Today is the feast day of the Commemoration of Saint Paul. Ora pro nobis.
“In what,” says St. Chrysostom, “in what did this blessed one gain an advantage over the other apostles? How comes it that he lives in all men’s mouths throughout the world? Is it not through the virtue of his Epistles?”
Saint Paul was originally Saul of Tarsus, born in that city of Cilicia of Jewish parents, two or three years after the Saviour was born in Bethlehem of Judea. He studied in Jerusalem at the feet of the famous teacher Gamaliel, who later would be converted and listed among the Saints.
Adapted from The Liturgical Year by Abbot Gueranger
Whereas the Greeks on this day are uniting in one solemnity the memory, as they express it, “of the illustrious Saints, the Twelve Apostles, worthy of all praise,” let us follow in spirit the Roman people of former times, who would gather around the Successor of St. Peter and make the splendid Basilica of the Ostian Way—St. Paul outside the Walls—re-echo with songs of victory, while he offered to the Doctor of the Gentiles the grateful homage of the city and of the world.
On the 25th of January we beheld St. Stephen leading to Christ’s Crib Saul, the once ravenous wolf of Benjamin (Gen. 49: 27), tamed at last, but who in the morning of his impetuous youth had filled the Church of God with tears and bloodshed. His evening did indeed come when, as Jacob had foreseen, Saul, the persecutor, would outstrip all his predecessors among Christ’s disciples in giving increase to the fold, and in feeding the flock with the choicest food of his heavenly doctrine.
By an unexampled privilege, Our Lord, though already seated at the right hand of His Father, vouchsafed not only to call, but personally to instruct this new disciple, so that he might one day be numbered amongst His Apostles. The ways of God can never be contradictory one to another; hence this creation of a new Apostle may not be accomplished in a manner derogatory to the divine constitution already delivered to the Christian Church by the Son of God. Therefore, as soon as the illustrious convert emerged from those sublime contemplations during which the Christian dogma had been poured into his soul, he went to Jerusalem to see St. Peter, as he himself relates to his disciples in Galatia. “It behooved him,” says Bossuet, “to collate his own Gospel with that of the Prince of the Apostles” (Sermon on Unity). From that moment, aggregated as a co-operator in the preaching of the Gospel, the Acts of the Apostles describes him at Antioch accompanied by St. Barnabas, presenting himself to the work of opening the Church to the Gentiles, the conversion of Cornelius having been already effected by St. Peter himself. He passes a whole year in this city, reaping an abundant harvest. After St. Peter’s imprisonment in Jerusalem, at his subsequent departure for Rome, a warning from on high makes known to those who preside over the Church at Antioch, that the moment has come for them to impose hands on the two missionaries, and confer on them the sacred character of Ordination and Consecration.
From that hour St. Paul attains the full power of an Apostle, and it is clear that the mission for which he has been preparing is now opened. At the same time, in St. Luke’s narrative, St. Barnabas almost disappears, retaining but a very secondary position. The new Apostle has his own disciples, and he henceforth takes the lead in a long series of pilgrimages marked by as many conquests. His first is to Cyprus, where he seals an alliance with ancient Rome, analogous to that which St. Peter contracted at Caesarea.
In the year 43, when St. Paul landed in Cyprus, its proconsul was Sergius Paulus, illustrious for his ancestry, but still more so for the wisdom of his government. He wished to hear Sts. Paul and Barnabas: a miracle worked by St. Paul, under his very eyes, convinced him of the truth of his teaching; and the Christian Church counted that day among Her sons one who was heir to the proudest name among the noble families of Rome. Touching was the mutual exchange that took place on this occasion. The Roman patrician had just been freed by the Jew from the yoke of the Gentiles; in return, the Jew hitherto called Saul received and thenceforth adopted the name of Paul, as a trophy worthy of the Apostle of the Gentiles.
