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Evangelization according to Saint Paul

Marc Rastoin, SJ - La Civiltà Cattolica - Thu, Jan 20th 2022


Saint Paul is the apostle par excellence. When one thinks of evangelization and missionary life, one thinks of him. A man of the great cities, he lived among the capitals of the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire (Ephesus, Corinth, Antioch, Thessalonica). Born into the diaspora, he traveled to Jerusalem for his studies as a Pharisee. A Jew of noble birth, his education gave him the best that Hellenistic-Judaic culture had to offer. At first a persecutor of Christians and someone who was “blameless” regarding observance of the law of Moses (cf. Phil 3:6), he later became a Christian around 33-34 A.D.

In the Acts of the Apostles Luke tells us three things that Paul himself does not tell us. First, that he was from Tarsus. Paul’s cultural level is in keeping with this city of his origins. Paul belonged to a wealthy family. In the capital of Cilicia, a city with flourishing philosophical schools, he had received an excellent Hellenistic education, which included knowledge of rhetoric and the basic elements of Greek culture.

Second, because of his family he was a Roman citizen by birth, which was somewhat rare at that time. Paul would write to the Corinthians: “What is vile and despised by the world, what is nothing, God has chosen” (1 Cor 1:28). This is undoubtedly true of most of the Christians in Corinth, but Paul, because of his family, his education and his intellectual training, belonged to the elite of the Empire.

Third, Luke informs us that initially Paul was called “Saul,” but, strangely enough, he gives no reason for this change of name (cf. Acts 13:9). Many Jews of that time had two names: one for intra-communal use and the other for dealings with the non-Jewish world. Was Saul then Paul’s Jewish name? This name was rare among the Jews of that time, who preferred to bear the names of members of the Hasmonean dynasty.[1] Who would have given the name “Saul” to their son unless a family for whose members this gesture would have been a sign of prestige, precisely because they belonged to the same tribe as Saul? Paul himself informs us: “For I too am an Israelite, one of the descendants of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin” (Rom 11:1). It is therefore very likely that the Benjamite Saul called himself Paul in the Greco-Roman context.

It is therefore this Jew of the Hellenistic diaspora who was a Pharisee, this Roman citizen of the tribe of Benjamin whom Christ chose to be the evangelizer par excellence. What he teaches us by his life and words comes to constitute the fundamental framework of all evangelization.

There is no evangelization without a personal experience of Christ

“The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20). The central event of Paul’s life was his encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus. He speaks of this experience without mentioning the place, however, and he reports little about its content. About twenty years later he would write to the Galatians: “The gospel I preached is not of human origin. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ. [… ] But God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles” (Gal 1:11-16). It is surprising that Paul uses the language of the prophets, such as Jeremiah,  to speak of his own calling. The mission of proclaiming the Gospel to the nations is inseparable from his personal discovery of Christ. Communion with Christ will now be at the center of his spiritual life.

We do not know precisely what the Apostle Paul experienced; he is, in fact, very discreet. Nevertheless he does say: “Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not the result of my work in the Lord? Even though I may not be an apostle to others, surely I am to you!” (1 Cor 9:1-2a). By an exceptional privilege, it was granted to Paul, who had not known Jesus according to the flesh, to see him risen.[2] Christ chose a persecutor who had not lived with him, to make him his messenger.

What Paul experienced, every Christian and, a fortiori, every evangelizer is called to live. It is a matter of achieving a personal encounter with Christ and of being able to speak of him in the first person. Paul is, above all, passionate about Christ, happy to reproduce in his flesh the trials of Christ, because this brings him closer to his Lord: “From now on, let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus” (Gal 6:17). Finding someone worth dying for means finding Jesus (cf. Phil 1:21-25).

In his faith, the apostle is projected into Jesus: not only into the Christ, the Messiah, the eternal Word of God, but into the man Jesus, born of a woman (cf. Gal 4:5). Christ is not an anonymous person or a simple theological code: it is Jesus of Nazareth himself who is Christ. But it is not indispensable for an apostle to have known Jesus before his passion: “Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer” (2 Cor 5:16).

Paul here shares with us a key point. Like him, we have not come to know Christ according to the flesh, but are called to know him in the Spirit. Paul is the link in a chain that reunites us with the Twelve. He is certainly an apostle like them, but like us, he did not know Jesus according to the flesh. Paul teaches us that the evangelizer is above all the one who has perceived in some way the glory that shines on the face of Christ (cf. 2 Cor 4:6b). This way is open to everyone.

