A violent person who was shown mercy. The personality of Paul of Tarsus mirrors our modern life.
If tonight I wished to talk about Paul’s doctrine and thought, it would take a very long time. Instead, I want to do something simpler, but, in my opinion, more important: I want to instill in you the desire to meet St. Paul, even if only for the time he is mentioned in the Sunday liturgy. I want to show you the aspects of his personality that are the most striking to me. Consequently, I am not going to mention many of the fundamental themes of his theology; I apologize in advance for leaving them aside. Like a painter, I want to sketch a portrait of his face.
Let us begin with the words of a letter addressed to St. Paul:
“All human generations will not be enough to be educated by your writings and, through them, to be led to their complete fulfilment.” The author of these words is Seneca. Despite the fact that the exchange of letters between the philosopher and Paul is generally considered inauthentic – though some scholars, such as Marta Sordi believe that they could be – they remain a fundamental witness to Paul’s role in the first centuries of the Christian era. Indeed, the letters date no later than the 4th century A.D.
Paul of Tarsus is surely one of the greatest figures of human history. It is as if he were many personalities at once, united by a single understanding of the purpose of life. I am first going to describe his strength and then his tenderness.
As a young man, Paul became a disciple of Gamaliel, a leading rabbi, and he was devoted to reporting and persecuting the Christians. These he rightly believed were following a heresy dangerous to the Judaic law and were sustaining a mysterious force that called for an equally forceful punishment. He describes himself and the energy that animated him as follows: “Who was before a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious: but I obtained mercy” (Timothy 1:13). “I verily thought with myself, that I ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth…. Many of the saints did I shut up in prison … and compelled them to blaspheme; and being exceedingly mad against them, I persecuted them even unto strange cities” (Acts 26: 9-11). Finally, he writes in a letter, very briefly: “I persecuted the Church of God” (1 Corinthians 15:9).
After St. Stephen was stoned to death, which Paul assisted at and approved of (Acts 7:57; 8:1), a change occured in the depths of his soul, surely initiated by the Holy Spirit. Holzner writes: “The scene of St. Stephen’s stoning recurs in his memories many times (Acts 22:20 and 26:10; Galatians 1:23; 1 Corinthians 15:9). Saul never forgets that day, and the memory of it torments him until the end of his days.” St. Augustine writes. “If Stephen had not prayed, the Church would not have had St. Paul.” This was the beginning of the long path that led to a new understanding of his past life.
He discovered that his pedantic application of the law was nothing more than the attempt to forget that he couldn’t bring about his own salvation. He realized that he could not follow the law as he wanted—the same law that he wanted to devote his life to and which represented God. He realized that sin ruled his life. It was not a matter of denying the law, but of finding a way to live it, and that way was not to be found in the autonomous willpower of a man.
The conflict within his personality
“He was tortured by the inner conflict between what he willed and what he actually did.” On his own, Paul would not be able to give an answer; he would have been caught by a terrible depression, which can affect passionate spirits like his. He experienced a deep inner restlessness that demanded a definite and extreme love. In this agonizing conflict between his awareness of evil in himself and of the goodness of his personhood, he was saved by Jesus, since he could not compromise as a hypocrite might.
The experience of grace
In the common human experience of absolute powerlessness, grace was the foundation that supported Paul. The word “grace” has been used so often and in so many ways, that it has lost the power of its original meaning. For Paul, “grace” coincides to a great extent, if not exclusively, with the person of Jesus. A significant example of this can be found in his writings: “The grace of our Lord Jesus be with you” (Romans 16:20; 1 Corinthians 16:23; 2 Corinthians 13:13; Galatians 6:18; Philippians 4:23; 1 Timothy 5:28; 2 Thessalonians 3:18; Philemon 1:25). This word is even used to name the person of Jesus: “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men” (Titus 2:11). It is always used as a declarative genitive, having an explanatory function: the grace of Christ, the grace that is Christ.
