In keeping with the solemnity of the liturgy of the Church, which every June 29 honors the Apostles Peter and Paul, on the eve of that celebration and from the balcony of St. Paul's Basilica in Rome, the Pope will this year inaugurate "The Year of St. Paul": a year in which Benedict XVI is calling on all Catholics around the world to remember, learn about and reflect upon the figure and the work of the Apostle Paul. He is especially calling on the worldwide Roman Catholic congregation to revive and adapt Paul’s theological and missionary legacy to the circumstances in which the Church and the world find themselves today.
But who was this man, Paul, to merit, after two thousand years, that we Catholics be urged to place our hearts and minds in him as the model for our path in Christian life? I shall try to respond to this question – which deserves an extensive answer, given the abundant and rich life and work of this Apostle – despite the brevity imposed by available space for this type of article.
Some Biographical Background
Thanks to the literature of the New Testament, to Paul’s own writings and especially to the Apostles’ Book of Acts, we today have some chronological data on the life of Paul and, in more abundant form, on his work as a missionary, writer and theologian. Saul Paul was born in 8 A.D. in the city of Tarsus, in the region or province of Cilicia (an area of what is today south central Turkey and where, in those days, people born there had the privilege of being granted Roman citizenship) into a family of Pharisee traditions and observances. As a member of the tribe of Benjamin, he was given – as was the tradition of those days – the name Saul (Saulo), common in that tribe in honor of the memory of the first king of the Jews. As a Roman citizen, meanwhile, he received the Latin name Paul (Paulo). It was only natural that upon initiation of his apostolate among the gentiles, Paul would use his Roman name.
Saul learned the tent-maker’s trade, or, as is also believed, that of the weaver of canvas for tents. Very young, he was sent to Jerusalem to receive a good education in the Gamaliel School. As of that point, it is difficult to trace his path until he took part in the martyrdom of St. Steven, a time at which he was referred to as “young”, but this term might well have been applied to anyone between 20 and 40 years of age.
“In the world ye shall have tribulation…”
The Book of Acts contains three stories regarding Paul’s conversion to Christianity (9:1-19; 22:3-21; 26:9-23), which, although they contain slight differences, are not difficult to harmonize and in no way take away from the unique experience: that of Paul’s “encounter” with Christ, in one of the most singular experiences to mark his life – what now was to be his life of faith – forever.
Following his conversion – undoubtedly influenced to a great extent by testimonies of faith to the Gospel of Jesus Christ from those who he himself persecuted - baptism and miraculous cure, Paul began to preach to the Jews. Later, he withdrew to Arabia, probably the region south of Damascus (in what today might be called a “religious retreat”). On his return to Damascus, the intrigues of the Jews forced him to flee by night. He went to Jerusalem to see Peter, but remained only fifteen days, for the snares of the Greeks threatened his life. He then left for Tarsus and is lost to sight for five or six years. Barnabas went in search of him and brought him to Antioch, where for a year they worked together and their apostolate was most fruitful. Together also they were sent to Jerusalem to carry alms to the brethren on the occasion of a famine. They do not seem to have found the Apostles there, since these had been scattered by the persecution of Herod.
“Go forth into the world…”
The richest and most fruitful period in the life of the Apostle Paul was from 45 to 57 A.D. During those years, he traveled on his three great journeys or missions (in keeping with how they have been traditionally organized and in accordance with his own written testimonials), setting off from the City of Antioch and ending up in Jerusalem. These were journeys ever steeped in sacrifice (shipwrecks, inconveniences and dangers of all kinds...) and marked by major conversions to the Christian faith (the heads of synagogues, public authorities and the wealthy of the cities he visited), as well as by persecution and imprisonment (especially at the hands of the Jews) because of the Gospel that he indefatigably preached. The First Mission is related in Acts 23:1-24:27. The Second Mission is narrated in Acts 25:36-28:22. And the Third Mission is described in Acts 28:23-31:26.
It is important to recall, that one of Paul’s top priorities on this missionary journeys was to visit churches and encourage them in their faith. But thanks to his practicing of this task, as he passed through giving his testimony and preaching the word, new Christian communities also started taking shape – new communities that he would visit and encourage in their faith when he returned on later trips.
Paul was a man of his times, a man whose times and the world he lived in could enter his mindset: the Roman world (because of the city in which he was born), the Jewish and Semitic world (passed down from his family), the Greek world (due to prevalence of the Greek culture and language in his corner of the world and his era). This cosmopolitan profile of the man, together with his obsession with making known the salvation (and joy) that comes of knowing the Gospel of Christ, explains why it was Paul – with his journeys, his hard-headedness, his valiant, open, universal (catholic), missionary spirit – who, not without harsh confrontations with his opponents, made it possible for the person of Jesus and his Word to expand beyond the reduced limits of the Israel of those days and spread to every corner of the known world of those times.
“But Christ liveth in me…”
It was in seeking to encourage Christian communities in their faith and in urging them to adhere to the Gospel of Jesus Christ that the Apostle Paul's writings were born, works in the form of epistles or letters that were preserved and were handed down to us in the present day: the Letter to the Romans, to the Corinthians (1 and 2), to the Galatians, to the Ephesians, to the Philippians, to the Colossians, to the Thessalonians (1 and 2), to Timothy (1 and 2), to Titus and to Philemon.
It is in his writings that we can discover Paul’s profound human as well as Christian experience. His writings – as well as his entire life as a believer in Christ – are driven by a burning desire for everyone to know the saving grace of Christ, or in other words, the possibility to find complete happiness in discovering the one who saved Paul himself: Jesus Christ, the Son of the God of their fathers: the God of the Old Testament.
