Most Catholics are aware that St. Paul, although he turned out to be one of the Church's greatest missionary preachers, started out as one of the Church's most bitter enemies. We read about him for the first time in Acts of the Apostles, in the selection read during the Mass honoring the Church's first martyr, St. Stephen. Paul was a little young then, still going by the name Saul, so when the Jews stoned Stephen to death, Paul did little more than hold their coats for them. But, immediately, in the next chapter of the Acts we read that "Saul was harassing the Church; entering house after house, and dragging out men and women, he committed them to prison. And by the time of his conversion to the Catholic Faith, Paul was well enough known as a persecutor that both in Damascus and in Jerusalem the disciples to whom he presented himself were quite afraid (at first) to have anything to do with him.
But if any of the early Christians had their doubts about Paul's sincerity, it was certainly dispelled by the manner of life he took up after encountering our Lord on the road to Damascus. The former persecutor travelled all about the eastern Mediterranean and ultimately to Rome, he was stoned, and beaten with whips, and suffered shipwreck; each several times. Finally he died for the Faith, being beheaded in Rome on the same day St. Peter was crucified. We might say that Paul's was the "ultimate" conversion story.
Paul is pretty humble about what happened to him; he may very well have been a Pharisee, but he wasn't like the one we read about last week in our Lord's parable about the proud being humbled and the humble being exalted. Like any good and humble man, Paul gives credit where it is due: Even if he was a great man -- a great apostle -- it is the grace of God that made him a Christian and made him an apostle; it was this grace of God that was "fruitful in him."
We can take a lesson from Paul's humble statements, and make use of his experiences to further the process of our "conversion." (Remember that our spiritual life is a sort of continuing conversion; a continuous movement away from the devil and sin in all of its forms; a continuous movement toward God and unity with His holy will.) The lesson, of course, is that our spiritual pursuits require both the grace of God, and some effort on our part; what we sometimes call "cooperating with the grace of God."
Now, in that all of us have received God's grace through the Sacrament of Baptism, our primary duty along those lines is to endeavor to grow in that grace. In a round-about way, today's gospel tells us that such growth is accomplished through prayer and the Sacraments. It speaks of a deaf and dumb man whose friends beg Jesus for a cure, and of the cure being effected through symbolic means -- "an outward sign," as we say, effecting the grace that it represents. God listens to our prayers and the prayers of those concerned with us; and by the various outward physical signs of the Sacraments He increases His grace in us.
So, the first lesson learned is the need for prayer. Prayer for ourselves, for the souls in Purgatory, for our friends and relatives, and even for those whom we don't really like very well. It means prayer of petition for things needed, prayer of adoration honoring God for his goodness, prayer of thanksgiving for all of His benefits, and penitential prayer for our sins and for the sins of the world.
The second lesson is the frequent reception of the Sacraments: frequent Confession, by which we move "away from the devil and sin in all of its forms"; and frequent reception of our Lord in Holy Communion by which we move toward God and unity with His holy will. How frequent? As frequently as possible and even more often when necessary!
And the third lesson is that lesson of cooperating with God's graces. It takes no imagination to see that if Paul had stayed comfortably at home he might have avoided stonings, and beatings, and shipwrecks, and other narrow forms of escape, but he would have done very little to make that "grace of God fruitful in him." Now, we might not be called to martyrdom or even shipwreck, but certainly there are any number of things we can do, both to practice the Faith for ourselves, and also to give good example to those around us.
We were not there with the apostles and the 500 brethren when our Lord rose from the dead, so our testimony is not that of the eyewitness. But our testimony is very much like that of St. Paul, like "one born out of due time". Our testimony is in our prayer, in frequenting the Sacraments, and in the good example of a truly Christian life. And if we follow Paul's example; if we do these things, the grace of God will not have been fruitless in us.