The Great Apostle, Part I

Statue of St. Paul St. Peter's Square
Statue of St. Paul
St. Peter’s Square

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.

"The Conversion of Saint Paul" by Luca Giordano
“The Conversion of Saint Paul” by Luca Giordano

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!

St. Jude: More Than Just a Hospital Charity

St-Jude-9Today’s saint is the feast-day buddy of St. Simon from last week. He’s called “Jude” in the Gospel of Luke and Acts of the Apostles, but “Thaddeus” in Matthew and Mark. Thus, lots of people in the Church simply refer to him as “Jude Thaddeus” to cover all their bases. He was probably actually “Judas”, but that was shortened in order to avoid confusion with another Judas who you might have heard of. Tradition holds that he was the son of Mary and Clopas, and so was the cousin of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Other than his name, there is no direct reference to him anywhere in the Gospels.

We pick up St. Jude’s story after the Resurrection…or we would, if there were any reliable texts. Tradition holds that St. Jude went to Judea, Samaria, Syria, and Mesopotamia. Supposedly, he and St. Bartholomew were the first to bring Christianity to Armenia on their missionary journeys, and so are venerated as patron saints of the Armenian Church to this day. In fact, there is a monastery in northern Iran (formerly part of Armenia) where a church was present even as early as 68 AD!

St. Jude and his partner St. Simon are spoken of in the famous story, the Golden Legend. The legend speaks of the apostles’ martyrdom by a group of enchanters/magicians who belonged to the court of King Abgarus of Edessa (in Armenia). St. Jude had been preaching to the king, and after his conversion, the magicians had been sent away, so in their anger and jealousy, they attacked and killed the two apostles. In iconography, St. Jude is sometimes depicted holding an axe to symbolize the way he was martyred. Today, his relics rest in St. Peter’s Basilica alongside his partner, St. Simon.

St. Jude has become one of the most popular Catholic devotions. He is usually pictured with a small flame atop his head, symbolizing the presence of the Holy Spirit, and wearing a pendant of the face of Christ, representing his missionary work of holding Christ in his heart and bearing him to others.

Somehow, the tradition developed of him being the patron saint of hopeless causes, although to be honest, I’m not sure why. There have certainly been numerous powerful miracles through his intercession, even from the early days of the Church. One example was the life of famous 40’s and 50’s comedian Danny Thomas. Early on in his career, he was very near starvation, but was so moved by a homily on Sunday that he gave away all he had in the collection basket – except he didn’t realize it! When he discovered that he had nothing left, he prayed that St. Jude would protect him and help him be successful, and sure enough, it happened! Danny Thomas became extremely successful and pledged to build a hospital in St. Jude’s honor, which now stands in Memphis, Tennessee.

It’s worth reminding ourselves that even when things fall apart around us, when we have a strong faith, nothing is impossible for God. St. Jude surely learned that in his time following Jesus, and he lived it out in his preaching and ultimately sacrifice. Let’s pray that we would have hope, and that through St. Jude’s intercession, God would accomplish the impossible through us!

By the way, if you’re interested in donating to St. Jude Hospital, you can do so here!


St. Simon the Zealot

morattiSimonWell, with nine of the original twelve apostles down, that brings us to St. Simon the Zealot. St. Simon is referred to as the “zealot” to distinguish him from Simon Peter, but really, there’s not a whole lot known about him from the Gospels. Much of what we believe is extrapolated from that little nickname!

Some Church Fathers identified St. Simon as being from Cana in Galilee, although many modern scholars seem to think a mistake in translation led such Fathers as St. Jerome to make this assumption. Some Easter Christians hold the tradition that St. Simon was the bridegroom at the wedding feast in Cana where Jesus turned water into wine, and that he was so moved by the miracle and so “zealous”, that he left his new bride to follow Christ. Sounds like the beginning of a great romantic comedy!

Other traditions hold that the title “zealot” indicates that he was a devout and zealous follower of the Jewish Law before he met Jesus. Still other traditions take that a step further and suggest that his devotion to the Law actually drove him to be a member of the Jewish revolutionary group known as the Zealots.

The Zealots tried to stir up the people of the Roman province of Judea to rebel against the Empire by force of arms. We might consider them to be the spiritual successors to the Maccabees, who did the same thing against the Greeks 160 years before. Their belief was that only God was the king of Israel, and the Law of Moses was their only law, and so the Roman occupiers were not only politically harmful, they were also spiritually desecrating Israel by their rule. This all came to a head in the Great Jewish Revolt from 66 to 70 AD, which ultimately resulted in the Temple being destroyed by the Romans. If St. Simon was part of this group, it is assumed that he gave up this part of his life when he began following Jesus.

