Saints and Theology of the Heart - St. Paul

Apostle to the Gentiles

Solemnity: June 29
Feast shared with St. Peter

Also Feast of his Conversion: January 25

See also:
"Be Imitators of Me, As I Am of Christ"- Audience of Pope Benedict XVI
"For love of Christ, Paul bore every burden" homily of St. John Chrysostom
Virtual tour of St. Paul's Basilica

When Paul was thrown to the ground, he was able to surrender absolutely all of himself to Christ.  Later he was able to say, “it is not I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”  

Paul wrote of 13 letters that form part of the New Testament and are directed to communities of Gentiles, pagans who were converted by his preaching.  In them he exhorts, guides them in the faith, and teaches about ethics and doctrine.  These letters are inspired by the Holy Spirit and thus form part of divine revelation.  This means that they are the Word of God and by means of them God Himself is made known to us.  Paul is an instrument in this divine communication but at the same time the letters help us to know the human author.  They reflect his personality, his gifts and his intense struggles.  Other sources that help us to know this apostle better are Acts of the Apostles written by St. Luke and certain apocryphal books
Paul was born to a middle-class Jewish family, of the tribe of Benjamin, in Tarsus of Sicily (present-day Turkey).  His Semitic name was Saul.  We do not know when he began to be called by the Latin name Paul.  Since Tarsus was a Greek city, he received Roman citizenship.   The date of his birth is calculated around 3 AD.  Jesus is believed to have been born around 6 or 7 BC.  Then Jesus Christ would be only 10 years older than Paul. 

Early life and conversion

When he was young, we do not know the exact age, Saul went to study in Jerusalem in the famous Rabbinic school directed by Gamaliel.  Along with studying the Law and the prophets, he also learned a trade as was the tradition.  The young Saul chose the trade of tent making.  We do not know if he ever saw Jesus before his crucifixion; he speaks nothing of such an encounter. 

Around the age of 34, Saul appears as a righteous young Pharisee, fanatically opposed to the Christians.  He believed that the new sect was a threat to Judaism and should thus be eliminated and its followers punished.  Acts of the Apostles tells us that Saul was present, approving when Saint Steven, the first martyr, was stoned to death.  It was shortly after this that Paul experienced the revelation that would transform his life.  While he was going to the city of Damascus to continue his persecution against the Christians, to make them deny their faith, Jesus Christ appeared to him and asked him, “Why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4)  He was blinded by the supernatural light of that moment.  Paul surrendered himself entirely before the Lord, asking, “Lord, what would you like me to do?”  Jesus asks a profound act of humility from him, sending him to those whom he had been persecuting,.  “Go to Ananias and he will tell you what to do.”  After arriving in Damascus, he converted, his blindness was healed by the Ananias and he was baptized.  Paul avidly accepted the mission to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, but like all the saints, saw his unworthiness and separated himself from the world to spend three years in “Arabia” in meditation and prayer before beginning his apostolate.  Jesus made him an apostle in a unique manner, without having lived with Jesus.  He is thus the last of the Apostles. “Last of all, as to one born abnormally, he appeared to me. For I am the least of the apostles, not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.”  (Cor 15:8-9)  His life was totally transformed in Christ.  “(But) whatever gains I had, these I have come to consider a loss because of Christ.  More than that, I even consider everything as a loss because of the supreme good of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have accepted the loss of all things and I consider them so much rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him.”  (Phil. 3:7-8)

From then on he was truly a new man and totally moved by the Holy Spirit to announce the Gospel.  From this time Saul was called by his Roman name: Paul.  He never rested from his labors.  Preaching, writing and founding churches, his long and many journeys by land and sea (at least four apostolic journeys), so full of adventures, which one can follow if they carefully read the New Testament letters.  We cannot be sure if the letters and other fragments that have remained to our day contain all the activities of St.  Paul.  He himself speaks of being stoned, whipped, shipwrecked three times, subjected to hunger and thirst, spending nights without rest, with many dangers and difficulties.  Besides these physical hardships, he suffered much dissention and almost constant conflict, which he endured with great enthusiasm for Christ, and for the many Christian communities, spread throughout the known world.  

He had received a formal education that was much better than that of the humble fishermen who were the first apostles of Christ.  We say a “formal education” because the other apostles had Jesus himself as their teacher, and thus received a divine education.  Saint Paul also received this education by means of divine revelation.  "Have the same regard for one another; do not be haughty but associate with the lowly; do not be wise in your own estimation.." (Rom 12:16).

“Now to him who can strengthen you, according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery kept secret for long ages but now manifested through the prophetic writings and, according to the command of the eternal God, made known to all nations to bring about the obedience of faith, to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ be glory forever and ever. Amen.” (Rom 16:25-27)

Preaching the Gospel

Paul began his preaching in Damascus.  Here the fury of the orthodox Jews against this “traitor” was so great that he had to escape by being let out of a window in a basket.  When he went to Jerusalem, he was watched suspiciously by the Jewish Christians because they could not believe that the one who had persecuted them had converted.  Upon returning ot his native city of Tarsus, he was joined again by Barnabas, and together they traveled to Antioch in Syria, where they found so many followers that it was in this place that the followers of Jesus were first called “Christians”(from the Greek “Christos”, anointed).   After returning to Jerusalem once more these two missionaries returned to Antioch and then set sail for the island of Cyprus; during this journey they converted a proconsul, Sergius Paulus.

