by Matthew Betts
Over the next few months, we will look at each of Jude’s fellow Apostles. This week, I would like to reflect on Saint Paul – Apostle to the Gentiles (non-Jews).
Saint Paul is the only Apostle who never met Jesus in person – and indeed, Paul begins his adult life as a persecutor of the new Christian faith, known then as Saul. He took part in the stoning and martyrdom of Saint Stephen (the first martyr of Christianity). However, on his way to Damascus (now in Syria) where he planned to persecute more Christians, he experienced a vision of Jesus Christ:
As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him.
He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?"
"Who are you, Lord?" Saul asked. "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting," he replied. – Acts 9
This experience changed Saul completely and gave him the conviction that he must bring Christianity to the Gentiles. After his conversion, Saul started to use his Roman name, Paul – though Saul is used at other times in the ‘Acts of the Apostles’. He was baptised and retired to Arabia for three years to pray and discern his mission.
On his return to Damascus, his enemies became so hostile that he had to escape into the night. He thus went to Jerusalem to seek out the other Apostles and was received with some hesitation until Cypriot, Saint Barnabas persuaded them to make him welcome. Paul was sent on his first mission with Barnabas soon afterwards, and they went to Antioch followed by Cyprus and Anatolia.
This first missionary journey saw the birth of the church of the people/the church of the Gentiles, but it created the need in Paul’s mind for some clarification on the growing church. Paul headed back to Jerusalem after this and attended the so-called ‘council of the Apostles’ to settle on an issue of whether the new ‘Christians’ had to adhere to the laws and life of Israel. It was decided there that the Jewish observance of Mosaic Law was not required for converted pagans, so not bound by the rules of Judaism. The only thing necessary was to belong to Christ, live with Christ and abide by his words. Exactly what we Christians try to do today. This decision changed everything: the faith now spread all over the Roman Empire and beyond, and Paul was a big instigator of this.
In his second and third missions, he went around Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) until reaching Macedonia (thus entering Europe for the first time). He founded a community in Philippi (former home of Alexander the Great), travelled to Thessalonica, then Athens, followed by Corinth. In his third mission, he went back to Antioch. Antioch is called "the cradle of Christianity" because of the pivotal role that it played in the emergence of early Christianity, and the name 'Christian' first emerged here (according to Saint Luke). From here, Paul went on to Ephesus, staying for two years but had to flee because local silversmiths were losing trade as people had stopped purchasing silver statues of pagan gods. Eventually, Paul ended up back in Jerusalem and was arrested for teaching against Jewish Law. Here he was attacked and beaten, but Paul invoked his privileges as a Roman citizen, which allowed him to appeal to the emperor in Rome.
Some scholars suggest that this journey to Rome should also be classified as a missionary journey, because he was able to convert and talk to people on the way. Before he reached Rome, he was shipwrecked on the island of Malta, where he made his presence felt. Paul is a very well-loved saint in Malta and there are many churches dedicated to him, including one called ‘Saint Paul’s Shipwreck Church’. Eventually Paul got to Rome and was under house arrest for two years, where presumably Christians looked after him in their homes. Here he wrote four more epistles known as the “captivity” epistles. At some point, the emperor must have acquitted him, because it is likely he then visited Ephesus again, and possibly Spain.
However, this freedom was not to last, and according to tradition, he was martyred in Rome during the persecutions of Christians by the Roman Emperor, Nero. As he was a Roman citizen, he was beheaded and was buried in a Roman family’s tomb outside the walls of the city (this is where the city buried their dead). The basilica of ‘Saint Paul outside the walls’ was founded over the place of his burial, and recently in 2006, Paul’s tomb has been on display.
It is said that Saint Peter and Saint Paul suffered martyrdom on the same day and were led together until they were separated: Peter for Nero’s Circus; Paul for the Salvian Springs. They did not say goodbye, instead Peter said: “Go in peace, Preacher of glad tidings, Guide of the Just in Salvation”; Paul replied: “Peace be with you, Foundation of the Church, Shepherd of the flock of Christ”.
Representations of Paul depict him with a long face and beard, and a bald head. His visual emblems are the sword and a book. He often appears with Peter or the other Twelve Apostles (with Matthias displaced, like at the Shrine of Saint Jude). In the past, Paul was not as popular as Peter: there were only 43 ancient English churches dedicated to him, but there were 283 dedicated to both Peter and Paul. However, of course, one of the most famous places in England was dedicated to him: Saint Paul’s Cathedral. The Cathedral was originally founded by Athelberht, king of Kent in AD 604, before eventually burning down in the 1000s. Three more Saint Paul Cathedral’s later, we have our present one, designed by Christopher Wren after the Great Fire of London in 1666.
Many people like to think of Saint Paul as the Apostle of the people – he was one of the first to go out and spread the Good News to Europe and much of Asia Minor. Other Apostles, like Jude, were out there too spreading the Good News, but we know more about Paul because of his many writings. He was a powerful thinker and though his epistles were written for practical needs, these led to the development of Christian theology and are now the principal foundations of the Christian faith. Paul's message was very different as he proclaims the moral equality of all human beings: in Christ there is no longer slave and free person.
We have thirteen letters claiming his authorship: seven are certainly authentic, and three are clearly by another hand. The remaining three are under different degrees of suspicion.
What of Saint Paul’s legacy? I leave you with the words of travel writer, HV Morton: “So [Peter and Paul] went to their martyrdom, in the year 67AD. Less than forty years had passed since that night in the Upper Chamber of Jerusalem; less than forty years since the Agony in the Garden and since the Cross had been lifted on Calvary. In that little time, the grain of mustard seed had taken root, and the shadow of God’s Kingdom was upon the earth.”
Saint Paul, pray for us - help us to keep spreading the message of the Good News of Jesus Christ.
Why not find out more about Saint Paul? I would recommend you read some of these excellent books or articles:
- Saint Paul's Tomb
- In the Steps of St. Paul - HV Morton
- Not That Man!: Restoring St Paul's Reputation - Fr Nicholas King, SJ
- Saint Paul - Pope Benedict XVI
- A New Hope: God in the Time of COVID-19: Book II
- Saint Paul prayer cards
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