The Year of Paul
Our Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI has proclaimed 2008 as the year of St. Paul, commemorating the 2000th anniversary of his birth. This year of commemoration officially opens with first Vespers on the Solemnity of Sts Peter and Paul at the Basilica of St. Paul outside the Walls in Rome, where tradition holds that Paul is buried beneath the main altar.
In designating this year in honor of Paul, the Holy Father invites us to focus in a special way both on Paul as a man deeply aware of God’s grace at work in his life and on his great contribution to the Church as apostle, missionary, and writer.
In seeking information about Paul’s life and missionary activities, most of us turn first to the Acts of the Apostles. St. Luke, author of the gospel, also wrote this continuation of his narrative of Jesus and his first disciples, some twelve years after Paul’s death. Luke wrote an exciting history, and it is Luke who tells how Paul, while traveling to Damascus in search of Christians, encountered the Risen Jesus. Luke gives us three accounts of this event with varying details: Acts 9:1-9, 22:3-16, 26:2-18.
Many people are surprised to learn that Paul’s writings are much earlier than Luke’s. Strangely, Paul says almost nothing about the details—the how—of his meeting with Jesus, and Luke says nothing of Paul’s death (Acts ends with Paul under house arrest in Rome). We can only surmise that both authors must have had their reasons for so doing.
When we want to know about Paul, we should first consult his own writings. In so doing, it is important to keep in mind that Paul wrote letters, a very different kind of writing from Luke’s narrative accounts.
What does Paul tell us about himself? That he was "a member of the Israelite people, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee" (Phil 3:5-6). Paul also tells us how he persecuted God’s Church and tried to destroy it before his encounter with Christ (Phil -6; Gal 1:13). Paul saw this as an act of religious piety. He truly believed Jesus’ followers were wrong. Jesus was not who they believed him to be. He was not the Messiah.
What changed Paul from persecutor to apostle was his experience of Jesus. Although Paul and Jesus were contemporaries, Paul did not know Jesus before his resurrection. Paul offers few details concerning how he met Jesus and nothing about where. He says simply "God reveal(ed) his son to me" (Gal 1:16) and that the Risen Jesus "appeared to me" (1 Cor 15:8). The Greek verb horaō ("appeared") used in this text is the same verb that is used in the Gospel accounts of the appearances of the Risen Jesus (1 Cor 15:3-8; see also 1 Cor 9:1: "Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?").
If only Paul had said how. He doesn’t. What he does say, and this is really what is most
important, is what a profound effect his experience had on him. Literally, he was overwhelmed. He had "to be" with his experience, to think it over, to let its meaning unfold. He says that he did not consult immediately with other people and that he waited three years before speaking with Peter and James in Jerusalem (Gal 1:16-18).
We know that Paul’s experience of the risen Jesus changed his life. It was a deeply personal, deeply spiritual experience, not merely intellectual consent or affirmation. Experience is important. Experience is what has the most effect on us. Paul’s experience was grace, a gift from God. Paul’s experience of the Risen Jesus was so deep, so real, so powerful, that after that, nothing else was the same, nothing else mattered.
It was an experience that led him to say "it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me" (Gal 2:20). It was an experience that led him to say, ". . . whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ . . . " (Phil 3:7-9). It was an experience that led him to realize, in living through a very difficult, hard to handle situation--most probably one that involved a personal enemy--the powerful truth of Christ’s words to him, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness" (2 Cor 12:8, see Num 33:55 and Ezek 28:24 where "thorns" are enemies!).
Similar glimpses of the depth of Paul’s experience of God’s grace in his own life can be found throughout his letters. His words invited the Christians of his day to experience deeply the life that was theirs in Christ and to know the power of God’s grace at work within them. This same invitation is extended to us. May this year of St. Paul be a time for a renewed and ever deepening response.
The Scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Catholic Edition copyright © 1993 © and 1989 by the Division of Christian Educaton of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
--Anne Elizabeth Sweet, OCSO