There is no evangelization without the work of intelligence

“But in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue” (1 Cor 14:19). In proclaiming the Gospel, Paul seeks to use reason. He is not content to proclaim the kerygma. He tries to say why, according to the Scriptures, the Messiah had to suffer and rise again; he tries to explain. He develops at length the reasons for the credibility of the resurrection (cf. 1 Cor 15). He explores the Scriptures, which he knows thoroughly, to clarify the mystery of why a large part of Israel refused to recognize in Jesus its promised Messiah (cf. Rom 9-11).

These texts are the ones most often used in the liturgy and sometimes give Paul the reputation of being an austere and complex theologian. But they have the merit of showing how he uses all the resources of his Jewish faith and his philosophical and rhetorical training to offer explanations. It may happen that he mentions the signs of power and healing that accompanied his preaching (cf. Rom 15:19; 2 Cor 12:12); but these signs do not dispense him from reasoning, and he speaks of them as little as possible.

Paul prefers to mention the common virtues, such as constancy and perseverance in the face of persecution. What he highlights are not so much his mystical experiences (even if extraordinary, cf. 2 Cor 12:4) as his very real experiences of suffering. He bears on his body the marks of Christ’s sufferings (cf. Gal 6:17). These “stigmata” are the demonstration of his apostolic authenticity. Paul tries to convince, but he knows that, in the end, what touches the hearts of men is not his eloquence, but God himself.

The Apostle puts all his skills, all his intelligence at the service of the Gospel, even knowing that he must not trust them. He also knows that the word of the Gospel arouses profound resistance; that men are capable of resorting to every type of excuse and violence so as not to convert, not to have to change their lives, and that persecution does not represent an anomalous or strange situation for the missionary.

The Apostle does not reject charismatic manifestations. He benefits personally from them, and he says so. But he calls his children in the faith to a work of intelligence, to be available to receive unbelievers (cf. 1 Cor 14:6, 14-20). He has confidence in the capacity of human reason, in the fact that Scripture must be interpreted, that the Lord calls for intelligence, but at the same time he is fully aware of the limits of all reasoning.

In order to remind himself of the limits of reason and intelligence, he presents the mystery of the Cross – this place where an apparent curse is revealed as blessing, where God’s foolishness is revealed as wisdom, where radical weakness and powerlessness are signs of God’s strength and power, where Christ’s poverty is the gift of his riches – using surprising paradoxes (cf. Gal 3:13; 2 Cor 8:9). The Cross lays bare what is not deducible, what is truly unheard of. The Apostle teaches us that the missionary cannot do without intelligence, but must also recognize its limits.

There is no evangelization without collaboration and friendship

“For this reason I have sent to you Timothy, my son whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord. He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus” (1 Cor 4:17). Paul is often considered a solitary theologian, an exceptional man. But this is to forget his apostolic co-workers, who were of great importance to him. The Apostle was a formidable weaver of “networks.” He was almost never alone, and he generated extraordinary friendships that have withstood the test of time. Thanks to his spiritual children, who became collaborators and then friends, his memory has been preserved. He often wrote with his co-workers: “Paul and Silvanus and Timothy to the Church of the Thessalonians” (1 Th 1:1). He associates them with his mission and takes care to recall their role. He often praises them and shares his own authority with them.

Paul maintains an exclusive relationship with the communities he founded. He himself says that he evangelized only where no one had gone before him (cf. Rom 15:20). In his letters, he does not hesitate to use maternal metaphors to describe his own role: “My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you” (Gal 4:19). The verb “to give birth” is normally associated with women, because it is they who give birth. In this very painful passage, Paul emphasizes the deep emotional relationship that unites him to the Galatians, who did not reject him when he was as weak as a sick child. When he was like a child, they knew how to love him like a mother. Some years later, Paul declares that he loves them like a mother, giving birth to them again.

“Giving birth” is painful! Paul is pained to learn that the Galatians are on the verge of denying the one from whom they have received faith. He must therefore give birth to them again, give them the life of Christ again. To abandon his teaching would in fact be like denying Christ (cf. Gal 5:4). If the Apostle uses the metaphor of giving birth, it is because he does not want to invoke the strength of his own apostolic authority, but rather to emphasize the strength of his maternal love, a love born in pain and willing to overcome all obstacles: “We were not looking for praise from people, not from you or anyone else, even though as apostles of Christ we could have asserted our authority. Instead, we were like young children among you. Just as a nursing mother cares for her children, so we cared for you. Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well” (1 Th 2:6-9).

