Spirituality for Today – November 2008 – Volume 13, Issue 4

The Year Of Saint Paul: A 20 Part Series
Part 3: Paul the Missionary

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

An illustration of Saint Paul the MissionaryIn just a few weeks, the first-ever Missionary Congress of the Diocese of Bridgeport will take place (Saturday, October 25, 8:15 a.m. to noon, Saint Thomas Aquinas Parish, Fairfield). A word of explanation is in order.

Over the years, the Diocese of Bridgeport has founded and maintained missions in other countries. An interesting read is Bridgeport's Peruby Msgr. Stephen DiGiovanni which tells how Bishop Walter Curtis founded a diocesan mission at Chiclayo, Peru, where Father Francis Posluszny continues to serve. Not to be forgotten is the ongoing work of Msgr. Joseph Potter in Juazeiro, Brazil. Msgr. Potter is listed as "retired" but those of us who are privileged to know him understand that he is anything but "retired." Over the years, more than a few priests from the diocese served in these missions. Many (like Msgr. John Tomis) have gone "home" to the Lord, but some are still with us, including Father Fred Saviano, who currently directs our diocesan Office for the Propagation of the Faith, Msgr. Stanley Rousseau, and Father Paul Merry. The missionary spirit is not only part of our history but, indeed, remains embedded in our "DNA" as a diocese.

At the same time, we also recognize that the whole Church, including the Church in Fairfield County, is mission territory. The Second Vatican Council teaches that "... the pilgrim Church is missionary by her very nature, since it is from the mission of the Son and the mission of the Holy Spirit that she draws her origin, in accordance with the decree of God the Father" (II Vatican Council, Ad Gentes Divinitus, no. 2). With that in mind, three years ago the diocese launched its Pastoral Plan of Evangelization which goes by the name, "Following in the Footsteps of Christ." Its purpose it to inspire those already following Christ to follow him more closely as members of the Church; it is also to inspire those who have lapsed in the practice of their faith or those who have no faith at all to accept Christ's invitation, "Come, follow me." The Plan is also an opportunity to proclaim and teach the faith of the Church afresh so that all of us may come to understand more profoundly"... with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of God which surpasses knowledge, that [we] may be filled with all the fullness of God" (Ephesians 3:18). And finally, the Plan aims to encourage and strengthen all of us to share the faith of the Church with those who are around us so that we might share more completely in the Church's mission of bringing to Christ those whose lives we influence.

The Missionary Congress is a four-hour event designed to inspire, instruct, and empower all of us as missionaries for Christ right here in Fairfield County. It is time well spent. Every one one of us, myself included, needs to be reenergized to do the Lord's work. At the same time, all of us know people who are ensnared by the secular culture in which we live. This culture leaves very little room for God and the things of God. We also know people who have left the Church because they've become convinced that they can be "spiritual" without any firm beliefs or any set pattern of worship. We also know people who have left the Church because of hurt, scandal, misunderstanding, or discomfort with what the Church believes and teaches. And many are waiting for an invitation for reconciliation and renewed faith.

The harvest is rich and we are the laborers – bishop, priests, deacons, religious, and laity. I sincerely hope you will accept my invitation to take part in this Missionary Congress – four hours well spent on one's own life of faith and on advancing Christ's mission in Fairfield County through the parishes, schools, and programs of the Diocese of Bridgeport.

If we want to learn how to be missionaries, we do well to turn to Saint Paul, whom the Church acclaims as "the teacher of the nations." Artists like El Greco (at right) often depict Saint Paul holding an open book of Scripture and a sword. This portrayal speaks to us of Saint Paul's missionary zeal in establishing churches as well as his bold proclamation of God's Word to the nations. The sword is an allusion to Ephesians 6:17 where Saint Paul exhorts his readers to "... take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit which is the word of God."