From Cyprus St. Paul travelled successively to Cilicia, Pamphylia, Pisidia, and Lycaonia, everywhere preaching the Gospel and founding churches. He then returned to Antioch in the year 47, and found the Church there in a state of violent agitation. A party of Jews, who had been converted to Christianity from the ranks of the Pharisees, whilst consenting indeed to the admission of Gentiles into the Church, were maintaining that this could only be on condition of their being likewise subjected to Mosaic practices, such as circumcision and the distinction of forbidden foods. The Christians who had been received from among the Gentiles were disgusted at this servitude to which St. Peter had not subjected them; and the controversy became so hot that St. Paul deemed it necessary to undertake a journey to Jerusalem, where St. Peter had lately arrived, a fugitive from Rome, and where the Apostolic College was at that moment further represented by St. John, as well as by St. James, the Bishop of that city. These being assembled to deliberate on the question, it was decreed, in the name and under the influence of the Holy Ghost, that to exact any observance relative to Jewish rites should be utterly forbidden in the case of Gentile converts. It was on this occasion, too, that St. Paul received from these Pillars, as he styles them, the confirmation of his apostolate superadded to that of the Twelve, and to be specially exercised in favor of the Gentiles. By this extraordinary ministry deputed to the nations, the Christian Church definitively asserted Her independence of Judaism, and the Gentiles could now freely come flocking into Her bosom.
St. Paul then resumed his course of apostolic journeys over all the provinces he had already evangelized, in order to confirm the Churches. Thence, passing through Phrygia, he came to Macedonia, stayed a while at Athens, and then on to Corinth, where he remained a year and a half. At his departure he left in this city a flourishing Church, whereby he excited against himself the fury of the Jews. From Corinth St. Paul went to Ephesus, where he stayed two years. So great was his success with the Gentiles there, that the worship of Diana was materially weakened (and the early converts burned their evil books—Acts 19: 19); whereupon a tumult ensuing, St. Paul thought the moment had come for his departure from Ephesus. During his abode there he made known to his disciples a thought that had long haunted him: “I must see Rome.” The capital of the Gentile world was indeed calling the Apostle of the Gentiles.
The rapid growth of Christianity in the capital of the empire had brought face to face, in a manner more striking than elsewhere, the two heterogeneous elements which formed the Church of that day: the unity of Faith held together in one fold those that had formerly been Jews, and those that had been pagans. It so happened that some of both of these classes, too easily forgetting the gratuity of their common vocation to the Faith, began to go so far as to despise their brethren of the opposite class, deeming them less worthy than themselves of that Baptism which had made them all equal in Christ. On the one side, certain Jews disdained the Gentiles, remembering the polytheism which had sullied their past life with all those vices which came in its train. On the other side, certain Gentiles contemned the Jews, as coming from an ungrateful and blind people, who had so abused the favors lavished upon them by God as to crucify the Messias.
In the year 53, St. Paul, already aware of these debates, profited by a second journey to Corinth to write to the faithful of the Church in Rome that famous Epistle in which he emphatically sets forth how gratuitous is the gift of Faith; and maintains how Jew and Gentile alike being quite unworthy of the divine adoption, have been called solely by an act of pure mercy. He likewise shows how Jew and Gentile, forgetting the past, have but to embrace one another in the fraternity of the same Faith, thus testifying their gratitude to God through whom both of them have been alike prevented by grace. His apostolic dignity, so fully recognized, authorized St. Paul to interfere in this matter, though touching a Christian center not founded by him.
Whilst awaiting the day when he could behold with his own eyes the Queen of all Churches, lately fixed by St. Peter on the Seven Hills of Rome, the Apostle was once again anxious to make a pilgrimage to the City of David. Jewish rage was just at that moment rampant in Jerusalem against him; national pride being more specially piqued, in that he, the former disciple of Gamaliel, the accomplice of St. Stephen’s murder, should now invite the Gentiles to be coupled with the sons of Abraham, under the one same Law of Jesus of Nazareth. The tribune Lysias was scarce able to snatch him from the hands of these blood-thirsty men, ready to tear him to pieces. The following night, Christ appeared to St. Paul, saying to him: Be constant, for as thou hast testified of Me in Jerusalem, so must thou bear witness also at Rome.