Once more in Asia Minor, they crossed the Taurus Mountains and visited many towns in the interior, particularly those who had large Jewish populations.  Generally in these places Paul would first visit the synagogues and preach to the Jews; if they rejected him then he would go to the gentiles.  In Antioch of Pisidia, Paul entered into a memorable discourse with the Jews, which concludes with these words, “"It was necessary that the word of God be spoken to you first, but since you reject it and condemn yourselves as unworthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles. For so the Lord has commanded us, 'I have made you a light to the Gentiles, that you may be an instrument of salvation to the ends of the earth.'" (Acts 13:46-47)
After this, Paul and Barnabas returned to Jerusalem where the elders were discussing the theme of the position of the Church, which was still comprised of a majority of Jewish converts, to the gentile converts.  The question of circumcision was problematic because for the Jews it was important that the Gentiles subject themselves to the requirement s of the Jewish law.  Paul was opposed to requiring circumcision, not because he wanted to make Christianity easy but rather because he understood that Spirit now required the circumcision of the heart, an interior transformation.  The law could not justify man, but only the grace received by means of Jesus Christ.  To live this grace is undoubtedly more radical than what the law presents, for it demands total surrender.  This call to grace and to the total response unto death forms an essential part of his teachings and his life.
The second missionary journey, which lasted from the year 49 to 52, took Paul and Silas, his new assistant, to Phrygia, Galicia, Troas and to the lands of Europe, to Philippi in Macedonia.  Luke the physician was now a member of the group and in the book of Acts relates that they were in Thessalonica, and then went down to Athens and Corinth.  In Athens Paul preached in the aeropagus and we know that some of the Stoics and Epicureans listened to him and informally debated with him, attracted by his vigorous intellect, his magnetic personality and his ethical teaching.  But more importantly, the Holy Spirit touched the hearts of those who were open to understand that Paul had a wisdom that had never before been taught. 
Passing through Corinth, he found himself in the very heart of the Greco-Roman world, and his letters from this period show that he was aware of his great disadvantage, of the incessant battle against skepticism and pagan indifference.  Nevertheless, he stayed in Corinth for 18 months, and had considerable success.  A married couple, Aquila and Priscilla, converted and came to be very bold servants of Christ.  They returned with him to Asia.  It was during the first winter in Corinth that St. Paul wrote his first missionary letters.  These show his great concern for conduct and reveal the importance of man receiving the indwelling of the Spirit, since this is the only way to salvation and power for good. 

The third missionary journey covered the period from 52 to 56. He went to Ephesus, an important city of Lydia where the cult of the Greek goddess Artemis was very popular.  Paul was the cause of public disturbance because the merchants saw him as a danger to their trade of making silver statues of the goddess.  Later, in Jerusalem, he caused a commotion while visiting the temple.  He was arrested, treated brutally and put in chains.  But when he went before the tribunal, he defended himself so well that he surprised his accusers.  He was taken to Caesarea because of a rumor among some of the Jews in Jerusalem who had falsely accused him of letting gentiles enter the temple: for this alleged offense, they plotted to kill him.  He was left in the prison of Caesarea awaiting judgment for around two years under the proconsul Felix and Festus. The Roman governors wanted to avoid problems between the Jews and Christians, and so they delayed the judgment month after month.  Paul finally appealed to the Emperor, demanding his legal right as a citizen of Rome to have his case heard by Nero himself.  He was then placed under the custodianship of a centurion, who took him to Rome.  The Acts of the Apostles stops with him awaiting his tribunal in the imperial city. 


Apparently the appeal of Paul was a success because there is evidence of another missionary journey, probably to Macedonia.  In this last visit to the Christian communities it is believed that he named Titus bishop of Crete and Timothy in Ephesus.  Returning to Rome, he was arrested again.  His spirit did not fall before these tribulations, because he knew the One in whom he had placed his hope. 

On this account I am suffering these things; but I am not ashamed, for I know him in whom I have believed and am confident that he is able to guard what has been entrusted to me until that day. (2 Tim 1:12)

The life of Christ in Saint Paul transformed him into a new man, full of grace and knowledge of God, even capable of communicating this life of Christ.  He died to “the old man” (cf. Rom 6:6; Phil 3:10).  The “new man” (2 Cor 5:17; Gal 5:1)was born.  Now the life of Christ was his life (cf. Col 2:12-13; Rom 6:8; 2 Tim 2:11).  He was totally identified with Christ (ct. Phil 3:12).  He offered his life with the Lord in the mystery of His passion, death and resurrection (Rom 6:3-4), to complete in his own flesh what was lacking in the passion of Christ (cf. Col 1:24).  He was full of gratitude because Christ “gave himself up for me” (Gal 2:20; Eph 5:2; Jn 10:10).

After two years in chains (in the Mamertina prison which can be visited in Rome) he suffered martyrdom in Rome at the same time as St. Peter, bishop of Rome.  Saint Paul, being a Roman, was not crucified but rather beheaded.  According to an ancient tradition his martyrdom was near the Via Hostia, where today in the Abbey Tre Fontana (thus called for the three fountains that, according to tradition, sprung up where his head, already separated from his body, bounced three times.)
The inscriptions of the second and third centuries in the catacombs provide evidence of devotion to Saints Peter and Paul.  This devotion has never diminished in popularity. 

In the end, Saint Paul said, “I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.” (2 Tim 4:7) He was strengthened for the battle by the Word of God and came out victorious.  This is why it is essential that we meditate assiduously on his letters along with all the Word of God which is found in Sacred Scripture.  There we find this wisdom, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How inscrutable are his judgments and how unsearchable his ways!” (Rom 11:33)



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