We are also touching here on one of the most meaningful aspects of Giussani’s teaching. It was not accidental he favoured St. Paul’s epistles his whole life, along with John’s gospel. According to Giussani, the grace which is the essence of God’s life reaches us through an encounter: “The Christian event is an encounter. It is a human encounter in our ordinary, everyday life. A human encounter through which a man called Jesus, who was born in Bethlehem at a precise moment in history, is revealed as important to the very heart of our life.”
Paul experienced this encounter on the road from Jerusalem to Damascus. Now, because of paintings by Michelangelo and Caravaggio that spontaneously come to mind, you are probably imagining St. Paul galloping on his horse and falling, suddenly dazzled by a powerful light. None of this is found in the epistles or in the Acts of the Apostles.
Paul never uses the word “conversion.” He speaks instead of “revelation” and even more often of “vocation.” He goes through a very precise and real experience: God calls his name, and, despite the fact that He is actually telling him off, shows that He cares about Paul as no one has before. Paul is shocked. The One he has been persecuting responds with mercy, saving him from a desperate life and opening up the possibility of a new existence full of discovery and adventure. Jesus revealed the secrets of centuries, and Paul experienced an endless love beyond all human comprehension. In one of his letters, he wrote: “He loved me and gave Himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). The pronoun “me” carries the shock Paul experienced when he was actually touched by the endlessness of God, mercifully bending down over our nothingness, allowing us to be part of His greatness.
Why was Paul chosen?
The love that Christ manifested for Paul, like any other true love, cannot be explained. Nonetheless, this answer leaves us dissatisfied. We want to enter, on tiptoes, into the Mystery of this love. Why did Jesus choose Paul? Were the Apostles he already had not enough? Most importantly, were Peter and John not enough—the one that loved the most and the one that was the most loved? What was He looking for in Paul? What did He want from him? We cannot escape these questions, just as we cannot escape the fact that in His earthly life Jesus chose to surround Himself with diverse people. Of some we know their temperaments, characteristics, reactions, even their work. Only consider John, who from being “the son of thunder,” vehement and restless, became the symbol of meekness and love, enveloped in the embrace of his Friend.
Jesus wants to be surrounded by this diversity: He picks whomever He wants—He chooses through mercy—so that no one is left aside. He is aware that no one, however great, can express all the different facets of His divine humanity. It is not by chance that many gospels exist, making up for the fact that Jesus Himself did not leave any writings, and that the Church chose four of them. Jesus is the focal point, both in the history that originates in Him and in the lives of the men that He called and who became His reflection the more closely they followed Him. The saints are the reflections of those aspects of Jesus’ humanity that are not explicitly recounted in the gospels. I like to consider Paul, together with Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, the author of the “Pentateuch of the New Testament,” just as there is a Pentateuch in the Old Testament.
The diversity of His choices shows that Jesus is interested in bringing “communion” among people. Jesus chooses different people and to each of them assigns a task that cannot be carried out by anyone else. Each of us should reflect on the fact that in Jesus’ eyes every person has an absolutely crucial role; we are given a task that cannot be carried out by anybody else, and if we neglect it, it will remain unaccomplished.
Jesus chooses us for our unique personalities. He does not want to change them in any way. He doesn’t want to bewitch us. Paul’s experience shows this dramatically. Jesus chose Paul notwithstanding his violence, but precisely because of it. He actually wanted to make use of Paul’s great energy, just as He made use of Peter’s childish impetuousness or St. Francis’ dramatic playfulness or Thérèse of Lisieux’s essential simplicity. Simon becomes Peter, Saul becomes Paul, but the structures of their personalities, their limits and their sins, remain unchanged and a part of their new life. The Church is not afraid of tension. The tension between St. Paul and St. Peter was very strong, so strong, in fact, that if the Holy Spirit had not been present, they would have simply fallen out. St. Paul had unbounded culture and a complex temperament, neither of which St. Peter had. Peter is all of a piece, he is carved in stone—he betrayed Jesus and cried. Paul represents instead psychological complexity: Peter sinned through an excess of simplicity, Paul through an excess of complexity.
