Homily by Archbishop Charles J. Scicluna
St Paul’s Cathedral, Mdina
23rd April 2018
It is very appropriate that we celebrate the votive mass of the conversion of the Apostle Paul in this cathedral dedicated to the same solemnity. We have a wonderful painting by Mattia Preti from the 17th century which tries to describe the moment on the way to Damascus which we heard Paul himself describing to the people towards the end of the book of The Acts of the Apostles.
The real story is narrated by Luke in Acts Chapter 9 but Paul returns on the same experience in Acts 22. There are some differences but the main message is the same and the main and important dialogue, between Jesus and Paul is the same. “Saul, Saul why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 22:7) I am sure that Paul meditated and reflected on this question by Jesus and it must have been a very important source of his theology of the Church as the body of Jesus Christ: Jesus Christ being the head and we the members of the one body of Jesus (1 Cor 12:27). Because Jesus does not tell him: ‘Why are you persecuting my disciples?’ The question is: “Why are you persecuting me?” So what is happening to the disciples, Jesus considers as happening to him. And that is really a reflection of what Paul will develop in his letters on the fact that Jesus is the head of the Church and we are the members of the one body: the body of Christ.
There are two other names of the Christian experience which are also important to note. Paul says in Acts 22: “I even persecuted this Way” (Acts 22:4) and the reference is to the very primitive term for discipleship. They used to call it ‘the way’ and the other name which is implicit, it’s not explicit as the first name, is ‘enlightenment’. They would refer to the experience of disciples as a coming to the light, a passage, pesah, a journey from darkness to light, something that we renew at the Easter Vigil before we renew our baptismal vows. We go from darkness to light.
And in Paul’s conversion, there is this aspect of noon. His meeting with Jesus happens “in the middle of the day” (Acts 22:6) when close to Damascus, the sun is very bright. But he is also embraced, he is surrounded by a light which is stronger than that of the sun and he becomes blind. But Ananias tells him: “Receive your sight” (Acts 22:13) and he goes from the darkness of his past to an experience of light. He has seen and heard Jesus and he is now transformed from persecutor to witness. “You are to be his witness before all humanity, testifying to what you have seen and heard” (Acts 22:15).
This is the same expression that the apostles use when at Pentecost they say: “We cannot stop proclaiming what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20). The difference of course is that Paul is an apostle who is baptised and in his baptism we also rejoice in our baptism. “Hurry and be baptised and wash away your sins” (Acts 22:16) Paul is an apostle who meets Jesus on the way to Damascus but becomes one with Jesus through the Sacraments.
And this is true of every missionary endeavour even if we are talking about promoting the missionary spirit with children and young people. They have to realise that they first need to meet Jesus and there is also, as it is for us, the beatitudes that Jesus proclaims to Thomas: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” (Jn 20:29). We have to encounter Jesus in the sacraments which the Church provides as a means of salvation.
When the Lord sends his disciples to proclaim the Gospel to every creature, in the conclusion of Mark’s Gospel not only asks them to baptise people but also promises signs that will accompany those who believe (Mk 16:17). Our experience as a nation, as the people of Malta is that the word of Paul was confirmed, strengthened by two of the miracles Jesus promises. As he was on our shore, a viper bites his hand and the inhabitants think that he is going to die and he shows his hand. The iconography of Paul, so frequent on our islands is of Paul showing his hand. It’s not an invitation to a big five, but it’s: ‘My hand is free from the bite of the viper, of the poisonous viper’. And that is a sign that Jesus is with him, confirming his word and his apostleship.
But he also goes to the house of Publius, the Protos, the chief of the island and he finds that the father of Publius is sick with dysentery and fever. The apostle prays and lays his hands on the father of Publius and he is healed. The Acts of the Apostles say that the inhabitants of Malta, very typical of us, brought all their sick to Paul and he healed everyone (Acts 28:9). I always say that this is the beginning of free health service on the islands.
And of course it is so typical that if you find somebody who is doing something very good, people talk about it. You can imagine the impact on the islands of families who had people who were sick. They were desperate because they had no remedy and through the apostle of Jesus, they regained not only the health of their loved ones but they have an experience of the power of the Holy Spirit. And this healing which is physical is certainly as John Chrysostom would say in this commentary on the Acts: ‘The beginning of evangelisation that bring not only physical healing but importantly spiritual healing, the meeting with Jesus Christ’.
As we prayed at the Alleluia today, Jesus chooses us from the world and sends us to go and bear fruit that will last and we pray that not only your conference but also the efforts and work of the Holy Childhood initiative bear fruit. We need to evangelise the young by making them conscious that they are part of a Catholic family, a large family. There are children who have all sorts of needs but they are part of one family, a family of believers who believe in Jesus and there are so many others. We have this thirst for Jesus that they can help to remedy and also grow in the missionary spirit.
I would like to greet you again and thank you for your presence on the Island of St Paul and I would like to thank also Mgr Salvinu Micallef for his work in bringing you here and I hope making you feel welcome and comfortable. And I would also like to thank him for these years of leadership in Missio Malta and his efforts to promote the spirit of Missio.
✠ Charles J. Scicluna
Archbishop of Malta
1st Reading: Acts 22: 3-16
Gospel: Mk 16: 15-18
Photos: Curia Communications Office – Ian Noel Pace