Spirituality for Today – October 2008 – Volume 13, Issue 3

The Year Of Saint Paul: A 20 Part Series

By The Most Reverend William E. Lori, S.T.D., Bishop Of Bridgeport

Glorious Saint Paul, Most Zealous Apostle, Martyr for the love of Christ,
Give us a deep faith, a steadfast hope, and a burning love for our Lord,
So that we can proclaim with you, "It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives within me."
Help us to become Apostles, serving the Church with a pure heart,
Witnesses to her truth and beauty amidst the darkness of our days.
With you we praise God the Father, in the Church and in Christ, Now and forever. Amen.

(Prayer courtesy Our Sunday Visitor)

Part 1: The Conversion of Saint Paul

An illustration of Saint PaulThe Year of Saint Paul, recently inaugurated by Pope Benedict XVI, is well under way but I decided to wait until September to take the wraps off a little project I had been thinking of for awhile. And it's this: to use my biweekly column in the Fairfield County Catholic to explore twenty themes from the life and writings of Saint Paul. My hope is to relate these themes to events in our parishes and throughout the diocese during the pastoral year that lies ahead. Just one helpful hint: as you read these columns, it might be helpful to have a New Testament at hand. What now follows is a first installment.

I thought it best to "start at the very beginning," as Rodgers and Hammerstein advised, and that means the story of Saint Paul's conversion to Christ and the reception of his vocation. And let me introduce this episode in his life with a story that hails from a pre–ecumenical age. It seems that, at the turn of the last century, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Cleveland wanted to buy an Episcopal Church named Saint Paul's on Euclid Avenue. However, the vestrymen of Saint Paul's wouldn't hear of it, for in those days, the thought of a Roman Catholic Church on one of Cleveland's most prestigious streets was still unthinkable. However, the Bishop of Cleveland was resourceful and so found a third–party buyer who obtained the property and promptly handed it over to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Cleveland. After the church was refurbished, the Bishop of Cleveland went to dedicate his new acquisition, which he proudly renamed, "The Conversion of Saint Paul."

Not long after that happened, the first Church Unity Octave was observed in 1908. This is an eight–day period of prayer for unity among Christians that concludes on January 25, the feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul, a feast that was observed not only by Roman Catholics but also by Anglicans, Eastern and Oriental Orthodox, and Lutherans. The Church Unity Octave was started by the pioneering Father Paul Wattson, who also founded the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement (Graymoor, NY) and it continues to be celebrated by many Christian denominations. This celebration helps us see that the conversion of Saint Paul was decisive not only for Saint Paul's personal life but also for all Christ's followers. Paul's conversion turned him away from persecuting the followers of Christ and oriented him toward preaching the Gospel to the Gentiles. It prompted him to seek unity within the Body of Christ.

As we study Saint Paul's conversion, I'd ask you to reflect on the need for unity among believers in bearing witness to Christ, and on our modern–day mission to proclaim the Gospel through parish ministries and by our life and example.

Saint Paul's conversion is described most fully in the Acts of the Apostles authored by Saint Luke (see Acts 9:4–5; 22:7–8; 26:14– 15). Saint Paul himself also refers or alludes to it several times in his writings (see, for example, Galatians 1:13–17; I Corinthians 9:16–17; II Corinthians 4:6; Philippians 3:12–14). Clearly, what happened to Saint Paul on the road to Damascus was pivotal in his life.

But let's back up a little. One of the reasons this event was pivotal was the zeal with which he had been persecuting the first followers of Christ. Born Saul of Tarsus (located in modern–day Turkey), the future Apostle to the Gentiles, though a Roman citizen, was steeped in the Law and the Prophets. In Acts 22:3, Paul tells us that he "studied at the feet of Gamaliel," one of the most famous teachers of the Mosaic Law in all of Israel (we also meet him as a canny judge at Acts 5:34). A Pharisee by training, Saul waded into the division that existed in the Judaism of his day between those who longed for the coming of the Messiah and those who stressed strict observance of the Law. Prior to his conversion, Saul had opted for the latter. And in his zeal for the law, we find him present at the martyrdom of Saint Stephen. We are told that the witnesses of Stephen's execution "laid down their cloaks at the feet of a young man named Saul" (Acts 7:58).

The author of the Acts of the Apostles goes on to say that " ...Saul was consenting to his (Stephen's) execution" (Acts 8:1). What's more, he actively engaged in persecuting the followers of Christ: "Saul, meanwhile, was trying to destroy the Church, entering house after house and dragging out men and women; he handed them over for imprisonment" (Acts 8:3). Indeed, at the time of his conversion, Saul was on his way to Damascus carrying documents that authorized him to bring back Christians to Jerusalem to stand trial before religious authorities (see Acts 9:1–2).

