Paul transformed from persecutor into the most fervent apostle of Christ
On June 28, 2008, in the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside–the–Walls in Rome, during the celebration of the first vespers for the solemnity of St. Peter and St. Paul, Pope Benedict XVI officially opened the Pauline Year, designed to celebrate the bi-millennium of the birth of St. Paul, which historians place between the years 7 and 10 AD. This special year, which will end on June 29, 2009, includes, in the words of the Pope, "a series of liturgical, cultural and ecumenical events, as well as various pastoral and social initiatives, all inspired by Pauline spirituality." Here are excerpts from the Holy Father’s homily:
A figure for today
|The Basilica of Saint Paul Outside-the-Walls
We have gathered near the tomb of St. Paul, who was born 2,000 years ago at Tarsus in Cilicia, in present–day Turkey. Who was St. Paul? In the temple of Jerusalem, faced with the frenzied crowd that wanted to kill him, he presented himself with these words: "I am a Jew, born at Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city (Jerusalem) at the feet of Gamaliel, educated according to the strict manner of the law of our fathers, being zealous for God..." (Acts 22: 3). At the end of his journey he was to say of himself: "For this I was appointed a preacher and apostle... a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth" (1 Tm 2: 7; cf. 2 Tm 1: 11). A teacher of the Gentiles, an apostle and a herald of Jesus Christ, this is how he described himself, looking back over the path of his life. But this glance does not look only to the past. "A teacher of the Gentiles" – these words open to the future, to all peoples and all generations. For us Paul is not a figure of the past whom we remember with veneration. He is also our teacher, an Apostle and herald of Jesus Christ for us too.
June 28, 2008: Pope Benedict XVI and Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew 1st of Constantinople pray at the altar that holds the ‘chains of St. Paul’ and underneath may be seen – through a glass panel – the tomb of the Apostle.
Thus we are not gathered to reflect on past history, irrevocably behind us. Paul wants to speak to us – today. That is why I chose to establish this special "Pauline Year": in order to listen to him and learn today from him, as our teacher, "the faith and the truth" in which the reasons for unity among Christ´s disciples are rooted. (…)
Being loved by Jesus Christ
Who is Paul? What does he say to me? At this moment, at the beginning of the "Pauline Year" that we are inaugurating, I would like to choose from the rich testimony of the New Testament, three texts in which his inner features, his specific character appear. In the Letter to the Galatians, St. Paul gives a very personal profession of faith in which he opens his heart to readers of all times and reveals what was the most intimate drive of his life. "I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me" (Gal 2: 20).
All Paul´s actions begin from this centre. His faith is the experience of being loved by Jesus Christ in a very personal way. It is awareness of the fact that Christ did not face death for something anonymous but rather for love of him – of Paul – and that, as the Risen One, he still loves him; in other words, Christ gave himself for him. Paul´s faith is being struck by the love of Jesus Christ, a love that overwhelms him to his depths and transforms him. His faith is not a theory, an opinion about God and the world. His faith is the impact of God´s love in his heart. Thus, this same faith was love for Jesus Christ.
The conversion of St. Paul, by Benjamin West American 1786, Dallas Museum of Art
Paul is presented by many as a pugnacious man who was well able to wield the sword of his words. Indeed, there was no lack of disputes on his journey as an Apostle. He did not seek a superficial harmony. In the First of his Letters, addressed to the Thessalonians, he himself says: "We had courage... to proclaim to you the Gospel of God in the face of great opposition... In fact, we never spoke words of adulation, as you know" (1 Thes 2: 2, 5). The truth was too great for him to be willing to sacrifice it with a view to external success. For him, the truth that he experienced in his encounter with the Risen One was well worth the fight, persecution and suffering. (...)
The Church is the Body of Christ
In the search for the inner features of St. Paul I would like, secondly, to recall the words that the Risen Christ addressed to him on the road to Damascus. First the Lord asked him: "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?". To the question: "Who are you, Lord?" Saul is given the answer: "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting" (Acts 9: 4f.). In persecuting the Church, Paul was persecuting Jesus himself. "You persecute me." Jesus identifies with the Church in a single subject.
