If you recall, last week we began looking at the life of St. Paul. He went from being “Saul”, the persecutor of the infant Church, to “Paul”, one of the greatest apostles the Church has ever seen! God must really have a sense of humor, right? Without his desire to persecute Christians in Damascus, and without his subsequent conversion, the Church wouldn’t exist as it does today.
As important as his conversion was, what happened afterward was even more important. St. Paul began his Christian life retreating to the Sinai Desert to pray, but then returned to Jerusalem to join the apostles. St. Paul is best known as a great missionary, and the Acts of the Apostles divides his journeys into three parts. The first journey was to Antioch and throughout what is now southern Turkey. He returned to participate with St. Peter and the other apostles in the Council of Jerusalem (the first of 22 ecumenical councils in the Church up to Vatican II), and then began his second journey to Tarsus, Derbe, and Lystra (also in Turkey), before going to Philippi in Macedon, the site of the famous Roman battle. Travelling south, he went through Greece, including Athens, where he preached in the famous Areopagus. He returned to Caesarea near Jerusalem, then headed back out on his third missionary journey back to strengthen the churches western coast of Turkey (any more Turkey and it would be Thanksgiving!), then back through Greece, before returning to Jerusalem.
As he returned to Judea, St. Paul’s fervent preaching upset a group of Jewish leaders so much that they rioted and attacked him. Paul only escaped them by voluntarily being taken into Roman custody, where he was imprisoned for two years. Remember last week when I told you he was a Roman citizenship? Well, it came in handy, as he took advantage of his rite of trial by the Emperor to get a free trip to Rome to preach there. After being shipwrecked along the way, he eventually made it to the Eternal City and awaited trial under house arrest, all the while writing letters to the Churches throughout the Mediterranean, the very same letters that we read at Mass today!
His martyrdom came under the reign of the Emperor Nero, who was widely known to hate Christians, even blaming them for the great fire in Rome in 64 AD…which conveniently occurred in a slum…where Nero later built a palace (just sayin’). Nero’s persecution was so brutal that he burned Christians along the roads of Rome to serve as illumination for the streets. St. Paul was martyred along with many other Christians around that time. Traditional holds that he was beheaded with a sword, considered an honorable death for a Roman citizen, which is why he is usually depicted holding a sword. In 2009, Pope Benedict announced that excavations under the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome had uncovered a sarcophagus inscribed “Paul, Apostle and Martyr” in Latin. This location was consistent with the Church’s ancient tradition of where St. Paul was buried, and the bone fragments inside were carbon dated to the 1st or 2nd centuries. It’s neat to find that even today, we have that deep connection with the apostles!
St. Paul was an extraordinary missionary, even using his sufferings, difficult circumstances, and even imprisonment as a platform to speak of his love for Christ. Probably many of us have our own struggles, and yet Christ continues to work in us to fill that emptiness. Let us pray that we can have the same love and courage as St. Paul to preach the Gospel in good times and bad!