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St. Paul and the wisdom of the ages Print
Guest column
Thursday, Apr. 16, 2009 -- 12:00 AM

pauline year logoNote from Bishop Morlino: Dear Friends, As we come to the close of this year of St. Paul, let us refocus our minds and hearts on the life and works of this great Apostle. One of our newly ordained priests, Fr. Brian Dulli, parochial vicar of Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary Parish in Sun Prairie, has been kind enough to offer some excellent reflections on St. Paul to help us along the way. -- Bishop Robert C. Morlino

First in a series

According to the initiative of Pope Benedict XVI, we are now in the midst of a year of celebration in honor of the life of St. Paul, the Apostle to the Nations.

In our very time, all the nations of the world still greatly need the preaching and truth of the Gospel. Like Paul, a modern preacher must overcome real obstacles barring the delivery of Christ in his fullness.

Yet that is what Paul strove to do. He did not speak or write about Christ through vague intimations. He delivered the full reality of Christ to show that faith is never in vain.

The prevailing debate

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One of the apparent obstacles to the faith is the suspicion or rejection of Christian history. Our sacred history (otherwise called tradition) is questioned to the very authenticity of the Scriptures. For some who wish to discredit the faith, Paul himself can be an interesting target.

The apostle who surpassed all the other apostles in his achievements is charged as an "inventor" of Christianity. Basically, the theory is offered that Paul devised the notion that Jesus is the Son of God, and somehow imposed this on all of the other prominent Church leaders who followed.

These arguments have been proposed and defeated for at least 150 years, but they tend to arise in the imagination of some once again in our time.

The words of the Scripture support just the opposite. "God chose us in Christ, before the foundation of the world, to be holy and blameless in his sight" (Eph 1:4).

Paul's writing and ministry overflows with reminders that it was God who chose us and gave us the gift of faith. Neither works of the law nor the wisdom of Greeks were able to inspire any saving faith (See 1 Cor 1-3).

If Christian doctrine were a matter of crafting a myth about a messiah, it would have long since failed. It was by the rising of Christ from the dead that Paul could also rise with him as a member of his body.

Conversion of Paul

Both Paul's salvation and his ministry began in the same act, in which Christ called and chose him.

We read in Acts 9 and again in Acts 22 how Saul the Pharisee set out upon the road to Damascus in order to capture and persecute any Christians he found in that place.

As he neared the city, Paul was surrounded by heavenly light, from which he heard a voice calling, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" Upon inquiry, Saul discovered that it was indeed Jesus of Nazareth that he had been persecuting all along.

From this encounter, it was revealed that Paul would be called to carry the name of Christ to all of the nations.

Saul became Paul. His name changed as a sign of the new life of Christ in him. Paul spoke at times of his former life in Judaism, how he excelled in the observance of the law far beyond his peers. He says, "But when God, who from my mother's womb had set me apart and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him to the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult flesh and blood"(Gal 1:15-16).

As excellent as Paul was as a Pharisee, it had been entirely learned through the formal intervention of synagogues. Now, Christ was revealed in his fullness. He did not take his identity as an apostle from other apostles.  

The Body of Christ

The independence of Paul might leave him vulnerable to the charge of being an inventor of Christianity. The Christians in Jerusalem did not know him personally, but rejoiced that he was now proclaiming the faith he had once tried to destroy (Gal 1:23-4).

This approval of the Church in Jerusalem, though distant from Paul's daily work, should not be overlooked. On the Damascus road, Paul could already identify the Church he was persecuting with the Body of Christ, Risen from the dead.

After Paul's own baptism and some time spent in Arabia and in Damascus, he stayed for 15 days with Peter in Jerusalem. His own teaching of the faith was consistent with that of the Twelve before him. It was from the Church that Paul learned Christ's own words given specifically for the celebration of the Eucharist, as we read in 1 Corinthians 11:23-26. Paul drew life daily from the Risen Christ alive in the practice of the Church.

The resurrection of Jesus Christ and his subsequent appearance to his followers cannot be dismissed even by the critical eyes of history. 1 Corinthians 15 serves as a reminder of the earliest apostolic tradition. Paul reminds his reader of the succession of those eyewitnesses to the resurrection of Christ. He appeared to Cephas (Peter), then to the Twelve, then to 500 believers at once, then James and all the other apostles.

Finally, Christ appeared to Peter, "as to one born abnormally." Though he came to the faith out of turn, he credits the grace of God that "I am what I am."

Considering the unique role of Paul in the Body of Christ and the humility with which he received that grace, we are convinced that there is no evidence in the text or in historical fact of Paul being a founder of the Christian movement surviving to this day.

The resurrection of the Christ is the historical cornerstone of the Church. The resurrection is testified to even further by the glorious and willing martyrdoms of all the apostles save John. Any student of the text can discern that it is from the resurrection of Christ that Paul clearly derives his considerable authority.

Next: How Paul relates to all people, including those in the modern age.