While on this mission, Saul encountered Christ in the form of a blinding light. Let's rejoin Saint Luke in the Book of Acts, 9:3: "On his journey, as he was nearing Damascus, a light from the sky suddenly flashed around him." Later, in his Second Letter to the Corinthians, Paul will speak of "the glory of God shining on the face of Christ" (II Cor. 4:6). It was the glory of the Risen Christ that Saul met on that day. This was not what he expected or something he had merited. Rather, as Paul will later write to the Philippians, he was "taken possession of " by Christ on that day and, so to speak, was made to run for Christ in the marathon of salvation. But first Saul had to face and repent of the relentless persecution he had been pursuing. So the voice from the heavens spoke: "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads" (Acts 9:4–5; Acts 26:14–15). Saul responds by asking: "Who are you, Lord?" The voice answered: "I am Jesus whom you are persecuting." The light and the voice was that of Christ, who made it clear that in persecuting the followers of Christ Saul was persecuting Christ himself. In this instant, Saul knew it was the Lord and that He had risen from the dead.

As for "kicking against the goads" – what could that mean? Scholars like Luke Timothy Johnson tell us that a "goad" is the rough equivalent of a "cattle prod" and that the author of the Acts of the Apostles was probably quoting a Greek proverb as a way of saying that it was futile for Saul to continue persecuting Christ's followers (See Luke Timothy Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles, Sacra Pagina, Vol. 5, Collegeville, Minn.: The Liturgical Press [1992], p. 435). Clearly, before Saul could receive his vocation as the "Apostle of the Gentiles" he had first to renounce his persecution of the Christians and also come to terms not with the authentic faith and hope of Israel but rather with his misguided legalism. Turing away from those things, he embraced the splendor of the Risen Christ. This, we might say, is the "content" of his conversion.

But his conversion was quickly followed by his calling from Christ. Let's tune in again to the Acts of the Apostles at 26:16–18 where we read what the Lord said to Saul immediately after his blinding vision and dialogue: "Get up now, stand on your feet. I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen [of me] and what you will be shown. I shall deliver you from this people and from the Gentiles to whom I send you, to open their eyes that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may obtain forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who have been consecrated by faith in me."

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul also describes his calling. He recounts how he persecuted "the Church of God" and was among the most zealous of the zealots. Then he adds: "But when [God], who had called me from my mother's womb had set me apart and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me so that I might proclaim him to the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult flesh and blood nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me; rather I went into Arabia and then returned to Damascus" (Gal. 1:15–17).

Like an Old Testament prophet, Saul, soon to become Paul, received from God a supernatural vision, his calling, the content of his preaching, and its intended audience. His encounter with the Risen Lord, later authenticated by the Apostles, would qualify him to be numbered among the Apostles and even to be designated in Tradition as "the Apostle."

Like Jeremiah, the prophet who was called before God formed him in his mother's womb (Jeremiah 1:5), so, too, Paul was called even before his birth and "set apart" to bring the Good News of God's Son to the Gentiles, that is to say, all those nations distinct from the Jewish nation.

The Acts of the Apostles goes on to say that " ...in the synagogues immediately [Paul] proclaimed Jesus, saying, 'He is the Son of God'" (Acts 9:20; Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 442). As the direct result of his conversion and his being sent by Christ, Paul truly became "the teacher of the world" (see Preface for the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul).

Now let's return to the two points I invited you to keep in mind at the beginning of this column. First is the need for unity in proclaiming and teaching the faith of the Church. Many times in his writings, we find Saint Paul railing against those who bring division to the Body of Christ. For example, he lashes out against the Corinthians for their factions (see I Cor. 1:10–17). Having persecuted the Church, Paul finds it enormously painful to see members of the Church persecuting one another. He realized, as we must realize, that nothing is more harmful to the work of spreading the Gospel.

What would Paul make of the divisions that exist within the Church today? How would he react to our penchant to substitute ideology of the left or the right in place of the Gospel? Would he not chide us more strongly than the frisky Corinthians?

Would he not remind us that we can do the Church more damage from within than the world and all its fury inflicts on the Church from without?

