Friday, June 27, 2008

The Year of Paul

Tomorrow afternoon, at First Vespers in Rome's Basilica of St Paul's Outside the Walls, Pope Benedict will open the Pauline Year -- a special jubilee to mark the 2,000th anniversary of the birth of the "Apostle to the Gentiles."

From indulgences to pilgrimages and explorations of Paul's writings, resources for the year -- which'll have its international climax come October as the global Synod of Bishops meets to discuss "The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church" -- abound, and the CNSBlog's got a solid round-up to start.

Elsewhere in the pages, the lead in today's edition of The Tablet tackles the jubilarian's inheritance...
Paul's legacy is a complex one. First, he is responsible for a large part of the New Testament. The letters ascribed to him are about a quarter of the whole, and if you add the 17 chapters of Acts that are given over to him, it is more like a third. After Jesus, you could argue, Paul is the central figure of the New Testament.

Secondly, Paul is (as far as we know) the first Christian author. Then there is the fact that the letters have been preserved, even though they are clearly written for particular purposes and addressed to Christians in one city rather than another. That means that from the very beginning Christians must have thought that there was something of general import. This would have astonished Paul.

Lastly, the Pauline letters have touched hearts down the centuries; think of his effect on St Augustine, Luther (though even Lutherans today recognise that the great reformer misread St Paul), Wesley and Karl Barth, and all the lives that have been influenced through them, including our own.

What kind of a person is it that has bequeathed this legacy to us? One of the great advantages of letters is that for the most part they are personal. Paul is writing real letters, to real people, aiming to solve the difficulties that arise in real situations. Paul is, moreover, unmistakably flesh and blood, a real person, whom we overhear threatening the Corinthians with corporal punishment, and accusing the Galatians of stupidity, and of being bewitched. There are, moreover, one or two other remarks that he makes, which cannot easily be repeated in polite society.

There is no doubt at all of Paul's humanity: he is a passionate lover, and a prickly, irritable authoritarian, both at the same time. He is a gifted theologian (one of the three unmistakably great minds in the New Testament), with a startling ability to think on his feet when faced with new and unforeseen situations.

One of Paul's strengths is that he is at ease in at least three backgrounds. He is, according to Acts, a Roman citizen. Then he clearly belongs in the Hellenistic world into which he was born at Tarsus, and to which he spent the last 30 years of his life preaching. Finally but by no means least in importance, he is a Jew who took his Law-based Pharisaic Judaism immensely seriously, and if Acts has it right he studied under the great Pharisee teacher Gamaliel.

All three of these backgrounds are important to Paul, though he has reservations about each of them. Paul was also an innovator, unafraid of change. Notably, his encounter with Jesus meant that the story of the one God, in which he had been brought up, now had to be radically adapted to include the Risen One whom he learned to call "Lord".

One of the difficulties about letters is that they represent only one part of a continuing dialogue, and, maddeningly, we do not have the other side of the conversation. Paul's readers (or rather hearers - the letters were written to be performed rather than studied) knew a great deal more than we do about the background, and in places we must simply guess at what might have been going on, where they would have not been at all puzzled.

Because Paul is addressing many different situations, it is inevitable that he is not always consistent, and although he remains unmistakably the same Paul, different problems call forth different, or at least nuanced, responses from him. It is not respectful to the Apostle always to force him into consistency. At times, too, he is frankly very difficult. I defy anybody to read carefully through the Letter to the Romans and claim that they fully understand what Paul is saying. Even in that first century people were aware of this obscurity as a problem, as we see in 2 Peter, where the author warns his audience about "our beloved brother Paul" that in all his letters ... "there are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction". And it is certainly possible that when the Letter of James makes some dark remarks about the relationship between faith and works, the author is attacking either Paul or some of his more enthusiastic followers.

In more recent times, it was recalled how an illiterate old woman, freed from slavery in the United States, would say "Not that man!" when her family read the Bible to her, and suggested something from St Paul. The family remembered that she told them, "the master's minister would occasionally hold services for the slaves. Always the white minister used as his text something from Paul. ‘Slaves, be obedient to them that are your masters ... as unto Christ.' Then he would go on to show how, if we were good and happy slaves, God would bless us. I promised my Maker that if I ever learned to read and if freedom ever came, I would not read that part of the Bible."...

To get Paul right, and to assess his legacy properly, it is essential to listen for the heart of his message. What is this heart? The moment that ineradicably changed his life, and has not ceased to echo today, was when he met Jesus. Paul is quite clear that he has done so, and Luke thought it such an important encounter that he tells the story no fewer than three times. The effect on Paul was quite startling. He was in no doubt that it was Jesus, quite against the run of play, whom he had met; so there was no question of "wishful thinking", or sunstroke or an epileptic fit, such as are often peddled as explanations of what took place. From that, it followed that what these irritating Jesus people had been claiming was, after all, true - that the Crucified One had indeed been raised from the dead by God. Therefore, he was indeed God's Messiah (which Paul had thought impossible).

