Saint Paul the Apostle
This great missionary was born in Tarsus in Cilicia, a coastal region of what is now Turkey, north of the island of Cyprus. Perhaps he was given the name Saul because, like the first king of Israel, he was a member of the tribe of Benjamin. As the son of a Roman citizen, he was also given a Latin name, Paulus--Paulos in Greek. His devout family sent him to the school of the Rabbi Gamaliel in Jerusalem for his religious education (Acts 22:3). He also learned a trade, processing wool for tentmaking (Acts 18:3). The only other thing we know about his family is that he had a sister living in Jerusalem (Acts 23:16). It's not clear whether Paul was ever married.
Most of what we know about Paul's life is found in the Acts of the Apostles: his persecution of the Christians in Jerusalem, his encounter with the Risen Lord on the road to Damascus, his preaching in the Antioch community, the three long missionary journeys, and the years of Paul's imprisonment. Acts also records a great deal of his preaching, including two accounts of his conversion. Surprisingly, Acts ends with Paul under house arrest in Rome, and not his martyrdom. Paul shed his blood for Christ during the persecutions of the Emperor Nero, around the years 65 to 67.
Although Paul insists on the directness of Jesus' revelation to him, (Galatians 1:11-23), he was not a solitary figure. He had remarkable companions. When he arrives in Damascus blinded, the Lord sends Ananias to Saul, who instructs him and brings him to the community. The apostles are afraid of Paul when he arrives in Jerusalem, but Barnabas assures them of the zeal of his preaching about Jesus. Later, Barnabas is sent to Tarsus to fetch Paul back to Antioch. The community sends Barnabas and Paul to Jerusalem together (Acts 11 and 12) and then on a missionary journey (Acts 13 and 14). On the later two journeys, Paul was accompanied by Timothy, Titus, and Silas (also called Silvanus). He worked as a tentmaker with Priscilla and her husband Aquila while he was living in Corinth. (Acts 18:2)
Paul's letters were written before any of the gospels were completed. Scholars are not able to date each letter exactly, or even to put them in definitive order. (In the bible, they seem to be ordered by length: Romans is the longest, though one of the last written). Paul wrote when people needed encouragement, when he had heard about disputes and abuses, or when he needed something. The letters are not broad summaries of the faith, with the exception of Romans. But his advice on the importance of unity among believers of diverse heritages is as relevant to us as it was to the churches of Asia Minor. Several of the letters traditionally attributed to Paul were most likely written after his martyrdom, by people who had accompanied him on his journeys and who had been formed by his teaching.
As Saint Gaspar encourages us to do, Paul read the book of the cross. "The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God." (1 Corinthians 1:18) and "Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, Jews and Greeks alike, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God." (1 Corinthians 1:22-24) For Paul, God's power and mercy are fully revealed in the death of Christ. "All this is from God, who has reconciled us to himself through Christ and given us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting their trespasses against them and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation." (2 Corinthians 5:18-19)
The blood of Christ is central to Paul's reflection on the cross. In the letter to the Romans, Paul contrasts the first covenant with the new covenant. "The righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, though testified to by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction; all have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God. They are justified freely by his grace through the redemption in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as an expiation, through faith, by his blood." (Romans 3:21-25) The blood of Christ is a sign of God's drawing near to us: "God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us. How much more then, since we are now justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath. Indeed, if, while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, how much more, once reconciled, will we be saved by his life." (Romans 5:8-10)
In the letters to the Ephesians and Colossians, Paul's reflection on the blood of Christ has matured like a choice wine. "In him we have redemption by his blood, the forgiveness of transgressions, in accord with the riches of his grace that he lavished upon us." (Ephesians 1:7-8) and "But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have become near by the blood of Christ. (Ephesians 2:13) "For in him all the fullness was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile all things for him, making peace by the blood of his cross." (Colossians 1:19-20)
Saint Gaspar drew on all these readings in his writing and preaching. Another favorite of our founder's is the second half of 2 Corinthians 7:4: "I am filled with encouragement; I am overflowing with joy all the more because of all our affliction." This is a very supportive message in the midst of trials. How is Gaspar able to find joy in such difficulty? Perhaps we can get a hint from context; the Pauline passage continues, "for even when we came into Macedonia, our flesh had no rest, but we were afflicted in every way: external conflicts, internal fears. But God, who encourages the downcast, encouraged us by the arrival of Titus, and not only by his arrival but also by the encouragement with which he was encouraged in regard to you, as he told us of your yearning, your lament, your zeal for me, so that I rejoiced even more." The second letter to the Corinthians is full of intense conflict and misunderstanding, but in the end, the Corinthians write that they have been "saddened into repentance" and accept Paul's criticisms. Perhaps Gaspar is saying that those he is confident that those who oppose him will see the truth of his position in the end, and that the same will be true for us.
We celebrate the martyrdom of Saint Paul on the same day as that of Saint Peter, on June 29. We also celebrate Paul's conversion on January 25, at the culmination of the week of prayer for Christian unity.