On the evening of 28 June, during the ceremony of Vespers for the Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul, in the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, Pope Benedict XVI officially proclaimed the commencement of the Year of St. Paul. It will close on 29 June 2009, the feast of these two Apostles. The Eternal City, “the Rome of Peter and Paul, bathed in the blood of martyrs, the center from which so many have set out to propagate throughout the world the saving word of Christ,” is truly a privileged location since it has been tantorum principum purpurata pretioso sanguine, bathed in the blood of the two foremost Apostles.
During these months, we will commemorate the two-thousandth anniversary of the birth of the Apostle to the Gentiles. To determine this date, studies of St. Paul’s chronology take into account all the facts established in his writings. In the Letter to the Galatians, he states that, after his conversion, he met St. Peter in Jerusalem, three years after his flight from Damascus, where the King of the Nabateans, Aretas IV, wielded power. This would mean that his departure from Damascus would have been in the year 37 and his conversion between 34-35 AD. On the other hand, in the Acts of the Apostles, when the martyrdom of Steven is recounted, Paul is mentioned as being a “young” man, soon before receiving his vocation. Therefore, although not a very precise date, a good guess for the birth of St. Paul would be the year 8 AD.
The Year of St. Paul urges us to reflect more deeply on the theological and spiritual legacy St. Paul left to the Church through his vast effort to spread the faith. As an external sign inviting us to meditate on the truths of the faith in the light of the Apostle’s teaching, the Pope lit a “Pauline flame” in the entrance to the Basilica of St. Paul in Rome. And in the same Church he opened the “Pauline Door,” which he passed through accompanied by the Patriarch of Constantinople on June 28th.
Apostle to the Gentiles
Who was Paul of Tarsus? He was born in the capital of the Roman Province of Cilicia, now part of Turkey. When he was captured before the gates of the Temple in Jerusalem, he addressed the crowd that wanted to kill him with these words: “I am a Jew, born at Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, educated according to the strict manner of the law of our fathers”.
Towards the end of his days, looking back over his life and mission, he will say of himself: “I was appointed a preacher and apostle and teacher”. Paul is not only a figure of the past. His message and life are always relevant, since they contain the core of the perennial Christian message.
Paul has sometimes been called the “thirteenth Apostle.” Although he didn’t belong to the group of the original Twelve Apostles, he was called to his mission by Christ himself, who appeared to him on the road to Damascus (Cf. I Cor 15:8). Moreover, he did as much as anyone to spread the Gospel. “Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I. Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one—I am talking like a madman—with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I have received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I have been beaten with rods; once I was stoned. Three times I have been shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, 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.”
Paul did not lack for difficulties or travail, all of which he bore out of love for Christ. But all the effort he expended and all the success he achieved never led to vainglory. As St. Josemaría wrote: “human logic cannot possibly explain the world of grace. God usually seeks out deficient instruments so that the work can more clearly seen to be his. It is with trembling that St. Paul recalls his vocation: And last of all, as by one born out of due time, he was seen also by me. For I am the least of the apostles, and am not worthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the Church of God” (1 Cor 15: 8-9). “How could we not admire a man such as this?” said Benedict XVI. “How could we not give thanks to God for having given us an Apostle of this category?”
St. Paul’s theological teachings are centered on the figure of Christ. His letters don’t provide us with many historical features of the life of Jesus of Nazareth, as the Gospels do. His concern for the events of our Lord’s earthly existence is focused on the mystery of Christ’s passion and death on the Cross. Paul was never a witness to Jesus’ earthly life; the only information he has comes from the apostolic tradition that preceded him, as he explicitly says: “for I delivered to you as of first importance what I also receive (I Cor 15:3; cf. 11:23ff.). St. Paul’s letters also contain various hymns, professions of faith, and doctrinal acclamations that were probably used in the primitive Christian liturgy and catechesis. Jesus Christ is the center and foundation of Paul’s writing and preaching. In his written works, the name of Christ appears 380 times, surpassed only by that of God, mentioned 500 times. This makes us understand how Jesus had such a profound impact on his life: in Christ we find the culmination of the history of salvation.
A personal encounter with Christ
Reflecting on the life of St. Paul, we could ask ourselves how a personal encounter with our Lord comes about and what sort of relationship is established between Christ and the believer. Paul’s answer contains two key points. First, he highlights the indispensable need for faith. As he wrote to the Romans: “For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of law.” The same point is stated even more explicitly in the Letter to the Galatians: “you know that a man is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.” Communion with God comes about exclusively through grace. God comes out to meet us and grants us his mercy, pardoning our sins and allowing us to enter into a relationship of love with him and with our brothers and sisters in the faith.
This doctrine of justification reflects the process of Paul’s own vocation. He was a strict observer of the Mosaic Law, fulfilling even the smallest details. But his encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus makes him realize that he too is a sinner.
Thus he recognizes his vocation, and his mission as an apostle. He finds in Christ’s unlimited self-giving on the Cross the invitation to rise above one’s own ego, placing all our confidence in Christ’s salvific death and resurrection: “he who glories, let him glory in the Lord” This spiritual conversion means, therefore, not seeking oneself, but putting on Christ, giving oneself in union with him. Thus we come to share in Christ’s life and immerse ourselves in him, sharing in both his death and his life. The Apostle describes this reality through the image of Baptism: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life”.
Paul—and with him every Christian—sees the Son of God not only as the One who died out of love for us, obtaining our salvation from sin: “dilexit me et tradidit semetipsum pro me, he loved me and gave himself up for me.” Christ is also the One who is present in our own lives: “vivo autem iam non ego, vivit vero in me Christus, it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me”. Saint Josemaría liked to repeat these words of the Apostle, since he saw the Risen Christ as the only reason for a Christian’s entire life and mission.
Among the many points the Apostle stresses in his epistles, one is especially relevant for this Pauline Year: the unity of all Christians. We are spurred to beseech God insistently for this grace—as great as it is difficult to attain—on seeing that the Patriarch Bartholomew I (following in the footsteps of the Vicar of Christ) has also convoked a Pauline Year in the Orthodox Church. St. Paul’s teachings remind us that full communion among all Christians is founded on the reality of sharing “one Lord, one faith, one baptism.” Therefore we should pray that “our common faith, the one baptism for the forgiveness of sins and obedience to the one Lord and Saviour, be fully expressed in the community and ecclesial dimensions.” St. Paul points out the most effective path towards unity in words the Second Vatican Council repeated in its decree on ecumenism: “I therefore, a prisoner of the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all lowliness and meekness, with patience, forbearing one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace”.
In the world of the Third Millennium, with humanity ever more interconnected, and paradoxically ever more fragmented and divided by a hedonist and relativistic atmosphere—which places in doubt the existence of any objective truth —our Lord’s prayer, ut omnes unum sint, “that all may be one”, is for us the greatest promise of union with God and unity among all mankind.