Our congregation has an unusual name. Recently, I overheard a parishioner at a parish we were visiting say to one of the sisters, “I didn’t know Saint Paul had daughters!”
Of course, Saint Paul wasn’t married and didn’t have a family of his own. But he has had many spiritual sons and daughters over the past 2000 years.
When I first visited the Daughters of Saint Paul to discern my vocation, I did so despite their name. I loved my first visit at their convent, but I remember that when I got home, I complained to one of my sisters, “Why aren’t they called Sisters of Jesus or something else?” I really didn’t like the idea of Saint Paul being their patron—or eventually, becoming mine.
Not that I knew Saint Paul well. I simply knew the stories in the Acts of the Apostles. The more I visited the Daughters of Saint Paul, the more I learned about him. Apostle, New Testament author, and martyr, Saint Paul towered above me. How much further could anyone possibly be from someone like me? I realized he was someone to greatly admire…but from a distance. My early misconceptions about Saint Paul were reinforced by some of the images that I saw of him—stern images that made him seem pretty inaccessible to a young teenaged woman unsure of herself. (I tended towards saints that I could easily identify with, like St. Therese of Lisieux and St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, my Baptism and Confirmation patrons.)
Despite Saint Paul, it became clear to me that God was calling me to enter the Daughters. Early on after I entered, the sister directing the postulants recommended that during my daily Hour of Adoration I read a short piece from the Letters of Saint Paul.
I could see from my reading that Saint Paul was a good writer. Some phrases in his letters that were just so beautiful and mysterious that I was intrigued. But some of what he was saying went right over my head. And sometimes, it seemed that St. Paul was simply telling me what to do—and what teenager wants to be told what to do?
Within my first year of being in the convent, I had my first crisis: I started comparing myself to the other postulants and even the sisters around me, and I just didn’t feel I could “measure up” to the talented, courageous, energetic women I shared daily life with. I started doubting my vocation because I thought I wasn’t worthy of being a sister. I felt awkward, shy, inexperienced, anxious, and made way too many mistakes. I didn't seem to have anything worthwhile to offer to God. What clinched it for me was how intimidated I continued to feel by Saint Paul. My joy in my newfound vocation disappeared. I stopped smiling, had trouble eating and sleeping, and waited miserably for the postulant director to tell me I wasn’t worthy.
But she didn’t. She had, however, noticed how miserable I’d become and asked me about it. So I shared my fears with her and waited breathlessly. Would she agree? She was quiet for a moment, then asked, “Do you think Saint Paul or any of the sisters felt worthy of being called to live and communicate Christ?”
“Of course!” I replied.
She shook her head. “You really need to get to know St. Paul,” she replied. “He’s not our patron because he was a success. He suffered and failed a lot. Really read his letters, and discover who St. Paul really was.”
She pointed me to 2 Corinthians, the letter where Paul talks the most about his vocation. “For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain” (1 Cor 15:9-10).
The further I read, the more I saw how St. Paul’s letters revealed a very human character who struggled with problems, flaws, and guilt. Paul didn’t just criticize the early Christians before his conversion. He actually witnessed and approved of St. Stephen’s murder. I started wondering, how did Paul ever overcome the guilt and shame of persecuting the followers of his Lord and Savior?
The secret of Paul’s holiness, like any saint’s, was not in his greatness, but in God’s awesome love. And Saint Paul’s letters are full of praise and wonder about God’s saving love at work in his own life. Constantly throughout his letters, he expresses how, in everything, he relies completely on God’s saving love.
Who will separate us from the love of Christ?
Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels,
nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come,
nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation,
will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:35, 37-39).
This Saint Paul was someone I could relate to. Someone aware of his faults and inadequacies, but also caught up by the love of Christ. I started to relate to and pray so much to Saint Paul that when it came time to make my profession of vows, I asked to take the name “Paul.”
And the further I go in religious life, the more I realize that Saint Paul’s story is my story. His story is the story of everyone who has come face to face with Christ’s incredible love.
Blessed James Alberione, the Founder of the Daughters of Saint Paul, often talked about why he made Saint Paul our patron:
“If one goes on to study St. Paul, one discovers the disciple who knows the Divine Master in his fullness. St. Paul lived the whole Christ; he probed the profound mysteries of Christ’s teaching, heart, holiness, humanity, and divinity. He envisioned him [Christ] as the teacher, the host, the priest; he presents us the whole Christ as Jesus had already defined himself: Way, Truth, and Life.”