Paul was a man of extraordinary fidelity in terms of friendship: Titus, Timothy, Sosthenes, Silvanus, Prisca and Aquila, Aristarchus were his friends (cf. Rom 16). Jesus had the Twelve, Paul had his entourage. And some were willing to give their lives for him: at Ephesus, it seems, the newlyweds Prisca and Aquila risked their lives to save him (cf. Rom 16:3-4). Paul was even on the verge of death: “We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself” (2 Cor 1:8).

The charism that the Apostle was well aware of possessing was that of giving birth to faith in people’s hearts. To give birth to a personal relationship with Christ was his way of generating Christians Hence he can write to Philemon: “I pray to you for Onesimus, my son, whom I begat in chains” (Phlm 1:10). Many centuries later Francis Xavier, who had been generated to a personal faith in Christ thanks to Ignatius of Loyola, would write to the latter from India: “My only Father in the bowels of Christ.” Paul teaches us to live evangelization as a team effort and not to separate affectivity from it.

No evangelization without solidarity

“This service that you perform is not only supplying the needs of the Lord’s people but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God” (2 Cor 9:12). The unique position of one who has risked everything to proclaim the faith also justifies the Apostle’s  care that his communities come into contact with one another, get to know one another, pray for one another and express their communion practically with financial assistance. Spiritual fellowship cannot be kept separate from material fellowship.

Paul devoted much energy to these financial problems. It is in order to offer the fruit of years of collections for the brethren of Jerusalem that he decides to go up to this city, as he explains to the Roman community: “Now, however, I am on my way to Jerusalem in the service of the Lord’s people there. For Macedonia and Achaia were pleased to make a contribution for the poor among the Lord’s people in Jerusalem. They were pleased to do it, and indeed they owe it to them. For if the Gentiles have shared in the Jews’ spiritual blessings, they owe it to the Jews to share with them their material blessings” (Rom 15:25-27). The Apostle runs a great risk, because his reputation is not always good among the Jews and among a part of the Christians of Jewish origin (cf. Acts 21:21). Without exaggeration, it can be said that he gave his own life for the sake of communion between the Churches.

For him, from the beginning, the sharing of goods belongs to the very nature of the Church. The universality of the Church is translated into a sharing of goods, a consequence of Jesus’ death for all. Therefore the collection for the benefit of the brethren expresses an essential element of what the Eucharist is. It is impossible to remember Christ without remembering the poor, the saints who are in Jerusalem, the Christians who live in communities that are less wealthy than those in Corinth or Thessalonica. On the other hand, even if one is poor, one must still give generously (cf. 1 Cor 16:1-4).

In the conclusion of the First Letter to the Thessalonians, Paul recalls some instructions given to the Galatians many years before. The collection on behalf of Jerusalem is thus an old project, and involves a considerable sum. The Apostle also says that he will send some people chosen by them, armed with letters, but that in principle he does not consider that he should go to Jerusalem in person.

All the theology that Paul sets out in the Letter to the Romans is reflected in the exchange of material goods. It is this collection that shows by deeds that Christians of pagan origin are in perfect communion with those of Jewish origin. Paul is proud of this financial effort. This collection is the guarantee of his religious and communal ambition: the pagan-Christians are Christians in their own right and not second rate. They all participate in the same Christ in whom they are baptized. And they are associated with the same promises, having received the same spirit.

The collection is therefore like a sacrament, the visible and tangible manifestation of a spiritual communion. This liberality corresponds to the generosity of Christ himself, and Paul does not hesitate to place this collection on the same level as the gift of Christ himself (cf. 2 Cor 8:1-10). The real reason for this collection is therefore Christological. It is not simply a matter of charitable help, but of a significant exchange on the theological level. The Apostle teaches us that economic solidarity is an indispensable element of communion between the Churches.

There is no evangelization without communion with Peter

“I went in response to a revelation and, meeting privately with those esteemed as leaders, I presented to them the gospel that I preach among the Gentiles. I wanted to be sure I was not running and had not been running my race in vain” (Gal 2:2). Paul was animated by a deep apostolic commitment to the communion of all the Churches. One is certainly impressed by his very personal Damascus experience, recounted three times by Luke: a certainly relevant reality, because the Apostle recalls it many times, even if only implicitly; but one cannot forget that he passionately desired communion with Cephas and Jerusalem.

