January 25, 2019

Christ the Cornerstone

Conversion means choosing life over death

Archbishop Charles C. Thompson

“Now Saul, still breathing murderous threats against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, that, if he should find any men or women who belonged to the Way, he might bring them back to Jerusalem in chains” (Acts 9:1-2).

The publication date for this column is Friday, Jan. 25, the feast of The Conversion of St. Paul, the Apostle. Just three days ago, the Church in the United States observed a Day of Prayer for the Legal Protection of Unborn Children.

There is a connection between these two liturgical celebrations. One calls our attention to the serious responsibility we have as members of the human family, and as disciples of Jesus Christ, to safeguard the sanctity of human life and protect those who are most vulnerable. The other bears witness to the profound conversion that allowed St. Paul the Apostle to choose life over death, and to dedicate himself fully to proclaiming the Gospel of life to all nations.

Before his conversion, Saul was a sworn enemy of “the Way,” the young Church in the years immediately following the death and resurrection of Jesus. Saul participated in the stoning of the first Christian martyr, St. Stephen, allowing his murderers to lay their cloaks at his feet (cf. Acts 7:58-59). Later we’re told that Saul himself breathed “murderous threats” against the disciples of the Lord and sought their capture (Acts 9:1).

The conversion Saul experienced as he traveled toward Damascus was a total transformation of his way of thinking and acting. It was a rejection of his former death-dealing ways and an affirmation of the way of life manifested in the person of Jesus Christ.

As Pope St. John Paul II teaches, “Life will triumph: this is a sure hope for us. Yes, life will triumph because truth, goodness, joy and true progress are on the side of God, who loves life and gives it generously, is on the side of life” (quoted in “Dignitas Personae, On Certain Bioethical Questions” of the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith, 2008). In choosing to follow Jesus Christ, St. Paul was choosing life over death. He was choosing to be on the side of life—because God, who loves life and gives it generously, is on the side of life!

Our Church teaches that all human life is sacred and inviolable. We are especially conscious of the need to protect the lives of those who are most vulnerable: the unborn, infants and children, the elderly and infirm, migrants and refugees. But we are challenged to safeguard all human life, including our enemies and those like Saul before his conversion who would do us harm. That’s why we oppose the death penalty. It’s also why we make prison ministry a priority in our archdiocese. All life is sacred. No exceptions.

Of course, precisely because all life is sacred, we must defend ourselves and those who are in danger against all forms of violence. But our need for self-protection should never cross over the line to indifference or callousness toward the lives of others.

That’s the conversion of mind and heart that Jesus requires of each of us. Where the natural reaction to experiencing an injustice would be to seek revenge, our Lord admonishes us to forgive those who have harmed us. Saul perceived himself as a righteous Jew whose duty it was to bind Jesus’ followers in chains and throw them into prison. But his encounter with Jesus opened his eyes. It taught him to listen attentively to God’s word, to trust others, and to suffer for the sake of the Way he once persecuted.

All life is sacred. Every human being is made in the image and likeness of God—from the moment of conception until natural death. This teaching is serious. It demands a total conversion from ways of thinking that are self-centered and from values that place other goods above the supreme good of human life.

Most of us do not have the kind of dramatic conversion experience that caused Saul to change his life completely. That doesn’t mean conversion is easy for us. Even the experience of small conversions undertaken over the course of a lifetime demands courage, perseverance and some suffering. The way we are called to choose is the Way of the Cross, and it demands that we let go of our individual ways of thinking and acting in order to become faithful missionary disciples of Christ, like St. Paul the Apostle.

Let’s pray for the courage and the confidence to change our minds and hearts so that in small things and big ones we can always choose life over death. †

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