And we’re back! This week’s saint is St. Paul, known as the Great Apostle. St. Paul wasn’t one of the original apostles, but we might consider him an apostle by adoption, an apostle by grace, or an apostle by influence. We know so much about him because of his epistles. In fact, 14 of the 27 letters in the New Testament are attributed to him. This is incredibly important, because not only does he pass along to us the understanding and teaching of the Church from its first days (which is quite thorough already!), but he tells us much about himself in the process. In fact, we know so much about him that I’m going to have to write this segment in two parts. Also, this will keep these shorter, and might keep the secretary from getting too mad at me…
Paul’s father was a Roman citizen, and of a certain class that his citizenship passed on to Paul as well. He was likely part of a devoutly Jewish merchant family, as Tarsus (where he was from) was one of the largest trade centers in the Mediterranean. Originally, his name was Saul, possibly after the original King Saul, who like him, was of the Jewish tribe of Benjamin.
St. Paul spent much of his childhood selling tents, which later came in handy to fund his missionary journeys. I mean, people in the ancient world loved tents! He was very educated, and steeped in the Jewish faith as a member of the Pharisee class. He studied under Gamaliel, one of the most famous rabbis in history, but he also learned Greek and studied the Greek philosophers as well, which his writings clearly reference. He was so zealous as a Pharisee that he persecuted the early Christian community, and was even present at the death of the first Christian martyr, St. Stephen.
Of course, his conversion on the road to Damascus is well documented, so much so that it has it’s own feast day in the Church calendar. Along the way, St. Paul was blinded, knocked off his horse, and heard a voice crying out, “Saul, Saul! Why are you persecuting me?” It was indeed Jesus, who felt the persecution of his Church as his own. Christ told Paul to go to Damascus and meet Ananias, another Christian, who would teach him the ways of the faith, almost like a primordial RCIA program. Good thing our RCIA team doesn’t have to heal blindness too often, eh?
The dramatic conversion of St. Paul calls us to our own continued conversion as well. It shows us that anyone, even someone like Paul who threatened and persecuted and killed the early followers of Jesus, could be saved by God’s grace. Even when we might think that we are too sinful and shameful to receive God’s forgiveness, he reaches out to us through the Sacrament of Reconciliation to bring us mercy and conversion of heart. And then, like St. Paul, he sends us out to give thanks for his mercy and courageously and joyfully live as a witness to the world. But we’ll save that part until next week. Stay tuned!
Usually one of the greatest curiosities that people in the Church have are about Heaven and Hell. What are they like? Lots of concepts and images have been put forward – some very Christian, and some not so much. One of the best that I heard recently was that in Heaven, the French are the chefs, the Italians are the romantics, the British are the police, the Germans are the mechanics, and the Swiss make everything run on time. Hell, on the other hand, is where the British are the chefs, the Swiss are the romantics, the French are the mechanics, the Italians make everything run on time, and the Germans are the police!
Well, maybe this isn’t the most accurate image, but I think there are three things that both this joke and the Gospel teach us today. The first is that Heaven exists. Now, is it clouds and angels and harps and whatnot? I don’t know. That’s probably unlikely. But the Gospel speaks about Heaven as the great Banquet in the Kingdom of God – a place of friendship and salvation and eternal life.
The second thing that we can learn from the Gospel is that as much as Heaven exists, Hell exists too. Is it fire? Is it ice, as Dante suggests? Again, who knows. But in the Gospel, Hell is what is outside the banquet – a place not of friendship, but of agony and loneliness. It is a place of “wailing and gnashing of teeth”, a place of hopeless frustration of the soul when it cuts itself off forever from relationship with God.
The third thing that we learn from the Gospel is that to make our way to Heaven, we have to do our part. It is not enough to simply have superficial knowledge of Christ, like the people who said, “We ate and drank in your company, and you taught in our streets!” The master responded, “I do not know where you are from. I don’t know you.” In the same way, it is not enough to simply show up for Mass or prayer, do our time, put a checkmark in the box, and check out. We have to have a lasting, living, and growing friendship with Christ. That’s the only thing that will lead us to heaven. Like any real friendship, that means effort, self-sacrifice, investment of time and energy, and so on. But it has to be intentional – we have to strive for God.
