Mt Angel Abbey has been celebrating the 2000th anniversary of the birth of St. Paul. The picture shows Father Jeremy telling the Pope on the Mount Angel St. Paul Year activities.
By Elaine Park,
Professor of Religious and Biblical Studies
Mt Angel Abbey Oregon
Mt Angel Letter, Spring 2009
Pope Benedict XVI has designated the year from June 2008 to June 2009 as the Year of Saint Paul. Troughout the year, people around the world will try to come to know more about this “apostle to the Gentiles,” about his letters, theology, pastoral activity and spirituality, and in so doing deepen their understanding of how Paul’s writings still have power and importance today.
Each of us is encouraged to spend some extra time with the letters of Paul, studying, praying and engaging in conversation with others.
Among the New Testament writers, Paul is the only one who has written quite extensively about himself. In his Letters to the Galatians and Philippians, (see especially Galatians 1: 11-17 and Philippians 3: 4-11) Paul writes about his life before his conversion, about the conversion itself, and about the consequences of this dramatic encounter on the Damascus Road. Prior to his conversion, Paul had taken great pride in his zealousness for the Law, for his righteous life as a Pharisee, and for the intense persecution he mounted against those who believed in Jesus as the messiah. In a totally unexpected way, Paul’s life was turned around when he had a call and a revelation from the very one whose followers he had worked so zealously to destroy.
The revelation, literally an The Year of Saint Paul: in celebration of the 2000th anniversary of St. Paul’s birth. By Elaine Park, Professor of Religious and Biblical studies “apocalypse,” involved more than new intellectual awareness; it also entailed a personal experience of grace and divine presence. Christ was revealed in Paul, (not just to Paul) creating a life-long, intimate relationship. !e revelation of Paul included a call much like that of his prophetic ancestors Isaiah and Jeremiah. Each of them was set apart by God, even before they were born, to announce God’s word to the people. For Paul, this meant bringing the good news of Christ’s salvific death and resurrection to the Gentiles. He would remain zealous, but he would no longer direct his zeal at persecuting the Jewish followers of Jesus. He would now channel that dynamic energy to bringing the gospel to the Gentiles. Paul would no longer look to his own righteousness under the Law as reason to feel confident and proud, for from then on he would rely on Christ’s life within him, “who loved me and gave himself for me”. (Gal 2: 20) After his conversion, Paul was a tireless apostle, making numerous journeys and writing extensively to the communities he had founded, worked with or planned to visit. His own communities, as well as people who did not believe in Jesus, often misunderstood and misinterpreted Paul’s writing and preaching. As we read in 2 Peter 3: 16 regarding Paul’s letters: “Some things in them are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction.”
It’s not surprising that so much of what Paul says is difficult to comprehend, for he is often presenting multi-faceted aspects of the good news. Sometimes, it appears that the misinterpretation arose from the challenge and necessary change of behaviors and attitudes that would have to follow if people were to accept what Paul was saying. Moreover, the gospel that Paul proclaims is paradoxical. For example, Christ is present here and now and yet we still await his coming; there is power in weakness; and the cross of Christ, the symbol of degradation and shame, is the instrument of salvation. All of these are part of the great mystery of salvation that Paul preached. A salvation that invites, challenges, often puzzles, and inspires both awe and gratitude.
In his book Te Testimony of St. Paul, Cardinal Carlo Martini looks at the conversion and life of St. Paul as a catalyst for examining our own journey through life and our own conversion. He suggests that we ask ourselves some basic questions: “When was I converted? Is there a specific moment of conversion in my life to which I can refer as to an historic event? Even if there is not such a specific moment, there have certainly been moments of change, of turning round, of crisis that have brought us a fresh understanding of the mystery of God. If we have never really experienced this fundamental change of mind, which is essential to the Christian life, we have not yet grasped the meaning of the essential newness of the Christian way which involves turning around and going in the opposite direction.” (Carlo Martini, !e Testimony of St. Paul. Translated by Susan Leslie. New York: Crossroad, 1989, pages 15-16)
The prayer that we say on January 25, the Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul, reminds us that like Paul we too are called to conversion of life and participation in the same mission of bringing the good news to all people: God our Father, you taught the gospel to all the world through the preaching of Paul your apostle. May we who celebrate his conversion to the faith follow him in bearing witness to your truth.
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