After the Resurrection, St. Simon’s life is just as foggy. Most traditions hold that he did his missionary work with St. Jude Thaddeus (who we will discuss next week). Unfortunately for historians, pretty much every region of the world claims St. Simon preached to them (zealot indeed!), although the most likely destinations are Egypt, North Africa, Persia and Lebanon. One of the more popular Church traditions is that he was named Bishop of Jerusalem for a time, and was martyred doing missionary work in that region. Often times, he is depicted in art holding a saw, which supposedly was the instrument of his martyrdom! Intense! Today, his relics are believed to be entombed alongside St. Jude’s in St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican.

Maybe the most important quality that we can take away from what little we know of St. Simon’s life is what he is known for – his zeal. Generally speaking, zeal is a great enthusiasm or energy that drives one toward a cause or goal. In the case of St. Simon and many of the saints, his zeal was a zeal for souls, spreading the Gospel to all the nations, just as the Lord had commissioned him. It’s so easy to put other needs and concerns ahead of our faith, but the example of St. Simon and the saints is that all of the affairs of our lives ultimately continue to direct us toward our most important goal – Heaven. Let us pray through the intercession of St. Simon that we might have his zeal in every aspect of our lives!

St. Matthew, Publican and Apostle

Statue of St. Matthew from the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran in the Vatican
Statue of St. Matthew from the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran in the Vatican

Today we come to one of the better known apostles, St. Matthew, also known as Levi in the Gospels of Mark and Luke. St. Matthew was known primarily for being a tax collector, and it was while he was sitting at his post in Capernaum when Jesus called him. It’s actually more accurate for us to think of Matthew as a “publican”, an official position in the Roman Empire. Publicans were despised by their fellow Jews because their job meant that they collaborated with the occupying Romans. Publicans were contractors, overseeing public building projects and other goings-on. But yes, they were mostly known for collecting taxes.

Being a publican was very profitable. Taxes in the Empire didn’t work as they do today, but instead, the Roman officials approximated how much tax a province could handle, and the publican would manage the payment. The sum paid to Rome was actually treated as a loan, and the publicans would receive interest on that payment in the end. Also, the publican kept any excess tax collected beyond the requested sum, so there was extra incentive for the publican to collect. You can imagine why it was considered a rather greedy profession.

The fact that St. Matthew turned away from an incredibly profitable life as a publican to follow Jesus makes his conversion all the more powerful. He even held a “going away party” of sorts, inviting all of his friends – who were also publicans, because everyone else hated him. But Jesus clearly gives his reasons for calling Matthew as an apostle: “I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Even as a sinner, St. Matthew was empowered by Christ to do wonderful things. He became an eyewitness to the Resurrection, and afterward, spent his time serving the communities of Palestine. Perhaps he was making amends for his previous life, but he selflessly served his Hebrew brothers and sisters until he moved elsewhere. Where exactly he went, we don’t know. Some sources mention Persia, others Macedonia, and others Syria. Almost all mention that he preached in Ethiopia…but not that Ethiopia. The Ethiopia Matthew went to was south of the Caspian Sea, near Armenia. I guess they didn’t know the name “Ethiopia” had already been taken!

The tradition of the Church is that Matthew was martyred like so many of his apostle brothers, but there is disagreement as to how or where. Whether he was burned, stoned, or beheaded, suffice to say that it wasn’t pretty, but he did it to give witness to Christ. Today, what are believed to be his remains rest in the Cathedral of Salerno, Italy.

St. Matthew doesn’t seem to have as many fancy stories as the other apostles, but his primary contribution as an evangelist was authoring the Gospel bearing his name. It was written in Aramaic, the language of his people, and then translated later into Greek. We are not exactly sure when it was written (there were no copyright pages then), but probably very early, possibly even 10 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus!

The transformation of Matthew from a man of selfishness and greed to a man of generous and loving service is a great example for us today. It’s easy for us to get down on ourselves for our weaknesses, believing that we are not good enough for God, but like St. Matthew, Christ calls us to follow him, especially as sinners. Let us continue to pray that we would embrace that call to live and spread the Gospel, just as St. Matthew did!