The last column dealt with Saint Paul's status as an Apostle in communion with the other Apostles. Saint Paul was recognized as an Apostle because of his direct encounter with the Risen Lord on the way to Damascus and because the content of his preaching and his outreach to the Gentiles were authenticated by Peter, James, and the other Apostles in the Council of Jerusalem. In time Saint Paul became known as "The Apostle," not because he was superior to the other Apostles but because of the unique way he fulfilled the office of Apostle. The word "Apostle" itself comes from the Greek apostolos, meaning one who is sent off. No Apostle, I daresay, traveled more widely than Saint Paul. His mission took him, at least metaphorically, "to the ends of the earth." Far from waiting for his congregation to come to him, Saint Paul, in the power of the Holy Spirit, was sent to them. And when he could not visit them personally, he wrote to them. Saint Paul is by far the most prolific writer in the Bible.

An old theological adage teaches that "grace builds on nature." That certainly seems to be the case with Saint Paul. From what we can gather from his life, even before his conversion on the road to Damascus, Paul moved around a lot. In the days when he persecuted the Church, the future Apostle and martyr seems to crop up everywhere. Immediately, the picture of a strong and intense personality emerges, a picture that deepens and becomes more beautiful as we read on in the Acts of the Apostles and meet Saint Paul in his Epistles.

But moving around a lot does not necessarily make for a great missionary. What we have to appreciate is how Saint Paul's encounter with the Risen Lord changed his life forever. He would spend the rest of his life mediating on the mystery of Christ, especially during a "hidden period" in his life when he withdrew to parts of Syria and Cilicia, the province from which he came. Afterwards, however, he proclaimed "Christ crucified" far and wide without counting the cost.

The "far and wide" aspect of Saint Paul's life is usually grouped into three missionary journeys, at least the three that we know of.

His first missionary journey took place before Saint Paul went to Jerusalem (an encounter described in my previous column). Barnabas and Paul were among the leaders of the Church at Antioch. We read in Acts 13:2 how, as the result of fasting prayer, it was determined that Barnabas and Paul should be sent forth, as we might say today, to spread the Gospel. We are told that the prophets and teachers of that community "laid hands" on Barnabas and Paul to set them apart for this special work and then sent them off.

At this stage, it seems, Barnabas was the "senior partner," and it should be noted that they were accompanied by "John Mark," known to us as Saint Mark the Evangelist. Sometime during this journey, Paul likely emerged as the leader because the Acts of the Apostles (13:13) goes on to refer to the missionaries as "Paul and his companions."

Departing Antioch, they went first to the island of Cyprus, then on to a number of cities in Asia Minor, at that time a prosperous and cultured part of the Roman Empire. It corresponds to modern-day Turkey, a peninsula that lies between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea. As noted in previous columns, Saint Paul and his companions usually began by preaching in Jewish synagogues and then to the Gentiles. Having been trained as a Pharisee, Paul assumed that the methods of argumentation which he learned as a Pharisee would serve him well. He also banked not only on the Jewish belief in one God (monotheism) but also on the cultural sophistication of the Gentile population. His confidence in both was not always rewarded. His synagogue preaching, at first, did not seem effective, though later we read how the numbers of converts increased daily. Jewish and Gentile converts, to say the least, found it hard to get along. (see, for example, Acts, 14:1-7). At Lystra and Derbe, Barnabas and Paul, to their horror, were mistaken for gods (Acts 14: 8-18). They also made enemies along the way. Opponents from Pisidian Antioch and Iconium (places in Asia Minor where they had visited), turned up in Lystra where they stoned Paul, almost snuffing out his life. And just to think, all this happened before Paul went to Jerusalem to make his case for his mission to the Gentiles.

Opposition and suffering are not deterrents for the true missionary but, rather, a source of joy. On this trip Paul and his companions came to realize that they were called to fulfill the Lord's words: "I have set you to be a light for the Gentiles that you may bring salvation to the uttermost parts of the earth" (Acts 13:47; see Isaiah 49:6).

