Today the Evangelist Saint Luke relates to us “how in Damascus [Saint Paul] had spoken out boldly in the name of Jesus” and how likewise in Jerusalem the Apostle “spoke out boldly in the name of the Lord” (Acts 9:27-29). What is more, we are told how Saint Paul “spoke and debated with the Hellenists, but they tried to kill him” (Acts 9:29).
All of this took place after Paul consented to the martyrdom of Saint Stephen (see Acts 6:8-8:1) and after Paul’s encounter with the Risen Lord on the road to Damascus (see Acts9:1-22). When Paul heard Jesus speak to him, he knew that what Stephen said was true: “Behold, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:56). Paul knew that Jesus, risen from the dead, is the judge of the living and the dead. What is more, Paul knew that Jesus is a merciful judge; though Paul had persecuted the Lord Jesus and consented to the execution of Christians, Jesus did not kill Paul in return, but filled him with the Holy Spirit (see Acts 9:17).
This is why Saint Paul preached boldly in both Damascus and Jerusalem and was deterred with threats against his life. Having received the Lord’s mercy himself, Saint Paul had to proclaim this message of mercy:
My brothers, children of the family of Abraham, and those others among you who are God-fearing, to us this word of salvation has been sent. The inhabitants of Jerusalem and their leaders failed to recognize him, and by condemning him they fulfilled the oracles of the prophets that are read sabbath after sabbath. For even though they found no grounds for a death sentence they asked Pilate to have him put to death, and when they had accomplished all that was written about him, they took him down from the tree and placed him in a tomb. But God raised him from the dead, and for many days he appeared to those who had come up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem. We ourselves are proclaiming this good news to you that what God promised our ancestors he has brought to fulfillment for us, [their] children, by raising up Jesus… You must know, my brothers, that through him forgiveness of sins is being proclaimed to you, [and] in regard to everything from which you could not be justified under the law of Moses, in him every believer is justified (Acts 13:26-39).
A bold preacher, indeed! He spoke in public and he spoke to everyone. He spoke clearly and forcefully, and he sugarcoated nothing. He boldly proclaimed the truth. How desperately we need more such preachers today, men and women who have encountered Jesus Christ, whose lives he has changed, and who wish to help others receive his love and also be changed by him!
Why did Paul preach so boldly? Because he knew that Saint John spoke truly when he said we must "love one another just as [Jesus] commanded us" (I John 3:23). The last words of Jesus to his Apostles before his ascension to the right hand of the Father were these:
All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age (Matthew 28:18-20).
Paul proclaimed the Gospel of Christ with such boldly simply because he had to do so, not only because he received the command from Jesus to do so, but also because love, grace, and mercy, must be shared; he could not simply keep what he received to himself but yearned to share it with others. We must ask ourselves today if we have that same zeal, that same desire to boldly proclaim the Gospel, that same fire that burned within Saint Paul's breast and animated and directed every aspect of his life.
The Lord Jesus said to the Apostles: "By this is my Father glorified, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples" (John 15:8). He says these same words to us, as well. There is a curious exchange here, something that at first glance might seem a bit backwards. He does not say that we bear fruit because we are his disciples; rather, he says that by bearing fruit we become his disciples. How, then, do we know if you have become one of his disciples? What does it mean to be one of his disciples?
Saint Bonaventure describes a disciple of Jesus in striking words. According to the Seraphic Doctor, the disciples of Jesus are those have become imitators of Jesus, imitators of him who bore much fruit through his death. He cites Jesus' words that if a grain of wheat dies, it produces much fruit (see John 12:24), and expounds upon this, saying, "It is the same with the Apostles" (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 15.9). It must also be the same with us.
Of what - or of whom - are we afraid? Why do we not also boldly proclaim the Gospel in public and to everyone who will listen? If we have received the merciful love of Christ Jesus, how can we not desire that others also know this same love?!
As we continue today in the novena to prepare for the celebration of the memorial of Saint Damien of Moloka'i, we ask today of the Sacred Heart of Jesus for "the grace of having my heart inflamed more and more every day with that Divine love with which You are inflamed and with which You desire to enkindle the hearts of all."
We saw yesterday that Father Damien's heart bled on account of the bodily and spiritual misfortunes his suffering flock endured. Because Father Damien's heart was so inflamed with the divine love, he proclaimed this love, like Saint Paul, with great boldness and zeal.
He wrote to his parents in March of 1865 while he was still on the Big Island, saying,
Idolatry is not yet totally abolished here. Often when any one is sick they offer sacrifices to the heathen gods. Many, however, are already converted, and day by day we are seeking to convert others.
How many of us would be willing to do the same, to lead someone out of error and into the truth of the Gospel?
In another of his letters (which I do not have but which is quoted, undated, in one of his biographies) to the General Superior of his order, he briefly described an encounter at Kilauea:
I have often seen this great volcano. One poor Hawaiian was just on his way to offer sacrifice to the goddess [Pele]. I took the opportunity to give him a short sermon on hell.
The biography does not indicate whether the Hawaiian converted, either at that moment or later. Even so, this encounter demonstrates Father Damien's boldness in proclaiming the truth of the Gospel to everyone he met.
I hope that our hearts, too, will be inflamed with this same love as we reflect upon the witness of Father Damien's life in these coming days. By his intercession, may the Lord Jesus grant us the same zeal, the same courage, and the same confidence in the Lord's love that we, too, may bear much fruit and be his disciples.