On July 7, 1858, Servant of God Isaac Hecker together with 3 others – Augustine Hewit, George Deshon, and Francis Baker – founded the Society of Missionary Priests of Saint Paul the Apostle, known ever since as “The Paulist Fathers.” For more than 150 years, the Paulist Fathers’ life as a religious community in the Church and their wider missionary outreach have been blessed by the patronage of St. Paul the Apostle, the feast of whose Conversion we celebrate today - during this special Year of Consecrated Life, which Pope Francis has called upon all priests, brothers, and sisters in religious communities to observe.
Most saints are celebrated on the anniversary of their death. If the saint was a martyr, that itself is often his or her principal claim on our attention. Along with the Apostle Peter, Paul was martyred in Rome, and the two are celebrated together every year on June 29. But then, every January 25, there is this additional celebration of St. Paul – focused on the event in his life that we commonly call his “conversion.” That great event transformed Paul into a disciple of Jesus and put him on an equal footing with the others to whom the Risen Christ had appeared, highlighting what it means to be converted to Christ, to become a disciple of Jesus, his witness in the world, and an apostle sent with mission to evangelize, to make disciples of all peoples. No wonder Hecker and his friends chose Paul as their patron! No wonder the Paulists celebrate this day every year as our patronal feast day!
Paul was, first and foremost, a devout Jew, well educated in the Law, a Pharisee, that is, a member of the group most zealous about religious observance. But he was also a Greek-speaking Jew, from what we call the Diaspora. (There was nothing unusual about that. More Jews lived outside of Israel than in it at that time.) He grew up in what is today Turkey, in a Greek city, and enjoyed Roman citizenship.
All of this was very important, because one of the great issues which confronted the 1st century Church was figuring out how Jews and Gentiles were connected in God’s plan for the salvation of the world through Jesus Christ – and how they should relate to one another within the one community of the Church. The way this issue was eventually resolved (thanks in no small part to Paul) helped transform what would otherwise have been a small Jewish sect into the biggest and longest-lasting multi-cultural institution in the world - the Roman Catholic Church.
What Paul experienced when he met the Risen Lord on the way to Damascus was a revelation of God’s plan to include all people in the promises originally made to Abraham and his descendents and now being finally fulfilled in Jesus. The God who revealed himself to Paul in the person of Jesus was the same God whom Paul had always served so enthusiastically as a Jew. What changed was that now Paul recognized Jesus as the One, though whom all people are included in God’s plan of salvation.
And because the converted Paul now understood that it was Jesus that ultimately mattered, he also recognized no conflict between Gentile culture and faith in Christ. For the pagan peoples of the Roman Empire, that was good news indeed. It’s easy to see why Paul’s mission was so successful among different types of people and why he appealed to Hecker as a model – Hecker who was so convinced that the Catholic Church was just what American culture needed. The world has changed a lot since Paul’s time (and Hecker’s time), but the Church’s mission - and our mission - remain the same.
Paul had what Hecker so much wanted his Paulist Fathers to have, what Hecker called “zeal for souls.” Paul was not one of the original 12. He wasn’t there when Jesus said to his disciples: “go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature.” But he absorbed those words as surely as if they had been initially addressed to him – as we also must do.
As Pope Saint John Paul II famously said: “Those who have come into genuine contact with Christ cannot keep him for themselves, they must proclaim him.”
Along with preaching and teaching and organizing local churches and recruiting leaders for them, another important part of Paul’s apostolic activity was raising money. According to the Acts of the Apostles, Paul and his mission partner, Barnabas, brought financial aid for the struggling community in Jerusalem from the Church in Antioch when they went to Jerusalem around the year 46 [Acts 11:29-30]. Paul recounted this visit in his letter to the Galatians where he recalled how the Apostles hoped he and his Gentile converts would keep this up, something Paul expressed his eagerness to do [Galatians 2:10]. Over the next decade, a very busy and productive period for Paul, he continued to raise money from his Gentile converts in order to assist the struggling Church in Jerusalem and wrote about this in some detail in his two letters to the Corinthians [1 Corinthians 16:1-4; 2 Corinthians 8–9] and in his letter to the Romans [Romans 15:25-33].
Paul’s "Financial Appeal" was a charitable response to the real needs and struggles of the Jerusalem community and the special responsibilities the Jerusalem Church had in relation to other Christian communities. It was also an expression of - and a lesson in - the unity and interdependence of individuals and local communities in the wider Church. Paul took this responsibility very seriously, as an essential expression of what it means to be a Church community, what it means to be diverse and different people all united in one Church, one Body of Christ. That is the same spirit in which we need to approach our annual Bishop’s Appeal, which is our annual opportunity, as individuals and as parishes, to unite our efforts as one local Church here in East Tennessee to meet the multiple needs of the diocese for mission, education, charity, and service to so many people with so many needs.
The Paulist Fathers have served the Church in Tennessee for over a century, starting with 50+ years of mission outreach in Middle Tennessee. For another 50+ years, the Paulist Fathers maintained a major mission parish in Memphis. And, since 1973, we have been busy here in Knoxville, sharing the good news of Christ and the life of his Church in this city’s downtown and at its university.
As Paulists, we are committed not just to our own religious community’s life and mission, which so many of you have so generously supported over the years (and as recently as last week) through our annual Paulist Appeal, but also - and just as essentially - to the life and mission of the Church here in East Tennessee in the Diocese of Knoxville. So I invite you to be attentive and generous in your response when our Bishop, carrying on the same tradition started by Saint Paul, makes his annual appeal to you next week.
Homily for the Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul, Patronal Solemnity of the Paulist Fathers, and the Announcement of the Annual Bishop's Appeal, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, January 25, 2015