It was not however, till after two years of captivity, that St. Paul, having appealed to Caesar, landed at Italy at the beginning of the year 56. Then at last the Apostle of the Gentiles made his entry into Rome: the trappings of a victor surrounded him not; he was but a humble Jewish prisoner led to the place where all appellants to Caesar were mustered; yet was he that Jew whom Christ Himself had conquered on the way to Damascus. No longer Saul, the Benjamite, he now presented himself under the Roman name of Paul; nor was this a robbery on his part, for after St. Peter, he was to be the second glory of Rome, the second pledge of her immortality. He brought not the Primacy with him indeed, as St. Peter had done, for that had been committed by Christ to one alone; but he came to assert in the very center of the Gentile world, the divine delegation which he had received in favor of the nations, just as an affluent flows into the main stream, which mingling its waters with its own, at last empties them united into the ocean. St. Paul was to have no successor in his extraordinary mission; but the element which he had deposited in Mother Church was of such value, that in the course of ages the Roman Pontiffs, heirs to St. Peter’s monarchical power, have ever appealed to St. Paul’s memory as well; pronouncing their mandates in the united names of the “Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul.”
Instead of having to await in prison the day wherein his cause was to be heard, St. Paul was at liberty to choose a lodging place in the city. He was obliged, however, to be accompanied day and night by a soldier to whom, according to the usual custom, he was chained, but only in such a way as to prevent his escape; all his movements being otherwise left perfectly free, he could easily continue to preach the word of God. Towards the close of the year 57, in virtue of his appeal to Caesar, the Apostle was at last summoned to the praetorium; and the successful pleading of his cause resulted in his acquittal.
Being now free, St. Paul revisited the East, confirming on his Evangelical course the Churches he had previously founded. Thus Ephesus and Crete once more enjoyed his presence; in the one he left his disciple St. Timothy as Bishop, and in the other St. Titus. But St. Paul had not left Rome forever; marvelously illumined as she had been by his preaching, the Roman Church was yet to be gilded by his parting rays and empurpled with his blood. A heavenly warning, as in St. Peter’s case, bade him also return to Rome where martyrdom was awaiting him. This fact is attested by St. Athanasius. We learn the same from St. Asterius of Amesius, who hereupon remarks that the Apostle entered Rome once more, “in order to teach the very masters of the world; and by their means to wrestle with the whole human race. There St. Paul found St. Peter engaged in the same work; he at once yoked himself to the same divine chariot with him, and set about instructing the children of the Law within the Synagogues, and the Gentiles outside.”
At length Rome possessed her two Princes conjointly: the one seated on the eternal chair, holding in his hands the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven; the other surrounded by the sheaves he has garnered from the fields of the Gentile world. They would part no more; even in death, as the Church sings, they would not be separated. The period of their being together was necessarily short, for they must needs render to their divine Master the testimony of blood before the Roman world should be freed from the odious tyranny under which it was groaning. Their death was to be Nero’s last crime; after that he was to fade from sight, leaving the world horror-stricken at his end, as shameful as it was tragic.
It was in the year 65 that St. Paul returned to Rome; once more signalizing his presence there by the manifold works of his apostolate. From the time of his first labors there, he had made converts even in the very palace of the Caesars: being now returned to this former theater of his zeal, he again found entrance into the imperial abode. A woman who was living in criminal intercourse with Nero, as likewise a cup-bearer of his, were both caught in the apostolic net, for it was hard indeed to resist the power of that mighty word. Nero, enraged at “this foreigner’s” influence in his very household, was bent on St. Paul’s destruction. Being first of all cast into prison, his zeal cooled not, but he persisted the more in preaching Jesus Christ. The two converts of the imperial palace having abjured, together with paganism, the manner of life they had been leading, this twofold conversion of theirs only hastened St. Paul’s martyrdom. He was well aware that it would be so, as can be seen in these lines addressed to St. Timothy: “I labor even unto bonds as an evil-doer; but the word of God is not bound. Therefore I endure all things for the sake of the elect. For I am even now ready to be sacrificed, like a victim already sprinkled with the lustral water, and the time of my dissolution is at hand. I have fought the good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the Faith. As to the rest, there is laid up for me a crown of justice, which the Lord, the Just Judge, will render to me in that day.” (2 Tim.)