And so, the doctrine spoken and written by Paul is, first and foremost, a life experience, the experience of a man in search of honest salvation, of happiness, of abounding life, of life eternal: first in the Pharisee world and now, finally, encountered and realized to the fullest in his authentic following of Jesus Christ.
For this same reason, his theology is anthropology (a vision of Man from the viewpoint of faith in Christ) and his anthropology is soteriology (a theological reflection for the salvation of Man in Christ).
Furthermore, his life as well as his work (after his encounter with Christ) is Christ-centric: centered on the “event of Christ” (whom Paul refers to as “the Gospel”: the good news for him and for every person who cares to listen to it, heed it, live it and spread the message to others).
Paul divides the history of Mankind and of every human being into two great chapters: before and after the encounter with Christ. Paul has a whole series of interpretations for this “encounter” with Christ, bearing in mind the richness of that event and the diversity of the audience to which he directs his message: mystery, redemption, resurrection, justification, expiation, liberation, salvation, baptism, faith, etc.
- The life of Man before his encounter with Christ is the life of the ancient Man, devout in the law (the law of the Old Testament and, in general, in all law), which leads him to sin and, through sin, to death. The ancient Man, then, lives according to the knowledge of the world and produces certain of its fruits: “sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft, hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambitions, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies and the like…” (Gal 5:19).
- The life of Man in Christ is, on the contrary, the life of the “new” Man. Life according to the knowledge of God, which is the knowledge of the cross, another logic, other criteria. It is a life of love by which Man remains in a state of grace and finds abounding life, joy, salvation and begins to produce new and good fruits, fruits of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control…” (Gal 5:22).
Seen from this understanding of the history of Mankind, the history of every man and woman, and the history of Paul himself, the viewpoint from which he reflects, lives, writes and gives testimony, it is possible to comprehend the wealth of his writing, with which the Apostle accompanies the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church right up to the modern day, challenging us, if we want to be happy, to embrace a more authentic and ever-renewed discipleship of Jesus Christ.
“I have fought the good fight…”
One of the last trips that Paul made, the final destination of which was Rome, was known as the journey of “captivity”, and it is set down – including five famed sermons that the Apostle gave – in Acts 21:27-28:31. After countless sufferings and sacrifices, Paul arrived in Rome, “And he remained two whole years in his own hired lodging (under house arrest) …preaching the kingdom of God and teaching the things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ, with all confidence, without prohibition.” The Book of Acts ends with these words. It is unanimously accepted that the “captivity letters” were sent from Rome.
Since we have no documentation regarding the latter years of the life of the Apostle, “the itinerary becomes highly uncertain, although the events that followed appear to be indicated in the pastoral letters…”
Regarding Paul’s death, “an old tradition makes it possible to establish the following points:
- Paul suffered martyrdom near Rome at a place called Aquae Salviae (now Tre Fontane), somewhat east of the Ostian Way, about two miles from the splendid Basilica of San Paolo fuori le Mura which marks his burial place.
- The martyrdom took place towards the end of the reign of Nero…
- According to the most common opinion, Paul suffered in the same year and on the same day as Peter …
- From time immemorial the solemnity of the Apostles Peter and Paul has been celebrated on 29 June, which is the anniversary either of their death or of the translation of their relics.”
“The feast of the Conversion of St. Paul (25 January) is of comparatively recent origin. There is reason for believing that the day was first observed to mark the translation of the relics of St. Paul at Rome...”
Learning from Paul…
How timely and beneficial, this initiative of Pope Benedict XVI in urging us to live a “Year of St. Paul”! There is so much we need to re-learn about Paul's life, about his fervor, his efforts, his mystique, about the generous and unconditional sacrifice of his life in service to the Gospel and, especially, about the universal character of his authentic Christian experience.
“Catholic” means universal. Today we are nostalgic for Paul, faced with the need of many who, like him, employ their best efforts in the building of a world and a Church, not as a scattering of islands tossed on the sea, each different, distant, distinct and xenophobic, but as a sole and single (though diverse) community of the children of God, with neither walls nor boundaries (be they racial, religious, cultural or economic), where everyone has a place, because we are all brothers and sisters in the same faith, in the same love, in the same hope, and in the same search for salvation and joy.
All of this runs counter to the convenience of a Christianity that is kept locked up in church vestries and that forgets the prime mission of the Church and the urgent need for the missionary task, for preaching the Gospel, no longer in far-flung, uncharted lands, but here and now, in the midst of a family, a city, a society and a culture that we attempt to build on the shoulders of God, of the Gospel of Christ and thus of Mankind itself.
Paul understood and lived in this way the “novelty” of his experience in Christ and in the ecclesial community for which he strove, even applying a new and distinct terminology to the “novelty” with respect to the Old Testament, speaking no longer of high priests and Levites, but of “ministers” and “deacons”, and so on. This attitude of Paul’s remains ever necessary: this daring to renew, of attempting new forms of evangelization, of always returning to and drinking from the sources of the New Testament and of the very first Christian communities, but carrying out the task of evangelization always bearing in mind the new and ever-changing circumstances of the world in which we are destined to live our faith in Christ (quote from Paul’s Sermon in Areopagus Acts 17:23)
Let us hope that in every experience and circumstance, everyday until the end of our lives and in our own personal and community experience in Christ, we can say as Paul of Tarsus did: “I live, now not I, but Christ liveth in me." And let us hope too that this papal call for us to live a “Paulian Year” may help us and strengthen us toward this purpose.
Literal English-language quotes in italic: www.newadvent.org, and the Holy Bible (New International Version)