.C.D.