Was Paul a difficult personality?
Romano Guardini in his book Jesus Christ points out that Paul’s highly problematic personality continues even after his encounter with Jesus: “He must have felt strongly inferior and so tried to compensate through the continual recollection of his experience of Christ, as well as through endeavors and achievements that reached the limit of human capabilities.” Jesus takes advantage of this duality in Paul’s personality. “He was a troubled man,” writes Guardini. Commenting on a passage in the Second Letter to the Corinthians, when Paul speaks about his physical weakness (2 Corinthians 12:1-10), Guardini observes that Paul has a high opinion of himself which is wounded, but then recovered through his interior experiences. “The passage provides extensive evidence of the abrupt and violent manifestations of his life sentiment that were far from being balanced.”
It is therefore not surprising that alongside “his total and enthralling commitment, there can also be discerned in Paul’s personality a moving tenderness,” as Holzner writes. “Under the shining sight of the resurrected Christ, Paul is overwhelmed by endless energy focused to one purpose. Fanaticism is changed into the capacity for love which manifests itself later with the tenderness and meekness of a mother.”
His inner itinerary is crystal clear: Paul sees in the people that follow him, in the little communities that are starting to grow in the ocean of the Roman empire, the face and presence of the One who loves him. For him there is no difference between loving Christ and loving His people. This is what Jesus taught him when He asked, “Why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4; 22:7; 26:14). Looking at the love literature of the past centuries—from the works of Ovid, Horace, Dante, Petrarch to the longing for love expressed by our contemporary writers—a comparable ardour is not to be found, whether towards individuals or whole communities, an ardour at once tender and virile. Let us take a look at some of his expressions of love.
To the Philippians: “God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus” (1:8). Still addressing them: “I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body” (1:21-24). From the epistle to the Corinthians: “What I want is not your possessions but you” (2 Corinthians 14). In the same epistle: “What do you prefer? Shall I come to you with a whip, or in love and with a gentle spirit? “ (1 Corinthians 4:21). “So I will very gladly spend for you everything I have and expend myself as well” (2 Corinthians 12:15). “We have … opened wide our hearts to you. We are not withholding our affection from you, but you are withholding yours from us. As a fair exchange—I speak as to my children—open wide your hearts also” (2 Corinthians 6:11-13). “Make room for us in your hearts. … I have said before that you have such a place in our hearts that we would live or die with you” (2 Corinthians 7:2-3).
He describes his affection for the communities as a father or a mother might.
To the Corinthians: “Even though you have ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel” (1 Corinthians 4:14:15). To the Thessalonian community: “For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory” (1 Thessalonians 2:11-12). “We were gentle among you, like a mother caring for her little children. We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us” (1 Thessalonians 2:7-8).