The second missionary journey is recounted in Acts 15:40 through 18:11 and is thought to have taken place around the years 50-58 A.D. In his second journey, Paul came back to places in Asia Minor that he had previously visited and where he had preached the Gospel. Thus far, Saint Paul had already covered a lot of territory. In Romans 15:19, Paul comments that he had preached the Gospel "from Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum" (a Roman province that is roughly in the modern-day Balkans on the east coast of the Adriatic Sea). Like a good pastor, he wanted to see how these new Christian communities were doing. This he would do again and again. Here, he teaches us that it is not enough to preach the Gospel and move on. Though it is "God who gives the growth" (1 Corinthians 3:6-7), the Church, once planted, needs to be carefully tended. Nor should we be under the illusion that Paul's ministry was without its tensions.

Along the way Paul lost Barnabas and John Mark as coworkers but gained Silas (Acts 15:36-39), though he later reconciled with Barnabas and John Mark. Paul, Barnabas, and Peter had also gotten into a dispute over the observance of the Jewish law, a no-win issue in fending between Jewish and Gentile converts.

This, too, is a great lesson for modern-day missionaries at home and abroad. We shouldn't imagine that we can wait for all tensions and problems in the life of the Church to be resolved before we start preaching the Gospel. The Church will always be subject to internal strife, though we should limit this as much as possible. After all, her core mission is to extend Christ's saving love to sinners.

The third missionary journey can be found at Acts 18:23 through 21:15. In the previous chapter (Acts 17:16-32) we read of Saint Paul at Athens where he visited the Areopagus. It was, in a sense, a maiden voyage on the sea of apologetics.

At the center of Greek philosophy, Saint Paul tried to convince the Athenians that it was reasonable to embrace the God of Jesus Christ. Pointing to the altar in Athens to the "unknown god," Paul tried to explain this as an indicator of the true God whom they were seeking. But when Paul spoke of the resurrection of Christ from the dead, the Athenians mocked Paul and said, "We'll hear more about that later!" Saint Paul's approach did not work and he resolved, as he tells us, only to preach Christ crucified, "a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles" (1 Corinthians 1:23).

This does not mean that Saint Paul turned "anti-intellectual," for his letters abound with cultural references, brilliant literary constructions, and argumentation for the faith. Rather, it means he understood well that philosophy alone cannot grasp the dimensions of God's love revealed in Christ.

At any rate, in his third journey, Saint Paul then proceeded northward to Galatia and Phrygia and then, for the first time, to Europe. Here, he visited Greek cities that are household names to any reader of the New Testament: Philippi, Thessalonica, Athens, and Corinth. Eventually, Saint Paul preached in Ephesus, at the time the most important Roman city in Asia Minor. It appears that Saint Paul remained at Ephesus for a long time before finally returning to Jerusalem. Throughout his journeys, and especially toward the end of his ministry, Saint Paul suffered greatly for the Gospel. He describes his sufferings, for example, in 2 Corinthians 11:24-27.

In the end, Paul was arrested in Jerusalem, brought before a Jewish court, then two Roman governors. Finally, he was taken to Rome where he endured two years of house arrest.

Nonetheless, Paul's voice could not be stilled. He felt a deep compulsion to preach the Gospel (see 1 Corinthians 6:19). His greatest witness to the Risen Lord was his martyrdom at the hands of Nero about the year 64 A.D. His death caused the Church to grow in all the places he visited.

What a shining light Saint Paul is for us! Like us, he brought the Gospel into environments that were often hostile. Not every attempt at preaching the Gospel was met with success, and there were great tensions in his ministry.

Nonetheless, the Gospel shone through Saint Paul and his companions and received in his preaching and writing a superbly beautiful and profound articulation. As we gather for the Missionary Congress of the Diocese of Bridgeport, we ask Saint Paul to inspire us with zeal for the Gospel that we might bring the truth and love of Christ throughout every corner of Fairfield County and beyond.

The Year Of Saint Paul: A 20 Part Series