A second point may be helpful in these days when schools are opening and parish religious education classes are resuming. Once again, we will hear justified laments about parents who bring their children to class but who do not practice the faith or reinforce what our parishes and schools are trying to teach them. We'll hear clergy rightly mourn for those absent from Sunday Mass. And there is always anxiety at the time of year in making sure that there enough volunteer religious education teachers. Saint Paul's conversion experience is helpful on all these counts.

Beginning with the last point, Paul became a great and fearless teacher of the faith once he was convinced that the Lord Jesus was truly alive and had conquered sin and death. This is the conviction that has motivated every missionary worthy of the name for almost 2,000 years.

If it is true, if Christ lives in the Church through her teaching and sacramental life, then we, like Paul, feel almost a compulsion to share this Good News with others (so please volunteer!). Saint Paul also helps us look at our mission differently. Not only are we called to instruct, we are also called to convince, to surprise with joy, to open the hearts of those around us to the truth and beauty of the Gospel.

As the General Catechetical Directory puts it, "The Church exists to evangelize. Evangelization expresses the Church's identity and completes the mission entrusted to her by her founder Jesus Christ." In other words, we have to pray and pray hard to be the instruments of Christ's graces moving those around us to a conversion experience not unlike Saint Paul's, an experience of the light, truth, goodness, and beauty of the Risen Lord.

Once the light of the Risen Lord's love has dawned upon us, and those we're called to serve, we'll hunger and thirst for the "holiness of truth" (Ephesians 4:24) and for sound, complete, and systematic instruction in the truths of the faith. This is the hunger that will ultimately be satisfied when we, too, see the Risen Lord face–to–face.

Part 2: The Apostle and the Apostles 

In a few weeks, bishops will gather from all over the world for the Twelfth General Assembly, more commonly known as the World Synod of Bishops. It will be devoted to the Word of God in the life and mission of the Church. The Church in the United States will be ably represented by four delegates elected by the U.S. bishops: Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops; Bishop Gerald Kicanas, Bishop of Tucson and USCCB vice president; Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, Archbishop of Galveston–Houston; and Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington. Others of local interest who will attend the Synod as auditors include Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson of the Knights of Columbus and Mother Clare Millea, Superior General of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

The purpose of this Synod is pastoral and missionary. Bishops, together with theologians and auditors, will study the Word of God in the life of the Church in view of the urgent need to bring the truth of the Gospel to their contemporaries throughout the world. Indeed, Pope Benedict XVI convened this Synod and chose this theme because he sensed among God's people a hunger for the living Word of God – that Word which engenders firm faith, that Word which in some way is addressed to every person without exception. And it was not accidental that the Synod and the Year of Saint Paul coincide. After all, Paul's mission was to bring the Gospel of the Son of God to the nations. In light of Saint Paul's life and mission, we can understand better the significance of the Synod for the whole Church as well as our responsibility to study and spread the living Word of God in communion with the Holy Father and the Church's bishops.

My initial column in this 20–part series dealt with the conversion of Saint Paul on the road to Damascus. Now we turn our attention to another episode in Saint Paul's life – the beginning of his ministry of bringing the Gospel to the Gentiles. Our focus is on Paul's entering into communion with Peter and the other Apostles who confirmed his mission to spread the Word of Christ to the nations.

We can see a parallel between Paul's consultation with the Apostles at Jerusalem and the Synod for which bishops will travel to Rome to study God's Word and then go forth to proclaim the Gospel with fresh insight and urgency. Saint Paul's consultation with the Apostles at Jerusalem also helps us understand more clearly how we are to carry out our particular service to the Word of God in communion with the Holy Father and the bishops in union with him.

So back to the story of Saint Paul! After his vision of the Risen Lord, Paul – always a strong and forceful personality – immediately began to proclaim to the Jews in Damascus that Jesus was the Son of God (Acts 9:20–22). Next, as Paul tells us in Galatians 1:17, he went to northern Arabia to preach the Good News not only to Jews who were living there but also to a group of Semitic people known as Nabateans. As would happen more than once in his life, Paul's preaching was met with resistance. In this case, it was from the Nabatean King, Aretas VI. Although Paul returned to Damascus, Aretas was still after him with the result that Paul had to make his escape (see Acts 9:23 and Galatians 1:18). Paul then went to Jerusalem where he met Peter and James.

We are told that Paul conferred with Peter for 15 days. One could only wish to have eavesdropped on that conversation!

Next we find Paul back at Tarsus where he was recruited by Barnabas, the trusted envoy of the Apostles at Jerusalem. Even so, Paul did not immediately assume the mantle of Apostle, nor was he ever a "lone ranger." Instead, he entered deeply into communion with the Church at Antioch (ca. 44 – 45 A.D.). Acts 13:1–2 tells us that both Paul (still known as Saul) and Barnabas were part of this vibrant community of faith where the followers of Christ were called "Christians" for the first time.