The project of a collection expressing solidarity among all the Churches, which we mentioned above, had first been discussed with Cephas (cf. Gal 2:9-10). Paul was never a Christian who lived alone. He was received and catechized in communities that were in communion with the apostles, especially in Antioch, and he came to know some stories about Jesus. He mentions the traditions he received from those who became Christians before him (cf. 1 Cor 15:3). He gives advice to the evangelizer Apollos, but does not want to impose obligation on him (cf. 1 Cor 16:12).

Paul never wanted to act alone as a missionary at the head of his small community. On the contrary, he wanted “his” Churches to be in communion with each other and with the mother Church in Jerusalem and with the apostles: “I went up again to Jerusalem […] to be sure I was not running and had not been running my race in vain” (Gal 2:1-3).

For the Apostle, solidarity among Christians is the specific sign of belonging to the same body. It certainly takes the form of prayers for one another, of welcoming everyone, and, above all, of caring for the weak on the part of those who are “strong” in the faith, but also of material solidarity of a financial order. Even if the local Churches are very large, they must know that they belong to a larger family. Peter has a fundamental role in this intra-ecclesial solidarity.

Paul was the man of communion: communion between the Churches, communion between people, communion between pagan-Christians and Judeo-Christians. He who had enjoyed a unique and direct revelation of Christ never wanted to break communion with Peter.

He, who claimed not to have received his gospel from a man, also said that if Cephas had disavowed him, he would have run “in vain.” The statement is strong. Could all the baptisms due to his preaching, all these signs of power, then, have been accomplished “in vain”? One cannot be a missionary and a witness of Christ without being in communion with Cephas. This is why Paul, who at first had thought of not going to Jerusalem for the collection, finally decided to go there: “For the present I am going to Jerusalem, to render service to the saints of that community” (Rom 15:25). Communion with Peter will be of decisive importance for him.

The Apostle reminds us of the attitude of St. Ignatius, who had also received mystical visions at Cardoner, in Spain, “that he thought many times to himself that, even if there were no Scripture to teach us these things of faith, he would resolve to die for them only by virtue of what he had seen.”[3] However, Ignatius went to Rome and would not run in vain without agreement with Peter. Paul teaches us the immense freedom of the apostle united to Christ, who refuses to the end to be separated from Peter.

There is no evangelization without recognizing human wisdom

“Brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things” (Phil 4:8). At the heart of Paul’s moral teaching is a fundamental tension that runs through the entire New Testament. On the one hand, he holds that we can talk about good and evil with every person, whatever their faith. Paul fundamentally speaks the language of Greek wisdom, especially that of popular Stoic philosophy. On the other hand, he recommends his hearers not to conform to the customs of the pagans. Christianity is a prophetic ferment that refuses to enter into the logic of a sect. The Apostle thus places himself in the tradition of Alexandrian Judaism and, on the other hand, he adheres to the positive consideration that Jesus expresses about the capacities of human wisdom.

Yes, in the world there is evil, darkness, there is a “god of this world” (2 Cor 4:4), who is Satan. There is sin and hostility toward God. Paul knows this and says so. He invites Christians to keep away from an adulterous and corrupt generation: “Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation. Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky as you hold firmly to the word of life” (Phil 2:14-16a).

Paul insists on this dimension of breaking with the “world” and its mentality, and invites us to reject the culture of immorality, especially the sexual immorality of the Greco-Roman world (cf. 1 Th 4:2-6). The issues of chastity and continence were fundamental to the early Christians and contrasted with the immorality of the Greco-Roman world. Paul’s language is sometimes very close to that of the Qumran: “Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? What harmony is there between Christ and Belial…?” (2 Cor 6:14-15a). But the Apostle never renounces dialogue with all those outside the community; they too have been created by God.

In this way he holds together a theology of creation and a theology of redemption. On the one hand, he recognizes that the world often seems to be in the power of sin and that there is a “prince of this world.” In this context, we need to detach ourselves from the world, to criticize everything in this world that is the sign of sin, while recognizing that the world is also present in us. Hence there is the need to renew our way of thinking: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will” (Rom 12:2).

On the other hand, Paul, like Jesus, believes that the world was created by God and that all human beings have a conscience created by God, which provides them with a notion of good and evil. All people, whatever their faith or lack of it, have something in common. The Apostle therefore invites us to be open to all people: “Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God; even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved” (1 Cor 10:32-33).