On the 29th day of June, in the year 67, while St. Peter, having crossed the Tiber by the Triumphal bridge, was drawing nigh to the cross prepared for him on the Vatican plain, another martyrdom was being consummated on the left bank of the same river. St. Paul, as he was led along the Ostian Way, was also followed by a group of the faithful who mingled with the escort of the condemned. His sentence was that he should be beheaded at the Salvian Waters. A march of two miles brought the soldiers to a path leading eastwards, by which they led their prisoner to the place fixed upon for the martyrdom of this, the Doctor of the Gentiles. St. Paul fell on his knees, addressing his last prayer to God; then having bandaged his eyes, he awaited the death-stroke. A soldier brandished his sword, and the Apostle’s head, as it was severed from the trunk, made three bounds along the ground; three fountains immediately sprang up on these spots. Such is the local tradition; and to this day, three fountains are to be seen on the site of his martyrdom, over each of which an altar is raised. (1)
by Fr. Francis Xavier Weninger, 1877
St. Paul, the great Apostle and Doctor of the Gentiles, was born a Jew, of the tribe of Benjamin. His native place was Tarsus, a celebrated city in Cilicia. His father sent him to Jerusalem, where he was educated by the famous Gamaliel, not only in the law but in all the ceremonies of the Hebrews. He soon surpassed all his schoolmates in knowledge, and became zealous in maintaining and defending the laws; and consequently, he was one of the most cruel persecutors of Christianity. It was he who kept the garments of those who stoned Stephen. The older he grew, the more deeply rooted became his hatred of the Christians. Not only at Jerusalem, but also in other places, he sought for those confessing Christ and delivered them into the hands of the authorities for imprisonment.
One day, he requested a commission from the High Priest at Jerusalem to the Jews at Damascus, by virtue of which they were to aid him in apprehending all the Christians that were residing there. With this order, he went, full of rage and hatred, to Damascus. When he was near the city, he suddenly beheld a light from heaven which shone around him. Saul, (this was his name before his conversion), fell in affright to the ground and heard a voice saying: “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?” “Who art thou, Lord?” asked Saul. “I am Jesus, whom thou persecutest,” said the voice from heaven. Although Saul trembled at these words, he answered: “Lord what wilt thou have me to do?” The Lord replied: “Arise and go into the city, and there it shall be told thee what thou must do.” Saul’s companions heard the voice, but saw no one. Saul arose from the ground, opened his eyes, but saw nothing, having lost his sight. Having been led to Damascus, he remained three days and nights in prayer, tasting neither food nor drink. Meanwhile Ananias, a disciple of the Lord, was informed in a vision of all that had taken place, and, going into the house where Saul was, he instructed him, restored his sight by laying his hands on him, and baptized him.
Soon after receiving holy baptism, Saul, now named Paul, went into the Synagogue, and preaching boldly that Christ was the true and long-promised Messiah, he proved the truth of his words so clearly that no one could gainsay them. All were amazed at the change that had taken place in him, and, not able to refute his doctrines, they consulted together to kill him. The faithful, however, let him down in a basket over the walls of the city, and thus he escaped death. After this, he went to Jerusalem and desired to join the Christians there; but as they knew nothing of his conversion, they were afraid of him and would not receive him among them. Paul finding St. Barnabas, who had been his schoolmate, related to him what had taken place, and was by him brought to the apostles, who rejoiced greatly at his conversion, and gave due thanks and praise to God.
From this time, St. Paul preached the Gospel everywhere with great ardor, journeyed through many cities, lands and kingdoms, brought many thousands to Christianity, and sent many apostolic men into different countries to convert the inhabitants. Who can give an account of his cares and labors, the disgrace arid derision, the misery and persecution which he suffered for the true Faith? He himself relates it in his Epistles, particularly in the eleventh chapter of the second Epistle to the Corinthians. The same is done by St. Luke in the Acts. Among other things, he says that a prophet had told St. Paul, when the latter was about to go from Caesarea to Jerusalem, that they would seize him at that place and deliver him to the heathens. Hence his disciples would not allow him to depart; but neither tears nor prayers could detain him. “I, am ready,” said he, “not only to be bound in Jerusalem, but also to die for the name of Jesus.”
