The Year of St. Paul
March 1, 2009 by
The greatest missionary in the history of the Church was the convert Saul of Tarsus who, by the grace of God, was changed from a persecutor of Jesus and his Church to the Apostle to the Gentiles. He was born of Jewish parents in Tarsus, present day Turkey, some time between 8 and 10 A.D. In order to commemorate the two thousandth anniversary of his birth, Pope Benedict XVI has dedicated to his memory the year from June 28, 2008 to June 29, 2009. The Pope has urged us to read his letters in the New Testament during this year, to reflect on his life, and to imitate him in his love for Christ.
St. Paul is the author of half the books in the New Testament—fourteen of them. Many modern critics doubt that he wrote some of the letters attributed to him, especially the Letter to the Hebrews. The arguments for this are taken from internal analysis of the words, many of which Paul does not use in his other letters. The argument is not fully convincing and both the tradition of the Church and the liturgy attributed Hebrews to St. Paul.
St. Paul’s first letter written was 1 Thessalonians, which was written about the year 51. It is probably the first written book in the New Testament. He was beheaded under the Emperor Nero around 66 or 67, so the rest of his letters were written during that sixteen-year period.
Because of Paul’s vision of Christ on the road to Damascus, he was given the grace to inflame his mind and heart with love for Christ crucified and risen from the dead. From that point on he was a changed man. That is clear from his letters, and especially from the Acts of the Apostles, more than half of which is about Paul and his three missionary journeys. St. Luke the Evangelist was an eye witness of much of his work and recorded it for us.
It is clear from his letters that St. Paul had a rather fiery temper. He disagreed with St. Barnabas and separated from him. He wrote with passion about his life and work in his letter to the Galatians and in 2 Corinthians 10-13. On the other hand, he was very kind and diplomatic when necessary, as we see in his shortest letter, to Philemon on behalf of his runaway slave.
One of the four major basilicas in Rome is dedicated to St. Paul. When I was in Rome last October for the synod on the Bible, the Vatican press office kindly invited all accredited journalists to make a guided tour of the basilica. That is a moving experience and not to be missed if you are ever able to travel to Rome. Paul was beheaded in Rome after two years of imprisonment and his body was buried on that site and today is located directly under the main altar.
A plenary indulgence is attached to a pious visit with prayers to the four basilicas in Rome. The other three are St. Peter’s, St. Mary Major and St. John Lateran. St. John Lateran is the cathedral of Rome, of which of course the pope is bishop. Important events that affect the whole Church are usually carried out there. For example, it was there that Pope John XXIII announced the convening of the Second Vatican Council.
I remember reading in a biography of St. Philip Neri that, for many years, he regularly led a daily pilgrimage to the four basilicas—and it was all done on foot. I don’t know how many miles that is, but it is probably about eight or ten. And there were no buses or subways in those days.
Our Holy Father, Benedict XVI, urges us during this anniversary to read and meditate on the life and writings of St. Paul. I hope all those who read this essay, which is being written in Rome on the day of my visit to the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, will make a resolution to read the fourteen letters of St. Paul during this special year. I plan to do it myself and also to preach about him in my Sunday homilies. St. Paul helps us, like no other writer, to penetrate the mystery of Christ as the Son of God, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, the plan of the Father for our salvation, and its extension in time in the Holy Catholic Church, which is the Body of Christ of which we are living members if we are in the state of sanctifying grace.