It is a question of being willing to give an account of the faith using all the resources of culture and philosophy, while knowing that it is the personal encounter with Christ that can make us capable of seeing the world with the eyes of the Gospel. Paul reconciles respect for the world and for every being created in the image of God, with a prophetic denunciation of the sin of the world. Thus he places himself along the same lines as Jesus. In saying: “Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matt 5:16), Jesus considers it appropriate to receive human praise; but he also affirms: “Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets” (Luke 6:26).

Paul lived this constitutive tension of the Gospel. It is a matter of making himself all things to all people, trying to convince and touch the heart and reason. If the apostle is heard, so much the better. If he remains misunderstood, that is, persecuted or mocked, he must remember the example of Christ: “Each of us should please our neighbors for their good, to build them up. For even Christ did not please himself but, as it is written: ‘The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me’” (Rom 15:2-3). The sin of the world does not prevent the apostle from grasping the goodness of creation.

There is no evangelization without prayer and perseverance

“I urge you, brothers and sisters, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to join me in my struggle by praying to God for me” (Rom 15:30). Paul was a man of constant prayer and conceived of his life as a vast network of prayerful exchanges. The prayers of his brethren consoled him, strengthened him and were an aid to his apostolic life, and he in turn prayed for them.

God favors communion and the Apostle hopes that prayers will enable him to see his friends and collaborators again: “I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers” (Phlm 1:22). The life of his communities nourishes his prayer: “How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy we have in the presence of our God because of you? Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you again and supply what is lacking in your faith” (1 Thess 3:9-10). Paul’s prayer does not consist in nostalgically dwelling on his own mystical experiences of the past, but rather in remembering his brothers and sisters in the faith: “I give thanks to my God every time I remember you. Always, when I pray for all of you, I do so with joy because of your cooperation for the Gospel, from the first day until the present” (Phil 1:3-5). His prayer was made up of faces, friendly faces.

Paul was a man of perseverance (hypomon?). This is a key term in his vocabulary. It is difficult to translate; it can be rendered as: courage, constancy, endurance, patience. The term “patience” contains a passive aspect, which does not express that combination of courage and action that allows one to endure in times of difficulty. The term “perseverance” is better: “Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope” (Rom 5:3-4a). Tribulation itself breeds perseverance.

This is Paul’s intimate experience and conviction. He writes at the end of the Letter to the Romans: “May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had” (Rom 15:5). It is God who is persevering, he who accepts the obstacles placed in the way of human freedom that rebels against his plan of salvation. To persevere means to hope that tribulation will not have the last word. Created in the image of a persevering and faithful God, human beings are capable of fidelity and perseverance.

Perseverance characterizes the evangelizer. This is the first thing that Paul points out in writing to the Corinthians in order to defend himself against those whom he ironically calls “super apostles”.“Rather, as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger” (2 Cor 6:4-5). Paul’s prayer has the same dimensions as the world itself, and in it all communities have a decisive role. Like Christ’s, his prayer is directed to the salvation of men and women, to the life of believers. If the Apostle affirms that he is happy in every circumstance, it also happens that he experiences moments of desolation: “We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself” (2 Cor 1:8).

Paul prays apostolically; he prays so that his sons may be true believers: “Paul’s prayer draws nourishment from his missionary activity, from the news received from the communities, from his apostolic projects; in short: from what he himself calls ‘the concern of all the Churches’.”[4] But the Apostle does not pray only for Christians. He also prays for his people, the people of Israel, as he writes to the Romans: “Brothers and sisters, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved. For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge” (Rom 10:1-2). Paul’s letters reveal the incessant and ardent prayer that is that of the evangelizer.

There is no evangelization without humility and spiritual struggle

“Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it” (Phil 3:12-13a). Paul’s spiritual experiences were unusual. In his mission as an apostle he has had resounding successes, leading important people to faith, such as Sergius Paulus, the proconsul of Cyprus, or Erastus, the treasurer of Corinth. But he does not like to boast about it, and it is only when his legitimacy as an apostle is challenged that he feels authorized to speak about it. It would be folly to boast of it, but, if it is necessary to remember what he has done for Christ, he does not hesitate to do so. His concern is not for his own personal honor, but for the shadow that is cast over all those who have become believers through him.