On the cross with Christ
After the encounter on the road to Damascus, Paul conceives himself as completely dominated by Jesus. It is difficult to convey the power of his words. In the epistle to the Romans, he uses the expression “Servant of Jesus Christ” (Romans 1:1). The word “servant” conveys the deep desire to live close to Him, to serve Him, as much as he could. This is the great experience of Paul: the freedom to serve Jesus. “Freedom” does not simply mean having no master. Man feels free when he finds the One that fulfils his humanity because He is the Lord who created us and who knows us the most deeply. Joan of Arc said, “God must be served first.” The medievals wrote, “To serve God is to reign.” By using that opening sentence in his epistle to the Romans, “Servant of Jesus Christ,” Paul wants to express his boundless love for Him, which he fulfils by becoming tiny, i.e., “paulos,” in order to serve the infinite greatness of the Son of God made man. He was called to be an apostle by vocation (Romans 1:1; 1 Corinthians 1:1). That is, he was called by Jesus through the will of God. Some in the Church struggled to accept that this man, who had never met Christ and who had even been one of His persecutors, could claim to be His apostle. Suspicion of his person never left him; it was like rust, a disease that led to his death, if it is true that in the end he was turned in by spies envious of his position (cf. letter of Pope Clement III). This is the reason why; he repeats throughout his life that he was the apostle “sent not from men nor by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead” (Galatians 1:1). He was chosen to preach to all people on earth, not only Jews. Jesus, before ascending into Heaven, did actually say, “Go into all the world” (cf. Mark 16:15 and Matthew 28:19). Then He chose this man from Tarsus, and this commandment became the foundation of all the churches in the Mediterranean region. Some of the Apostles travelled to Egypt, others to India; they never forgot Jesus’ commandment. But Paul was called to bring the Gospel to heathens (cf. Romans 1:1). He plays the main role in this explicit revolution. He does not want a reward because he is not acting on his own initiative, but for a task that was entrusted to him (cf. 1 Corinthians 9:17). He was called and sent into the world by Someone else. Paul sees everything through Jesus’ eyes, and he is interested in everything simply because everything leads to Jesus: “I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:8). He did not gain his knowledge because he studied a theory, but because it was an actual experience. Through Paul, the experience of resurrection lives on, and by being part of His grief, he has become like Him in His death (cf. Philippians 3:10-11). He is a prisoner of Jesus (cf. Philemon 1:1). This identification with Jesus is the profound source of Paul’s action. It is the same kind of physical experience as that of St. Francis and Padre Pio, who both experienced the Crucifixion through the Stigmata. Nonetheless, it’s he, Paul, who was the first to write, “I have been crucified with Christ” (Galatians 2:20). Nobody else dared to say the same thing. It is a difficult experience to understand and to penetrate; we perceive the impossible deepness of Paul’s identification with Him, feeling both attracted and rejected. It is worth it to learn by heart the line taken from the epistle to the Galatians because it has often been commented upon, recalled, and repeated by Father Giussani, along with the most meaningful of its original translations. I can still hear him saying, or better, shouting, “I live, but it’s not me living, it is Christ living in me.” Again: “Despite living in the flesh” – not by chance he chose this line as the title of one of his books – “I live in the faith of the Son of God.” Through grace Paul completely identifies himself with Jesus, and in fact this gift is offered to all who are baptized.
It was Paul’s particular merit to reveal this reality of Christianity: Christians are actually born anew in Christ, they are one with Him. It is Christ who lives in this time in history and in this condition. Through the fragility of our flesh, He becomes concrete for every man, at every time in history.
Follow my example
“I wish that all men were as I am” (1 Corinthians 7:7). Paul’s experience with Christ is so strong that he wishes every one could live as he does, could share his gift, could enter into the relationship that he lives with reality. He does understand that this is not possible in practice since everyone has received a particular gift from God, different for each man. But his invitation remains unchanged: “Therefore I urge you to imitate me” (1 Corinthians 4:16). Thanks to his role as God’s ambassador to different people, in different nations, with different languages and cultures, he is well aware that unity does not equal uniformity. In Paul’s personality a radically monotheistic Jewish experience is combined with the elegance of the Greek language and spirit and the awareness of superiority as a Roman citizen. Each aspect must be united but not levelled: “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men. Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12: 4-7).
Paul recognises that people are sent by Christ as apostles, as prophets, as teachers, or with various other gifts (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:28). The radical choice that shaped all his life and his vocation made it possible for him to deal with different social realities, to face the most diverse problems and not to be afraid of the most dramatic crises.
Paul had amazing physical strength, as the details of his trips show: the miles travelled on foot or by boat, though the desert, towns, and cities of his times. His travel companions struggled to keep pace with him. Christ surely used the gift of such great strength as an instrument to spread the Gospel. The trait that’s most interesting to us is Paul’s willpower. In the First Letter to the Corinthians (4:10-13), he describes his life in a concise autobiography. In it, the verbs are plural—he always travelled with someone else, as Jesus had commanded His disciples: “We go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. We work hard with our own hands.” Then he clearly expresses his willpower: “When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly. Up to this moment we have become the scum of the earth, the refuse of the world.”