There is a kind of attitude in the world and even within the Church today that doubts the existence of Hell. The approach is to say, “I can’t believe that an all-loving God would send people to Hell.” But the truth is, God doesn’t send people to Hell. It’s not as though he says, “Well, I’m so sorry, you were just a few percentage points away from Heaven.” God doesn’t send people to hell – people choose Hell for themselves. Hell, above everything else, is the absence of God. So the reality is that God loves us so much that if we desire to be separated from him, he would allow it. As much as he longs and desires for us to be with him forever, he gives us the freedom to reject him if we choose. So really, God’s love wouldn’t prevent Hell at all; in fact, it’s because of God’s love that Hell exists. So if we live our lives without a desire for God, why would our eternity be any different?
One of the most popular works of Italian literature is the Divine Comedy by Dante. It is Dante’s imagination of the afterlife, and consists of the story of his journey through the afterlife: first Hell in the Inferno, then Purgatory in the Purgatorio, and then Heaven in the Paradiso. As he is journeying through Hell, he comes across all these different groups of people being punished in a variety of ways: gluttons sitting around in trash, the wrathful fighting each other in the mud forever, and hypocrites walking around in beautiful robes made of lead, just to name a few. This may sound like terrible punishments to us, but the interesting thing is that these individuals have no idea that what they are experiencing is punishment! They have no idea that anything is wrong! The point that Dante is making is that they were living out in the afterlife what they had always done in their earthly lives in the first place.
Now the temptation is for us to think that this warning of Christ is for other people, like murderers and adulterers and whatnot. There is a sort of pride that some people take in not being good, in not being a saint – “Well, I’m no saint, so…” They think that the right intention is good enough. But there was an interesting quotation that I heard recently: “Hell is full of good intentions, but heaven is full of good works.” So the question I think we need to ask ourselves today is “How am I trying to show by my life that I am striving for more than Hell? How am I striving for Heaven?” I’m certainly not giving this homily to scare you or tell you that we’re all going to Hell, but it’s a challenging point. This isn’t just for you sitting in the pews either – many of the people that Dante saw in the Inferno were popes, bishops, and priests!
We need to strive for Heaven, and St. Louis, King of France, was a great example of someone who constantly expressed his desire for this. He was the King of France in the 1200’s, so along with the Pope, he was probably the most powerful man in the world. He could have had anything he wanted, he could have hoarded his wealth, he could have lorded his authority over others – but he didn’t. Instead, he founded hospitals and visited the sick, especially lepers. Every day, he invited 13 poor guests from the streets of Paris to join him in the palace for a meal, and sometimes, he himself would serve it! He tried to protect innocents from soldiers – both his own and enemies – during the 7th and 8th crusades. He united France by his holiness and personality – the lords and ladies, the peasants, the priests, and the knights. One beautiful quotation attributed to him expresses his desire for Heaven most beautifully: “I think more of the church in Poissy where I was baptized than of the Cathedral in Rheims where I was crowned king. The latter I will lose at death, but the former is my passport to eternal life.”
Brothers and sisters, we can’t take our relationship with Christ for granted. We have to consciously and continually strive to enter through that narrow gate. And today, Christ invites us to rededicate ourselves to that. The best way to do this is by trying to do something intentional that isn’t already required – take some ownership of your faith. Try making it up for a 6:30 or 8:00 Mass during the week, taking those precious 15 minutes of prayer with the Scripture each day, or choosing one of our military parishioners to pray for. Let’s try together to make every effort to strive for Heaven. To conclude, I’d like to share with you this beautiful quote from a letter from St. Louis to his son: “In conclusion, dearest son, I give you every blessing that a loving father can give a son. May the Lord give you the grace to do his will, so that he may be served and honored through you, that in the next life, we may together come to see him, love him, and praise him unceasingly. Amen.”