I just returned last week from a pilgrimage that gave me the opportunity, in a manner of speaking, to walk in the footsteps of St. Paul
by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
It was a privilege and a grace to visit many of the places where he preached and many of the communities to whom St. Paul addressed his letters. We spent time in Thessalonica, Philippi, Berea, Corinth, and Athens. The majority of the pilgrimage was in Greece and the Greek islands, but we also made a very brief visit to Ephesus, which is located in Turkey.
During the preparation leading up to the pilgrimage and during the days of the pilgrimage itself, I had the opportunity to immerse myself in the life, ministry and theology of St. Paul as articulated in the Acts of the Apostles and in Paul’s own letters. Coincidentally, today is the feast of St. Luke, who was the author of the Acts of the Apostles and who was a traveling companion of St. Paul.
St. Luke was a physician and also believed to be an artist. In fact, the typical way in which St. Paul is portrayed in Christian art, according to tradition, traces itself back to portraits of St. Paul sketched by Luke. I was amazed at the distances St. Paul traveled and the difficult terrain and rough seas that he overcame in bringing the Gospel to so much of the world. With all that he endured, it must have been a great benefit to have Luke, a physician, accompa- nying him.
In contending with some of the challenges that the church faces in our time, I easily become overwhelmed and discouraged. Reflecting upon the challenges and adversities St. Paul encountered helps to place our present circumstance in perspective.
Upon arriving in any community, St. Paul always first went to the Jewish synagogue. Paul attempted to set forth for his fellow Jews the scriptural support for recognizing Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah. Although Paul usually enjoyed some initial success, his visits to the synagogues in the end never turned out well.
For instance, in Thessalonica, some members of the synagogue were converted as well as a great number of Greeks. However, this roused the jealousy of some of the synagogue leaders, whom we are told “recruited some worthless men loitering in the public square, formed a mob, and set the city in tur- moil” (Acts 17: 5).
Paul had to leave Thessalonica in the middle of the night. He went to the neighboring town of Berea, where Paul again went to the synagogue. Paul found his fellow Jews in Berea more open to the Gospel. The Acts reports that many members of the synagogue “became believers, as did not a few of the influential Greek women and men.”
Unfortunately, when the Jewish leaders of Thessalonica learned of Paul’s success in Berea, they took it upon themselves to visit their neighbors in order “to cause a great commotion and stir up the crowds.”
It was not only the Jewish leaders who created problems for Paul. He also encountered some stiff opposition from pagan Gentiles. Paul spent over two years in Ephesus and had a great impact on both the Jewish and Gentile communities.
In fact, Paul was so successful that he was adversely affecting the business of the local silversmiths who made their living by making and selling miniature images of the leading pagan goddess for the community, Artemis. The silversmiths stirred up a riot that was so intense Paul left Ephesus and returned to Greece (Acts 19:23 – 20:1).
In his Second Letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul addresses the rivalries within the Christian community itself. Some had questioned Paul’s credentials and leadership. With embarrassment, Paul begins to “boast” of his qualifications to preach and teach the Gospel:
“But what anyone dares to boast of (I am speaking in foolishness) I also dare. Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I. Are they ministers of Christ? (I am talking like an insane person.) I am still more, with
far greater labors, far more imprisonments, far worse beatings, and numerous brushes with death. Five times at the hands of the Jews I received forty lashes minus one. Three times I
was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I passed a night and a day on the deep; on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my own race, dangers from Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers at sea, dangers among false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many sleepless nights, through hunger and thirst, through frequent fasting, through cold and exposure. And apart from these things, there is the daily pressure upon me of my anxiety for all the churches” (2 Cor 11: 21-28).
When you listen to that litany of adversities, the challenges we face today pale in comparison. As we strive to embark on the new evangelization, St. Paul is an excellent model and patron. The new evangelization is not about inventing a new Gospel or new message. What is new about the new evangelization is it utilizes some of the modern tools for communication. In part, the new evangelization is aimed at presenting the truth and beauty of the Gospel to the so-called digital continent, where so many young people today spend a great deal of time.
What is also new about the new evangelization is to whom it is directed. The new evangelization attempts
to re-evangelize parts of the world that historically were profoundly Catholic, but where today the practice of the faith has been radically diminished.
However, what remains consistent about evangelization in every age is that it requires individuals, like St. Paul, who are willing to make heroic sacrifices to bring the truth and the beauty of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to others. In part, what made St. Paul’s preaching so powerfully compelling were the extraordinary personal sacrifices he was willing to make so that others would experience the love of God revealed in his Son, Jesus Christ.
If we want to turn the hearts of people today toward Jesus Christ and his Gospel, we must be willing to do no less.