The Pope: The Apostle Paul

Dear Brothers and Sisters:

We have concluded our reflections on the Twelve Apostles, called directly by Jesus during his earthly life. Today we begin to approach the figures of other important personalities of the early Church. They also spent their lives for the Lord, for the Gospel and for the Church. They were men and women who, as Luke writes in the Acts of the Apostles, “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 also be an authentic apostle, is without a doubt Paul of Tarsus. He shines like a star of first grandeur in the history of the Church, and not only in that of the origins.

St. John Chrysostom exalts him as a personage who is superior even to many angels and archangels (cf. “Panegyric” 7,3). In the Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri, inspired in Luke’s account in the Acts of the Apostles (cf. 9:15), describes him simply as “chosen vessel” (Inferno 2, 28), which means: instrument chosen by God. Others have called him the “Thirteenth Apostle” — and he really insists much on the fact of being an authentic apostle, having been called by the Risen One, or even “the first after the Only One.”

Certainly, after Jesus, he is the personality of the origins of whom we are the most informed. In fact, not only do we have Luke’s account in the Acts of the Apostles, but also a group of letters that come directly from his hand and that without intermediaries reveals to us his personality and thought. Luke tells us that his original name was Saul (cf. Acts 7:58; 8:1, etc.), in Hebrew Saul [also] (cf. Acts 13:21), and he was a Jew of the Diaspora, given that the city of Tarsus is situated between Anatolia and Syria.

Very soon he went to Jerusalem to study the Mosaic law in-depth at the feet of the great rabbi Gamaliel (cf. Acts 22:3). He had also learned a manual and common trade, tent-making (cf. Acts 18:3), which later would allow him to support himself personally without being a weight for the Churches (cf. Acts 20:34; 1 Corinthians 4:12; 2 Corinthians 12:13-14).

For him it was decisive to know the community of those who professed themselves disciples of Jesus. Through them he had news of a new faith, a new “way,” as was said, which did not put the law of God at the center, but rather the person of Jesus, crucified and risen, to whom was attributed the remission of sins.

As a zealous Jew, he considered this message unacceptable, more than that, scandalous, and felt the duty to persecute Christ’s followers, also outside Jerusalem. Precisely on the road to Damascus, at the beginning of the 30s, according to his words, “Jesus Christ” made Saul “his own.” While Luke recounts the event with abundance of details — the way in which the light of the Risen One reached him, changing his life fundamentally — in his letters he goes directly to the essential and speaks not only of a vision (cf. 1 Corinthians 9:1), but of an illumination (cf. 2 Corinthians 4:6), and above all of a revelation and a vocation in the encounter with the Risen One (cf. Galatians 1:15-16).

In fact, he will describe himself explicitly as “apostle by vocation” (cf. Romans 1:1; 1 Corinthians 1:1; or “apostle by the will of God” (2 Corinthians 1:1, Ephesians 1:1; Colossians 1:1), as if wishing to underline that his conversion was not the result of nice thoughts, of reflections, but the fruit of a divine intervention, of an unforeseen divine grace. Henceforth, everything that before was of value to him became, paradoxically, according to his words, loss and refuse (cf. Philippians 3:7-10). And from that moment he put all his energies 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” (1 Corinthians 9:22) without reservations.

From here is derived a very important lesson for us: What matters is to put Jesus Christ at the center of our lives, so that our identity is characterized essentially by the encounter, by communion with Christ and his word. In his light, every other value must be recovered and purified of possible dross.

Another fundamental lesson left by Paul is the spiritual horizon that characterizes his apostolate. Acutely feeling the problem of the possibility for the Gentiles, namely, the pagans, to attain God, who is Jesus Christ crucified and risen who offers salvation to all men without exception, he dedicated himself to make this Gospel known, literally “good news,” that is, the proclamation of grace destined to reconcile man with God, with himself and with others. From the first moment he understood that this was a reality that did not affect only the Jews, a certain group of men, but that it had universal value and affected all.

The Church of Antioch of Syria was the starting point of his trips, where for the first time the Gospel was proclaimed to the Greeks, and where the name “Christians” was also coined (cf. Acts 11:20.26), that is, believers in Christ. From there in the first instance he started off to Cyprus and then on different occasions to regions of Asia Minor (Pisidia, Laconia, Galatia), and later to those of Europe (Macedonia, Greece). More revealing were the cities of Ephesus, Philippi, Thessalonica, Corinth, not forgetting either Berea, Athens and Miletus.

Difficulties were not lacking in Paul’s apostolate, which he faced with courage for love of Christ. He himself recalls that he had to endure “labors … imprisonments … beatings; danger of death, many times … Three times I have been beaten with rods; once I was stoned. Three times I have been shipwrecked … on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brethren; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure upon me of my anxiety for all the Churches” (2 Corinthians 11:23-28).

In a passage of the Letter to the Romans (cf. 15:24.28) is reflected his intention to go to Spain, to the limits of the West, to proclaim the Gospel everywhere to the ends of the then known earth. How can such a man not be admired? How can we not thank the Lord for having given us an apostle of this stature? Clearly, he would not have been able to face such difficult and at times so desperate situations, had he not had a reason of absolute value before which there could be no limits. We know that for Paul this reason was Jesus Christ, of whom he writes: “The love of Christ controls us … he died for all, that those who live might live no longer for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised” (2 Corinthians 5:14-15), for us, for all.

In fact, the Apostle will give his supreme witness with his blood under the emperor Nero here, in Rome, where we keep and venerate his mortal remains. In the last years of the 1st century, Clement of Rome, my predecessor in this Apostolic See, wrote: “Because of jealousy and discord, Paul was obliged to show us how one obtains the prize of patience … After preaching justice to all in the world, and after having arrived at the limits of the West, he endured martyrdom before the political rulers; in this way he left this world and reached the holy place, thus becoming the greatest model of perseverance” (To the Corinthians, 5).

May the Lord help us to live the exhortation that the Apostle left us in his letters: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1)

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~ by Rob on October 26, 2006.

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