Friday, January 25, 2019

Preacher of the truth to the whole world

In 1954, the Commission for the Reform of the Liturgy seriously discussed abolishing today's feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul. Considering that the final outcome of the calendar reform, we should probably consider ourselves lucky that it somehow survived when so many other even more ancient observances were pointlessly obliterated.

Of course, most saints are celebrated on the anniversary of their death; and, if the saint was a martyr, that itself is often his or her principal claim on our attention. Paul was in fact martyred in Rome along with the Apostle Peter, and the two are indeed celebrated together every year on June 29. But then, every January 25, there is this atypically additional celebration of St. Paul – focused on the event in his life that we now 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 Lord had appeared, highlighting for us 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 - Predicator veritatis in universo mundo (Preacher of the truth to the whole world).

Until then, Paul had been, 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, those living outside the land of Israel. 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 critical issues which confronted the apostolic 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 Jews and Gentiles 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when he met the Risen Lord on the way to Damascus was a revelation of God’s plan to include all people in the promises originally made to Abraham and his descendants and now being finally fulfilled in Jesus.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 newly 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 continues to serve as a model. The world has changed a lot since Paul’s time, but the Church’s mission - our mission - remains the same.

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.

Photo: Papal Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls, Rome.

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