“I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that he considered me faithful, appointing me to his service” (1 Timothy 1:12). According to Paul, everything originates from this point: Jesus’ voice, His Person, His presence that is constantly at Paul’s side, speaking to him. “I can do everything through him who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:13). “For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline” (2 Timothy 1:7).
A strange conflict: strength and weakness
Paul experiences once again a strange conflict. The force that leads him to accomplish endeavours that astonish many Christians coexists with a feeling of constant weakness. The contrast that animated his life is powerfully manifested through the outward antithesis between strength and weakness. St. Paul seems to be saying: since I am weak, since I am aware of my misery and of men’s misery, since I am aware of my fundamental inadequacy, I am ready to receive everything from the Spirit of God (cf. 2 Corinthians 12:10). From the Holy Spirit, Paul actually does receive the strength that has been described earlier. Those who do not trust in themselves can completely abandon themselves to God, and from Him they will receive the energy for the most difficult and unforeseen missions.
Not only does Paul experience such a strength, but he also wants his brothers experience it and he imparts this to them as a certain fact, as the following passage shows: “And God is faithful; He will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear” (1 Corinthians 10:13). The strength to face temptation is the Spirit of God, a burning fire of charity. A few lines later he continues: “[Love] always perseveres” (1 Corinthians 13:7). And: “Be men of courage; be strong” (1 Corinthians 16:13). Finally, the most impressive expression of this paradox: “In all our troubles my joy knows no bounds” (1 Corinthians 7:4).
Law and Salvation
When we read St. Paul’s letters, particularly the ones to the Romans and the Galatians, the possibility of salvation through the law is constantly discussed and questioned. Earlier it was mentioned that Paul was strictly educated in the law, not only the one received by Moses from God on the Mount Sinai, but also the hundred thousand rules that had been established since. It has been mentioned that after St. Stephen’s death, Paul’s solid faith – which he had so vehemently defended until then – started to crack. Maybe he could hear the echo of the words of the prophets, who foretold that hearts of stone would become flesh (Ezekiel 11:19; 36:26) or that the time had come for a new circumcision of the heart (Jeremiah 4:4; 9:25; Ezekiel 44:7; 44:9). The prophets had already opened a path towards the inner observance of the word, rather than excessive compliance with the letter of the law. This is where God talks to man and makes possible things that he would otherwise never be able to accomplish. It is the beginning of a revolution. The law has not been abolished. Instead, we discover that the law would remain just a tablet listing all our sins and our death if we were not enabled by God to love Him and our brothers. Since he had so violently persecuted Christians, it is not difficult to understand why Paul becomes so radical and bitter when he talks about this issue. For this reason his statements should always be considered in the context of a whole letter and in the tradition from which they originated and never analysed as isolated extracts, as Luther did. “We are not under the law but under grace” (Romans 6:15): this is what Paul cries out in the face of those who feel overwhelmed by thousands of impossible precepts. It is the declaration of a new freedom. Jesus told the Jewish people that He had come to free them, and they answered that they had never been slaves to anyone (John 8:33). Paul picks up on this confrontation. “But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you wholeheartedly obeyed the form of teaching to which you were entrusted” (Romans 6:17-18).
Paul is the author of an unprecedented cultural shift. Under the Mosaic law – or outside it – a man was suffocated either by the weight of his desire for good which he could not satisfy, or else by the weight of the commandments that he could not fulfill, no matter how hard he tried. As a result, he was more and more entangled in a deathly and sinful experience. Through Paul’s experience that man is finally given freedom. The only thing to do is to welcome Jesus the Saviour and to embrace His Spirit, which will lead to God. The essence is still obedience, but this time it is for life, not for death, as it was before.