This exclamation of the Risen One, which transformed Saul´s life, in summary already contains the entire doctrine on the Church as the Body of Christ. Christ did not withdraw himself into Heaven, leaving ranks of followers to carry out "his cause" on earth. The Church is not an association that desires to promote a specific cause. In her there is no question of a cause. In her it is a matter of the person of Jesus Christ, who, also as the Risen One, remained "flesh." He has "flesh and bones" (Lk 24: 39), the Risen One says, in Luke´s Gospel, to the disciples who thought he was a ghost. He has a Body. He is personally present in his Church, "Head and Body" form one being, Augustine would come to say.
"Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ?" Paul wrote to the Corinthians (1 Cor 6: 15). And he added: just as, according to the book of Genesis, man and woman become one flesh, thus Christ and his followers become one spirit, that is, one in the new world of the Resurrection (cf. 1 Cor 6: 16ff.). In all of this the Eucharistic mystery appears, in which Christ continually gives his Body and makes of us his Body: "The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread" (1 Cor 10: 16f). (...)
Suffer for the sake of His name
I would like to conclude with words St. Paul spoke near the end of his life. It is an exhortation to Timothy from prison while he was facing death, "with the strength that comes from God bear your share of hardship which the Gospel entails," the Apostle said to his disciple (2 Tm 1: 8). These words, which mark the end of the Apostle´s life as a testament, refer back to the beginning of his mission. When, after his encounter with the Risen One, while Paul lay blind in his dwelling at Damascus, Ananias was charged to visit the feared persecutor and to lay his hands upon him so that he might regain his sight. Ananias´ objection that this Saul was a dangerous persecutor of Christians, was met with the response: "this man must carry my name before the Gentiles and kings": "I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name" (Acts 9: 15f.).
The task of proclamation and the call to suffer for Christ´s sake are inseparable. The call to become the teacher of the Gentiles is, at the same time and intrinsically a call to suffering in communion with Christ who redeemed us through his Passion. In a world in which falsehood is powerful, the truth is paid for with suffering. The one who desires to avoid suffering, to keep it at bay, keeps life itself and its greatness at bay; he cannot be a servant of truth and thus a servant of faith. There is no love without suffering – without the suffering of renouncing oneself, of the transformation and purification of self for true freedom. Where there is nothing worth suffering for, even life loses its value. The Eucharist – the centre of our Christian being – is founded on Jesus´ sacrifice for us; it is born from the suffering of love which culminated in the Cross. We live by this love that gives itself. It gives us the courage and strength to suffer with Christ and for him in this world, knowing that in this very way our life becomes great and mature and true.
In the light of all St. Paul´s Letters, we see how the prophecy made to Ananias at the time of Paul´s call came true in the process of teaching the Gentiles: "I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name." His suffering made him credible as a teacher of truth who did not seek his own advantage, his own glory or his personal satisfaction but applied himself for the sake of the One who loved us and has given himself for us all.
Let us now thank the Lord for having called Paul, making him the light to the Gentiles and the teacher of us all, and let us pray to him: "Give us even today witnesses of the Resurrection, struck by the impact of your love and able to bring the light of the Gospel in our time." St Paul, pray for us! Amen.
St. Paul’s life
Mosaic of Benedict XVI in the Basilica of St. Paul Outside-the-Walls
During the general audience of Wednesday, October 25, 2006, Pope Benedict XVI gave a catechesis on St. Paul and his life. Here are some excerpts:
We have concluded our reflections on the Twelve Apostles, called directly by Jesus during his earthly life. Today, we begin to examine the figures of other important early Church personalities. They also spent their lives for the Lord, the Gospel and the Church. They are men and also women who, as Luke writes in the Book of Acts, "have risked their lives for the sake of Our Lord Jesus Christ" (15: 26).
The first of these, called by the Lord himself, by the Risen One, to be a true Apostle, is undoubtedly Paul of Tarsus. He shines like a star of the brightest magnitude in the Church´s history, and not only in that of its origins. St John Chrysostom praised him as a person superior even to many angels and archangels (cf. Panegirico, 7, 3). Dante Alighieri in the Divine Comedy, inspired by Luke´s account in Acts (cf. 9: 15), describes him simply as "vessel of election" (Inf. 2: 28), which means: instrument chosen by God. Others called him the "13th Apostle", or directly, "the first after the Only." (. . .)
