After his death, Paul left an enduring legacy.
Not only was this in his seven ‘undisputed’ contributions to the canon of Christian scriptures, but those letters written because of the impact of his life and work—II Thessalonians, Colossians and Ephesians, and the pastoral letters.
When we grasp the probability that the impact of the man’s life and mission continued to inspire writings in his name, we might be better able to understand that even our cherished gospels contain a similar process.
As a new testament teacher I find that paragraph 126 in the Catholic Catechism presents the greatest challenge for students. Having been brought up with the idea that everything in the gospel is exactly as it happened—a one-dimensional reading—we now find the catechism telling us that a gospel operates on three levels— the time of the historical Jesus, then incorporating the events that happened in the years that led up to the writing of the gospels and, finally, the community and world of the evangelist.
As well as being an account of the good news that Jesus proclaimed in his lifetime, the gospels give the history of this good news as it impacted on the world and communities of the evangelists. Our challenge is to make it speak to our own times.
Pope Benedict’s audience
In the first of his general audiences (2 7 08) to mark the year of St Paul, Pope Benedict said, ‘In this first meeting let us pause to consider the environment in which St Paul lived and worked.’
A theme such as this would seem to bring us far from our time, given that we must identify with the world of 2,000 years ago. Yet this is only partly true—various aspects of today’s social and cultural context are not very different from what they were then.
To understand the man and his mission, we need to understand the communities he dealt with as he helped real people face real problems in their time.
Philippi and Corinth had widely different settlers and issues. The church today has no less an obligation to recognise and honour the variation in the cultures that make up its more than one billion members. Europe and Asia present widely different issues for Christian mission. Uniformity is not unity.
The Pope continued:
‘There is no doubt that the universalist vision characteristic of St Paul’s personality, owes its basic impact to faith in Jesus Christ, since the figure of the Risen One was by this time situated beyond any particularistic narrowness. Indeed, for the apostle “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28).’
Actually the Greek reads ‘male and female’, evoking the wondrous equality of the first creation story, in which male and female image God (Gen 1:27). Yet in this year of St Paul the English translation for the new Missal of the Gloria will not recognise inclusive language and returns (in the name of good Latin and ‘universal liturgy’?) to ‘men of good will’ and in the Creed to ‘for us men and our salvation.’ Many, including myself, would see this as being asked to connive in the structural sin of patriarchy.
The papal address finished with a beautiful encouragement to young people, the sick, and the newly-weds: ‘Dear young people, Jesus calls you to be “living-stones” of the church. Respond generously to his invitation, each according to their own gift and responsibility.
‘Dear sick people, offer your suffering to the crucified Christ to cooperate in the world’s redemption. And you, dear newly-weds, may you be aware of the irreplaceable mission to which the sacrament of marriage binds you.’
The conclusion speaks to several groups that lie at the heart of our community. The document of the New Zealand Bishops, Tu Kahikatea (Standing Tall), reminds us that ‘Young people are not the future of our church; they are its present.’
Given the experience of World Youth Day, a line that Paul would heartily agree with occurs in section IV of that document: ‘The young crave real mission opportunity. When presented with a cause or a message they believe in, young people are willing to drop everything and go’ (p 15).
The historical memory of Paul in the pastoral letters would produce a line of similar vision: ‘Let no one despise your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in love, in faith, in purity’ (1 Tim 4:11).
Paul, that great missionary, knew enough of sickness in his life; because of illness he had to spend time in Galatia recuperating, and out of his illness the gospel was proclaimed among the Galatians (Gal 4:13-15). In his illness he found the cross that marked him as an apostle of the crucified Christ. The gospel is proclaimed in weakness rather than in strength.
For newly-weds, it would take another article to speak of all Paul has to say on marriage much of which has been misrepresented as has what he said about women.
The great triad of faith, hope, and love threads its way through Paul’s writings.
Perhaps for many of us this has been the most experienced sacrament apart from Eucharist. What a wonderful expression of the three great theological virtues a wedding is, a covenant entered into with faith, lived out in hope, and expressed through love with God’s help.
What would Paul question today?
And so we come to the end of the Year of St Paul. What impact has this great missionary, visionary and apostle had on the church?
What difference has this year made on the life of the church? What difference has it made in the life of you, the reader?
Has the fire of the prophet, the vision of winning the world to Christ, the great animating Spirit that drove the man, entered into our Christian conscience?
And dare we ask what Paul would recognise and affirm in the church today and what he would question?