At that time, “freedom” was one of the most important words of the Greek vocabulary. The free people represented the heart of the nation and of the city. Paul turns the meaning of the word upside-down: he reveals the slavery concealed behind that apparent freedom and the liberty disclosed by this new obedience.
Paul: the true Catholic
With the intervention of Paul, the new Christians are ready to welcome every nation of the world. Both a continuation of and a break with the Jewish faith, the Church is born of Abraham, but is not confined to just one ethnicity.
Paul never denies his Jewish heritage, though condemning his past as a persecutor. He always perceives the Jewish people as his dearest brothers, those that were preferred by God through eternal promises that cannot be retracted: “God’s gifts and His call are irrevocable” (Romans 11:29). Paul even says that he would like to be extra-communicated in their favour, to be dismissed to leave enough room for them to enter. Nonetheless, he foresees that they will come back in a united Church, of which they remain the fundamental origin. John Paul II would say that we are their younger brothers; Paul calls Christians the “grafted branches” (cf. Romans 11:23-24). His attention is particularly focused on the heathens, who are the ones that he is called to convert to Christ. They comply with the laws of nature, and they act according to their reason, but we all know how fragile and weak human reason is. Paul’s aim is to spark the light of reason in every man, as a gift from God and made in His image. God can speak to everyone because of this shared humanity. He is not afraid of talking about a law written in the heart of each man (cf. Romans 2:15), which our conscience is a witness to and which surfaces in men’s reasoning. His confrontation at the Aeropagus in Athens is the chief example of this attempt. Even though he is apparently defeated, he is actually the winner, since on this occasion he outlined the path that he wants to lead every man on. He wants to give a name to the hidden God and to reveal that which man is waiting for, even without being aware of it (Acts 17:23).
The last theme I would like to touch on is Paul’s companions. Despite the fact that – as I have tried to make clear – he had a difficult personality, he always wanted to travel with some companions, and he even felt the need to have at his side some friends, to share Mystery he was experiencing and to educate them. They were not only people who executed his commands: the tension among them and the departure of some are a proof of this. The first Christian missionaries, as sent by Christ, went forth in groups of two. Paul’s companion during his first apostolic trip and then to Jerusalem for the council was Barnabas. He then travelled with Timothy, who wrote many of the letters with St. Paul and who would be the recipient of two of them. Paul identifies him as “a son.” In the letter to the Philippians (cf. Philippians 2:2), he writes that nobody else has his heart. Another companion was Silas or Silvanus, a Christian Jew who accompanied Paul on his second apostolic trip. In Ephesus, Paul met Aquila and Priscilla, a Roman couple who escaped after Emperor Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome. In Ephesus Paul stayed at their house, and he met them again in Rome. Another of his close companions is Titus, and there are also all the trusted people that supported him throughout his trips: Phoebe the deaconess, that is, the manager of a domestic business; Stephana in Korinthos; and many more. Paul’s heart needs to flow into other people’s hearts. He writes to Timothy: “I long to see you, so that I may be filled with joy” (2 Timothy 1;4); “Join with me in suffering for the Gospel” (2 Timothy 1:8). For all the above-mentioned reasons, it remains racking to read today the words that Paul wrote from his prison, when, at last, he was close to death. He writes to his beloved Timothy:
“Do your best to come to me quickly, for Demas, because he loved this world, has deserted me and has gone to Thessalonica. Crescens has gone to Galatia, and Titus to Dalmatia. Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry. I sent Tychicus to Ephesus. When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, and my scrolls, especially the parchments. Alexander the metalworker did me a great deal of harm. The Lord will repay him for what he has done. You too should be on your guard against him, because he strongly opposed our message. At my first defence, no one came to my support, but everyone deserted me. May it not be held against them. But the Lord stood at my side and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. And I was delivered from the lion’s mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and will bring me safely to His heavenly kingdom. To Him be glory for ever and ever. Amen.” (2 Timothy 4:9-19)
Extract from a meeting organized by the Cultural centre E Manfredini – Bologna, 15th January 2009 www.centromanfredini.it