Luke tells us that his name originally was Saul (cf. Acts 7: 58; 8: 1), and he was a Jew of the diaspora, since the city of Tarsus is situated between Anatolia and Syria. Very soon he went to Jerusalem to study the roots of Mosaic Law in the footsteps of the great Rabbi Gamaliele (cf. Acts 22: 3). He also learned a manual and common trade, tent making (cf. Acts 18: 3), which later permitted him to provide personally for his own support without being a weight on the Churches (cf. Acts 20: 34; I Cor 4: 12; II Cor 12: 13).
It was decisive for him to know the community of those who called themselves disciples of Jesus. Through them he came to know a new faith – a new "way", as it was called – that places not so much the Law of God at the centre but rather the person of Jesus, Crucified and Risen, to whom was now linked the remission of sins. As a zealous Jew, he held this message unacceptable, even scandalous, and he therefore felt the duty to persecute the followers of Christ even outside of Jerusalem.
It was precisely on the road to Damascus at the beginning of 30 A.D. that, according to his words, "Christ made me his own" (Phil 3: 12). While Luke recounts the fact with abundant detail – like how the light of the Risen One touched him and fundamentally changed his whole life –, in his Letters he goes directly to the essential and speaks not only of a vision (cf. I Cor 9: 1), but of an illumination (cf. II Cor 4: 6), and above all of a revelation and of a vocation in the encounter with the Risen One (cf. Gal 1: 15–16).
In fact, he will explicitly define himself as "apostle by vocation" (cf. Rom 1: 1; I Cor 1: 1) or "apostle by the will of God" (II Cor 1: 1; Eph 1: 1; Col 1: 1), as if to emphasize that his conversion was not the result of a development of thought or reflection, but the fruit of divine intervention, an unforeseeable, divine grace.
Henceforth, all that had constituted for him a value, paradoxically became, according to his words, a loss and refuse (cf. Phil 3: 7–10). And from that moment all his energy was placed at the exclusive service of Jesus Christ and his Gospel. His existence would become that of an Apostle who wants to "become all things to all men" (I Cor 9: 22) without reserve.
From here we draw a very important lesson: what counts is to place Jesus Christ at the centre of our lives, so that our identity is marked essentially by the encounter, by communion with Christ and with his Word. In his light every other value is recovered and purified from possible dross.
Another fundamental lesson offered by Paul is the universal breadth that characterizes his apostolate. Acutely feeling the problem of the Gentiles, of the pagans, to know God, who in Jesus Christ Crucified and Risen offers salvation to all without exception, he dedicates himself to make this Gospel – literally, "good news" – known, to announce the grace destined to reconcile men with God, self and others.
From the first moment he understood that this is a reality that did not concern only the Jews or a certain group of men, but one that had a universal value and concerned everyone, because God is the God of everyone.
The point of departure for his travels was the Church of Antioch in Syria, where for the first time the Gospel was announced to the Greeks and where also the name "Christians" was coined (cf. Acts 11: 20, 26), believers in Christ. From there he first went to Cyprus and then on different occasions to the regions of Asia Minor (Pisidia, Laconia, Galatia), and later to those of Europe (Macedonia, Greece). The most famous were the cities of Ephesus, Philippi, Thessalonica, Corinth, without forgetting Berea, Athens and Miletus.
In Paul´s apostolate difficulties were not lacking, which he faced with courage for love of Christ. He himself recalls having endured "labours... imprisonment... beatings... numerous brushes with death.... Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I passed a night and a day on the deep; on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my own race, dangers from Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers at sea, dangers among false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many sleepless nights, through hunger and thirst, through frequent fastings, cold and exposure. And apart from these things there is the daily pressure upon me of my anxiety for all the Churches" (II Cor 11: 23–28).
From a passage of the Letter to the Romans (cf. 15: 24, 28) appears his proposal to push on even to Spain, to the Far West, to announce the Gospel everywhere, even to the then known ends of the earth. How can one not admire a man like this? How can one not thank the Lord for having given an Apostle of this stature? (... ) May the Lord help us to put into practice the exhortation left to us by the Apostle in his Letters: "Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ" (I Cor 11: 1).