For the record, seven verses later (Acts 13:9), Luke will refer to "Saul who is also called Paul." More importantly, at this juncture Paul already is recognized as a "prophet" and "teacher" of the faith.

As teachers of the faith, Paul and Barnabas were pathfinders. They not only taught in Jewish synagogues but also reached out to the Gentiles. In Acts 13:16, we find Paul speaking to both groups at once: "Men of Israel and you who fear God..." Paul and Barnabas soon realized that addressing both groups together would not always work. Nonetheless, Paul stood his ground, telling his Jewish audience that God's Word was first addressed to them but now also to the Gentiles.

Quoting Isaiah the prophet (Isaiah 49:6), Paul told them he and Barnabas were sent "to be a light for the Gentiles" and "to bring salvation to the uttermost parts of the earth" (Acts 13:47). This made the Gentiles happy but tended to anger some of his Jewish adherents.

Later on, in his letter to the Ephesians, Paul will speak of how Christ transcends such divisions and brings those in enmity into one: "For [Christ] is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing in his flesh the law of commandments and ordinances that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two... (Ephesians 4:14– 15). Here the reference of the two made one is to Jews and Gentiles. This is a theme to which we will return in the course of this series.

For now it is important for us to observe that the evangelizing activity of Paul and Barnabas highlighted both the continuity and also the newness of the way of Jesus Christ with respect to the faith of Israel. We should also note that at Antioch Paul came to understand that he was called to bring the Gospel to the Gentiles.

In his vision at Damascus, the Risen Lord instructed Paul "to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and the sons of Israel" (Acts 9:15). Nonetheless, Paul did not regard his mission as self–validating but rather returned to Jerusalem (Galatians 2:1–2; Acts 14:27) to confer with Peter, James, and John.

From a purely human point of view, the outcome of that meeting was not a foregone conclusion.

Paul arrived with Barnabas as well as Titus and laid out for the Apostles his mission to the Gentiles. Two accounts of that encounter survive, that of Paul himself (Galatians 2:1–10) and that of Luke (Acts 15:1–35). The perspectives of the two versions vary, but the conclusion is substantially the same. With some regard for the sensibilities of Jewish converts (hence the prescription about not eating meat sacrificed to idols and the blood of strangled animals, Acts 15:29), the mission of Paul to the Gentiles was recognized as authentic, a decisive and providential moment for the Church's future.

Paul, because of his direct encounter with the Risen Lord, was acknowledged as an Apostle; that is, "one sent" to bring the Gospel to the nations.

The meeting at Jerusalem served not only to confirm the scope of Paul's mission but also the content of his preaching; that is to say, his account of God's mysterious plan for the salvation of the world (see Ephesians 1:9–10; 3:7–10).

All of this points to the relationship between communion and mission. Saint Paul will later on speak of this relationship in various ways, especially his description of the Church as "the Body of Christ" (see, for example, Ephesians 1, 22; 1 Corinthians 12:12–31).

Preaching of the Gospel is never a private affair and never succeeds as such. For the Gospel of Christ is not a mere philosophy of life, but rather "the restoration of all things" (Ephesians 1:10) including the destiny of each individual. Furthermore, the unity of believers, as noted in the last column, lends credibility to the message.

This also helps us see why the current Synod is so important for the whole Church. It is not just a symposium but an expression of the communion of the entire Church forged by the Holy Spirit. After the Synod the Holy Father will issue a post–synodal exhortation on the Word of God. Based on the deliberations of the Synod it will aim to deepen our appreciation of how God revealed Himself in Scripture and Tradition and it will encourage each diocese to evangelize more effectively and to catechize more thoroughly.

The Synod also sheds light on Catechetical Sunday this weekend, September 20–21, which also has the "Word of God" as its theme. I am deeply grateful to the directors of religious education and to catechists, as well as to our Catholic school principals and teachers for their service to the Word of God. I feel very close to you, not only because I have had many opportunities to be with you, but also because each of us, in accord with our respective vocations, are joined in the service of "one Lord, one faith, one baptism" (Ephesians 4:5).

Please also allow me to encourage those reading this column to consider becoming catechists, working in union with me and with the priests of the diocese to share the Word of God with people of all ages but most especially the young.

May we take our inspiration from Saint Paul in fearlessly and joyfully proclaiming the mystery of Christ!

The Year Of Saint Paul: A 20 Part Series