The daily mass readings during the Easter season are my favorite of the whole liturgical year. We hear of passionate speeches, plotting factions, murder and triumph. Somehow clumsy fishermen are turned in to scholars and once enemies, now friends. The stories are often humorous – think St. Peter declaring, “These men are not drunk, as you suppose; it is only the third hour of the day”.
As the stories progress a man named Paul – once Saul takes center stage. We hear of his hatred for the early church and his approval of St. Steven’s martyrdom, his murdering Christians, and his subsequent conversion. I was struck when listening to the martyrdom of St. Steven what a truly evil man St. Paul was before he met Christ in his conversion. He was a fanatic, ruthlessly hunting down early Christians and killing them without discrimination.
The story feels familiar in a way with what we are witnessing in the Middle East right now. We hear daily updates on the atrocities of ISIS, evil beyond out comprehension, innocent men, women, and children being killed just because they believe in Christ.
Yet in this madness that we see, there is also hope. I find hope in the very fact that history repeats itself. Dwelling on the dark side of the man Paul, revered in history as one of its greatest saints leaves me awestruck at the incredible mercy of Christ. No one is so far from grace as to not be forgiven. The mercy that Christ bestows on all of his unworthy children is beyond our comprehension. Perhaps among us is a man or women who will have such an impact on history as Paul did. Maybe he is right in front of us? Maybe he or she will rise out of the Middle East with a zeal for the gospel of Christ and bring people to Christianity in droves?
Bishop Oliver Dashe Doeme of the Diocese of Maiduguri, in northeastern Nigeria just recently came forward with a call to pray the rosary to end the violence from the group Boko Haram. He tells of a vision he had where, “Jesus didn’t say anything at first, but extended a sword toward him, and he in turn reached out for it. “As soon as I received the sword, it turned into a rosary,” the bishop said, adding that Jesus then told him three times: “Boko Haram is gone.” “I didn’t need any prophet to give me the explanation,” he said. “It was clear that with the Rosary we would be able to expel Boko Haram.”
The struggles of our brothers and sisters facing persecution should move us out of our typical self-centeredness and into action and prayer. Even more we should be praying for their persecutors. Praying that they may have a powerful encounter with the Lord Jesus. Maybe, through the incredible mercy of God, the persecutors will in turn become the next St. Paul, fearlessly spreading the gospel.
That is the beauty of Christianity. Only Jesus Christ and his teaching can overcome the evil of the world. Only Christ can inspire the hope that comes from such complete despair. Only Christ can transform a life to be the next Paul among us.