He proved his words by deeds. When he arrived at Jerusalem, he immediately went into the temple to pray, but hardly had the Jews seen him,when they fell upon him, dragged him out of the temple and would certainly have killed him with their blows, had not the Tribune, Claudius Lysias, hastily appeared with his soldiers and released him from their fury. He, however, took him prisoner and sent him to Caesarea to the Governor Felix, who, although he found him innocent, kept him in prison. Festus, his successor, would have sent him back to Jerusalem that he might be judged there, but Paul appealed to the Emperor and was sent to Rome,where, after two years of imprisonment, he was set at liberty. The Saint then began again his apostolic labors, travelled through Italy and France, ventured even to Spain, preaching the Gospel everywhere and converting a great number of people.
At last, he returned to Rome, and among others, he exhorted some concubines of the godless Emperor Nero, to forsake their wicked life. When he had so far succeeded in converting them that, in their love of chastity, none of them would longer submit to the tyrant’s lust, the enraged Nero gave orders to imprison St. Paul as well as St. Peter. Somewhat later, both were condemned to die, Peter upon the Cross, Paul by the sword. St. Chrysostom relates that the blood that flowed from the body of St. Paul when he was beheaded, was not red, but milk-white. It is also said that his head, when severed from his body, sprang up three times from the ground, and that, each time, water gushed forth. To this day, three springs, which are shown at the place where his execution took place, confirm the tradition.
St. Paul was undoubtedly favoured with special graces and virtues. He wrought many and great miracles. By the touch of his handkerchief, the sick were immediately restored and the possessed released. He had many visions both of angels and of Christ, the Lord, Himself. Once, during a tempest on the sea, an angel appeared to him announcing that for his sake, the Almighty would spare the lives of all that were in the ship. At Corinth, our Lord appeared to him and said: “Fear not, but speak: be not silent.” At Jerusalem, He visited him again, saying: “Hasten, quickly leave Jerusalem;” and at another time the Saviour said to him: “Be constant; for, as thou hast given testimony of me at Jerusalem, so must thou do at Rome.” Besides these comforting visions, the holy Apostle had the grace to be carried up, in an ecstasy, to the third heaven, to see there such great mysteries, that he was incapable of speaking of them.
His heavenly wisdom and eloquence are clearly manifested in his epistles, the reading of which has occasioned many miraculous conversions. They also give evidence of the great virtue of this holy Apostle, especially of his fervent love to the Saviour and towards his neighbor; of the purity of his life; his humility, austere penance and invincible patience. He loved his crucified Redeemer so much, that he could write: “I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me. Christ is my life. I am fastened on the Cross with Christ. Who can separate us from the love of Christ? I am convinced that neither life, nor death, neither height nor depth, nor any other creature can separate us from the love of God which is manifested in our Lord, Jesus Christ.” He gloried in nothing save in the Cross of the Saviour. The holy name of Jesus was constantly in his mouth and proceeded constantly from his pen.
He gave equal proofs of his love for his neighbor. The many and laborious voyages which he undertook, the many and great dangers and persecutions which he suffered, the inexpressibly great labor and care which he took upon himself, show how unselfishly he loved his neighbor. His zeal to save souls was insatiable, and his solicitude for the welfare of others, more than fatherly. He loved the newly converted like dear children and carried them all, as he said, in his heart before God. He kept his chastity inviolate, advised others to do the same, and showed, by his deeds, how we must fight against impure temptations; that is, by taking refuge with God in prayer and chastising his body with hunger and thirst, heat and cold, fasting and watching. With all his great deeds and the many graces he had received from the Almighty, he was so humble, that he more than once confessed the wickedness with which he had treated the Christians before his conversion; and though he worked more than all the others, he called himself the least of Apostles. His great love for Christ and his hope of an eternal reward cheered him, as he writes, in all that he had to suffer. On account of these and other virtues, to relate all of which would fill many books, there can be no doubt that St. Paul is raised to great glory in heaven. At the time of his death, he was 68 years old. His holy relics rest beside those of St. Peter at Rome. (4)
Image: Crop of The Apostle Paul, artist: Rembrant, circa 1657 (5)