The first is Saint Paul’s encounter and subsequent openness to God’s grace. On the road to Damascus, Saint Paul encountered God’s grace so powerfully that it literally knocked him down and blinded him. It was so strong that he could hear the voice of the Risen Christ. It was so overwhelming that it transformed his mind and heart. That experience of what God’s grace could do was something that Saint Paul would keep in mind for the rest of his life. Saint Paul was radically open to God’s grace, knowing full well its power, its strength, and what it could do to the human heart.
This openness to God’s grace and the confidence he had in it sustained Saint Paul in his ministry. In his Second Letter to the Corinthians, Saint Paul urges the people of Corinth to have that same openness and trust in God’s grace. He encouraged people to allow God’s grace to transform them and support them and he prayed that people would not “receive the grace of God in vain” (2 Corinthians 6:1). He describes that God’s grace has given him the strength to endure “in afflictions, hardships, constraints, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, vigils, fasts” (2 Corinthians 6:4-5). It was God’s grace that gave him “purity, knowledge, patience, kindness” and that placed in his hands the “weapons of righteousness at the right and at the left; through glory and dishonor, insult and praise” (2 Corinthians 6:6, 7). And while possessing nothing, he, in fact, possessed all things (2 Corinthians 6:10).
Saint Paul’s openness to God’s grace teaches us to have that same radical openness as well. To be so completely ready to receive God’s grace that in the midst of all the joys and sorrows of life we continue to be faithful. Saint Paul teaches us to rely on God’s grace when we are tired, weak, disheartened, discouraged, afraid, and anxious. God’s grace will never let us down and it has the power to do all things – “in all these things, we conquer overwhelmingly through him who loved us” (Romans 8:37).
The second thing that Saint Paul’s own humanity has to teach us is the joy of loving Christ completely. When I was in college I oftentimes struggled with Saint Paul. He tends to write in long sentences, to lay out arguments which can be difficult to follow and he can, at times, almost come off as a little pompous. I remember reading a commentary on one of his letters that said the way to understand Saint Paul and his writing was to understand that Saint Paul’s goal in writing everything was to express his love of Christ and to draw the reader into that love. That understanding radically changed how I approached and heard Saint Paul.
Saint Paul was totally and completely in love with Jesus Christ. So much so, that he was willing to do anything that Christ would ask of him, even to the point of shedding his own blood. Saint Paul’s love of Jesus Christ was rooted in his understanding that Christ loved him and “has given himself up for me” (Galatians 2:20). He encourages everyone to recognize the reality of Christ’s love who “handed himself over for us as a sacrificial offering to God for a fragrant aroma” (Ephesians 5:2). We are called to love Christ in return and “live in love” (Ephesians 5:2). That’s what Saint Paul did and what he calls us to do, to be so radically in love with Jesus Christ that it inspires and perfects everything that we do and say.
In the summer of 2004 I had the opportunity to go on a seminary trip to Rome. That first afternoon of our arrival, we went with Archbishop Dolan to the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls. It was one of the most spiritually powerful places that I have ever encountered, because it is there that Saint Paul’s body rests. Martyred in Rome, under the Emperor Nero, Saint Paul was buried along the Ostian Way. The great basilica was erected over his tomb. Pilgrims from all over the world have come to his tomb, innumerable prayers have been offered at his resting place, and countless Masses have been celebrated at his grave. It is right that it is so – we owe Saint Paul so much for what he did when he was alive, as well as what he does for us now from his place in heaven.
Perhaps it is Saint Luke, a one-time of companion of Saint Paul who speaks most eloquently of who Saint Paul is in the last verse of the Acts of the Apostles. Saint Luke says of him that “with complete assurance and without hindrance he proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts of the Apostles 28:31).
Saint Paul, pray for us!
(This is the final part of a series on St. Paul that has appeared in the bulletin over the course of this year.)