From the spiritual point of view, Paul, the believer, places the gift of God in the foreground: his faith is a response, an act of gratitude and thankfulness. Even when he seems to value what he has done, it is only to remember that it is God who acted first: “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me. Whether, then, it is I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed” (1 Cor 15:10-11). The Apostle is proud of what he has done, but he knows perfectly well that it is the grace of God that has empowered him to do it.

Therefore, he is always on the move. The graces he has received do not enclose him in the past. His whole journey is directed toward the future. Paul embodies this marvelous synthesis: that the believer lives at the same time between thanksgiving, founded on the permanent remembrance of what the Lord has done through him, and the gaze turned toward the will of the Lord who is to come . Some years later, Paul’s spiritual children would take up the images of the race and of conflict to speak of him: “the time for my departure is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim 4:6b-7). Paul was always on the move, not only geographically, with his desire to reach Spain, but also spiritually.

He teaches the evangelizer – and every Christian – that, even if he has had an interior experience of Christ, this does not mean that he has ceased to be on the way, on a path of conversion. One might believe that the Apostle truly considers himself a “convert” after having received such a revelation of Christ, after having experienced mystical rapture (cf. 2 Cor 12:2-4).  Despite the charismatic gifts he had received – prophecy, the variety of tongues, the gift of healing – Paul did not believe that he had become perfect. On the contrary, he was straining forward (cf. Phil 3:10-14). What he recommends to the Philippians he lives personally: “Meanwhile, from where we have come, let us go forward together” (Phil 3:16).

Paul was a man always on the road, a pilgrim. He did not believe he was holy. On the contrary, he prayed without ceasing to progress, to be found faithful. According to Jewish and Christian customs, he multiplied fasting and night prayers, and he treated his body harshly (cf. 1 Cor 9:27). The Iliad teaches that it is in struggle that the individual acquires his qualities. In Roman times, this ideal had not waned. Hellenistic culture remained a culture of the body and of strength, as shown by the popularity of games in Greece and gladiatorial combat in Rome. The Apostle mentions these games several times and compares himself to athletes: “Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified from the prize” (1 Cor 9:25-27).

Paul looked to the future. His weaknesses did not discourage him. He considered himself a fragile and weak instrument that God had chosen precisely so that he would not be proud: “God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things – and the things that are not – to nullify the things that are. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling” (1 Cor 1:28; 2:3). From now on, no one can take advantage of their own littleness and presumed impotence not to set out. Paul teaches us that every Christian, beginning with the evangelizer, looks forward and is not discouraged, despite the trials.


Paul “the little one” became Paul “the great apostle,” the apostle par excellence. With all his intelligence, he announced Christ by means of powerful paradoxes: the Christ who, from being rich, became poor. Paul imitated him, setting aside all his human riches, family origins, education, money, to make himself a humble servant of all. He wanted to live what he preached. From being a Pharisee expert in the Scriptures, from being a Roman citizen and inhabitant of Tarsus, from being a proud Jew, he became a pagan with the pagans, a slave with the slaves; he opened himself to all, accepting scourging in the synagogues, being whipped by the Roman authorities.

Christ had died for all (cf. 2 Cor 5:14), and Paul made himself all things to all people (cf. 1 Cor 9:22). The heart of his theology corresponds to the heart of his life and exhortations. Rooted in the Scriptures of Israel, Jesus used to say: “ those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Matt 23:12). Paul lived this paradox to the full, which expresses not only the wisdom of humility, but also Christ’s choice of the cross. In his life, in a radical way, Paul lowered himself. He lowered himself, but without ever despising himself or denying all that he had received. He placed all his intellectual, imaginative and affective resources at the service of his faith in Jesus, the crucified and exalted Messiah. Paul teaches us that one does not evangelize without living the Gospel with personal commitment.


[1].    These accounted for about a third of male names, and Saul ranks only eighteenth. See T. Ilan, Lexicon of Jewish Names in Late Antiquity. Part I: Palestine 330 BCE – 200 CE, Tübingen, Mohr Siebeck, 2002, 56.

[2].    Cf. J. Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth. Vol. II: From Entry into Jerusalem to the Resurrection, Vatican City, Libr. Ed. Vaticana, 2011.

[3].    Ignatius of Loyola, “Autobiography”, No. 29, in Gli Scritti di Ignazio di Loyola, Rome, AdP, 2008, 103.

[4].    C. Tassin, L’Apôtre Paul. Un autoportrait, Paris, Desclée de Brouwer, 2009, 268.

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