More radical yet, Paul realised that he had to address Jesus as "Lord", the title that hitherto Paul would have reserved for God. This was doubly subversive, for it would lead him into conflict not only with his fellow Jews, but also with Roman society, at a time when the emperors were sending out signals that they were quite happy to be so addressed, and to be regarded as divinities.

Two further consequences seem to have followed for Paul. The first was that he understood himself to be charged with the task of telling "Gentiles" (non-Jews, such as most people reading this article) about this lordship of Jesus. The second was that this new way of life is not a private matter - not a matter of individuals in solitary relationship with Jesus. Christianity (to give the new movement a name that it did not yet possess) is not something you do alone, but is a corporate affair, done in solidarity with others.
...and in a text that seems to be making the rounds again this week after its debut in January, an extensive pastoral letter on the celebration from Bishop Michael Saltarelli of Wilmington, featuring "10 Ways to Celebrate":
  • Pray to the Holy Spirit about your unique and intimate “Road to Damascus” conversion experience that the Spirit is calling you to in the Year of Saint Paul.
  • Live Galatians 2:20 “It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me” and study the lives of saints from Saint Paul to Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta who lived these words so inspirationally.
  • Read and pray The Acts of the Apostles and the letters of Saint Paul in the New Testament. Consult, too, the many helpful biblical commentaries and general studies of Paul that are presently available and will become available during the Year of Saint Paul.
  • Take Pope Benedict XVI’s challenge and engage daily in Lectio divina so that the Church will have a “new springtime” of spiritual growth and evangelization. Discover in a personal way that “the Word of God cannot be chained!” For an introduction to Lectio divina, see
  • Study the Church’s Teaching on Revelation and biblical interpretation in such Church documents and resources as:
  • The Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation Dei Verbum
  • The Pontifical Biblical Commission’s The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church (1993)
  • Relevant sections of the Catechism of the Catholic Church [Part One: sections 26-184, pp. 13-50] and the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church [Questions 1-32, pp. 5-12]
  • Pope Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth
  • Study and Pray through Paul’s teaching on the power of the Cross of Christ. “Preach Christ crucified” in the way you carry the Cross and the way you help others carry their crosses.
  • Develop even more deeply a Pauline reverence for the Eucharist and the Body of Christ. Read and pray:
  • Pope John Paul II’s apostolic letter Dies Domini (1998)
  • Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia (2003)
  • Pope Benedict XVI’s post-synodal apostolic exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis (2007)
  • Participate in Parish and Diocesan Masses during the Year of Saint Paul for the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul (Sunday, June 29, 2008 and Monday, June 29, 2009), the Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul the Apostle (Sunday, January 25, 2009), and the Feast of Saint Stephen, First Martyr (Friday, December 26, 2008). Make a pilgrimage during the Year of Saint Paul to Saint Paul’s parish in Wilmington, Saint Paul’s Parish in Delaware City and Saint Peter and Paul’s Parish in Easton, MD. If you should be fortunate enough to visit Rome this year, make sure to visit and venerate the tomb of Saint Paul at the Basilica of Saint Paul-Outside-the-Walls. Vatican officials announced in December 2006 that several feet below the Basilica’s main altar and behind a smaller altar, they had found a roughly cut marble sarcophagus beneath an inscription that reads “Paul Apostle Martyr.” The small altar was removed and a window inserted so that pilgrims can see the sarcophagus. Also visit the new ecumenical chapel which will be located in the southeast corner of the Basilica (what had been since the 1930s a baptismal chapel). While praying there, ask the intercession of Saint Paul for ecumenical progress and full Christian unity.27
  • Seek Paul’s intercession to be a more vibrant missionary in the world. Respond to the Universal Call to Holiness and the Universal Call to Mission. Study classical Church texts on missionary spirit and evangelization that discuss the life and ministry of Saint Paul such as Vatican Council II’s 1965 Decree on the Church’s Missionary Activity, Ad Gentes Divinitus, Pope Paul VI’s 1975 apostolic exhortation Evangeli Nuntiandi, Pope John Paul II’s 1990 encyclical Redemptoris Missio and Pope John Paul II’s 1999 post-synodal apostolic exhortation Ecclesia in America.
  • Study and pray the classical paintings of Saint Paul such as Rembrandt’s Saint Paul at his Writing-Desk (1629-1630), Caravaggio’s The Conversion of Saint Paul (1600), El Greco’s Saint Paul (1606), Michelangelo’s The Conversion of Saul (1542-1545), Raphael’s Saint Paul Preaching in Athens. For an internet tour of these paintings and other art works that focus on Saint Paul, see the website: /artwork-st-paul.htm. And see the 1981 film Chariots of Fire (and other films with Pauline themes) which examines how Eric Liddell, a Scottish 1924 Olympic runner, lives and speaks about the Pauline “running the race” of faith and “feeling God’s pleasure” when he runs. This film is a moving commentary on Galatians 2:20.
On a Petrine note, having reached his 75th birthday in January, Saltarelli's retirement and the appointment of his successor at the helm of Delaware's 220,000-member diocese are expected to take place before Rome's summer recess.