The Memorial to St. Paul
The Place of his Conversion
by Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land
1. The Place of St. Paul's Conversion:
...Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, "Saul, Saul why do you persecute me?" He asked, "who are you, Lord?" The reply came, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do." ...Saul got up from the ground and though his eyes were opened, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus (Acts 9, 1-8).
Here we have a straightforward account of one of the greatest wonders the Lord's grace has ever worked in a man. Since then, the Road to Damascus has come to symbolize any unpredictable and unexpected change of course, for the sake of higher ideals. But precisely where, near Damascus, did this vision take place? Traditional reports are not unanimous and express various opinions: some locate this event in Daraya, 14 km. from Damascus, others 17 km. away in Marjisafra (Kiswe), and others at a place 18 km. from the city, called Kaukaba, where there are ruins of a mediaeval chapel built by the Crusaders. According to St. Luke's text, however, the fact that they led him by the hand and brought him into the city, means that they were only a short distance from the city when the event took place, and 18 km. was very far ‚ nearly a day's journey away. Furthermore, all the authors who locate the event at this site date from the time of the Crusaders or later. The first is the historian Jacques de Vitri (1225). We know that the Crusaders dedicated their churches to the biblical events which took place closest to their military bases, so they could commemorate them from there.
The most ancient reports, however, describe the place of St. Paul's conversion much closer to Damascus. Antonio di Piacenza (570 A.D.) and St. Willivando (8th century A.D.) say that they visited a place 2 miles from the city, where there was a monastery and a church bearing the name of the Apostle. Antonio di Cremona (14th century A.D.) tells us that the holy place is to be found 1 mile from the city. Mislin, the author of 'Les Saints Lieux' (1875), writes that in A-Tell (the place of the present Memorial) there was a church in ancient times, of which nothing remains except a dozen columns or so, all laying in the same direction. Since the distances given by ancient travellers are always very approximate, and are measured from points which are not specified and possibly not the same, it is quite probable that all these authors are referring to the place of the actual Memorial to St. Paul, situated in the district of Tabbaleh, about 800 metres south of Bab Charqui.
At the north-eastern corner of the garden of this Memorial, there is a little rocky prominence with a flat surface. The prominence is 80 cm. high, 4 metres wide and 15 metres long. Underneath it, there is a grotto which can be reached by going down a flight of 11 steps carved in the rock. The place is known by the name of A-Tell or Al-Sakhra (the Rock), or simply the Grotto of St. Paul. The prominence and the grotto have been carefully preserved down through the centuries, in an area which is entirely agricultural. The little mound could well be a section of 'the King's Way', the Roman road which began in Arabia, crossed the Decapolis and finally made its way into Damascus, perhaps, through Bab Charqui. On this short section of road, then, St. Paul experienced his sacred vision. In later times, the faithful excavated the grotto underneath the road, for the purposes of religious devotion. The faithful of Damascus have always come here to commemorate the conversion of St. Paul, at the same time remembering that he rested in this grotto for a while, following his hasty escape in a basket which was lowered from the city walls.
2. The Chapel built in 1925:
Filled with their enthusiasm to preserve the holy places of our redemption, the Franciscan monks of the Holy Land purchased this plot of land at the end of the 19th century, and used it as a cemetery for the Latin Parish. In the year 1925, they built a little chapel adjacent to the Sakhra-grotto. Every year, on the 25th January, all the religious and lay communities of the Latin Parish of Bab Tuma, used to come here on pilgrimage to celebrate, with great solemnity, the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul. This chapel was demolished in 1967 to make way for the new Sanctuary: the Memorial to St. Paul.
3. The Memorial to St. Paul
During his visit to the Holy Land in 1964 (4th - 6th January), Pope Paul VI held a historical meeting with Athenagoras, the Patriarch of Constantinople, at which they fraternally embraced each other. This was the first time the Heads of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches had come together, since their separation nine centuries before. In April of the same year, the Pope decided to set up a project in Damascus in memory of that embrace, so that, under the protection of the Apostle, the ecumenical initiative could grow stronger and stronger. To help in the realization of this project, the Custody of Holy Land put the property of St. Paul's Sanctuary at the disposition of the Holy See. At the specific request of the Pope, a church in the form of a tent was erected there, as a symbol of the meeting of Christians. Another building was erected with the purpose of accommodating about 50 orphans, but because this part of the project could not be realized, the house was converted into a hostel for scholars in Pauline theology, clergy, and members of religious communities, and was used for spiritual exercises, ecumenical meetings, conferences, and other activities. The complex was inaugurated on 23rd June, 1971, by Cardinal M. Furstenberg, and was entrusted by the Holy See to the care of the Custody of the Holy Land. Managed by a monk of this institution and by three Franciscan sisters of the C.I.M., the Memorial to St. Paul nowadays comprises the Sanctuary of the Conversion of St. Paul, a hostel for pilgrims (Casa Nova) and a meeting house for bishops, clergy, members of religious communities and laymen. It also runs a centre for catechism and a charitable medical dispensary. The church, which is dedicated to the Conversion of St. Paul, is tall, slender and shaped like a tent. It was built by the architect Farid Awad, according to the designs of Italo Viesi. The internal decoration of the church is the work of various Italian artists, and includes outstanding pieces of bronze, such as the large door at the entrance, the altar and the tabernacle. What most attracts the attention, however, are the stained-glass windows depicting three scenes of St. Paul in Damascus, with a central partition representing Christ according to Pauline theology: the Risen Jesus in Glory, with the Cross in the background.
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Created / Updated Saturday, April 28, 2001 at 23:55:47 by John Abela ofm
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