St. Paul’s Areopagus Confidence

areopagusLet’s pause and admire the serene confidence with which St. Paul stood and spoke in the Athenian Areopagus.


Fearless, first of all, because he knew that his speech appealed to something that dwells in the heart of every human being:  the desire for God.

As we read at the beginning of the Catechism…

The desire for God is written in the human heart, because man is created by God and for God; and God never ceases to draw man to himself…This invitation to converse with God is addressed to man as soon as he comes into being. For if man exists, it is because God has created him through love, and through love continues to hold him in existence. Man cannot live fully according to truth unless he freely acknowledges that love and entrusts himself to his creator.  (CCC 27)

St. Paul was fearless also because he preached the answer to the question of man.  Man’s desire for God is a question, a question that words cannot adequately express.  God Almighty, Who has a Word more sublime than our human languages, has answered.  The answer is Jesus.

We, too, can stand and bear witness, with the same serene confidence that St. Paul had.  If the Athenians had chosen to stone St. Paul, he was ready.  If they had chosen to embrace him and demand more attention, he was ready.  If they chose to ignore him, he was ready.

St. Paul stood and spoke because he loved.  He loved the unseen God.  He loved the Word of God, Jesus Christ.  And he loved the Athenians, because he loved everybody.  We can love all the Roanokers, and everybody else we know–and stand and bear witness fearlessly, too.

St. Barnabas Miscellanea

Raphael Sacrifice at Lystra
Raphael, Sacrifice at Lystra

You probably remember that, six weeks ago, we read from Acts, chapter 13, as part of our Easter-season Scripture reading at Mass. We heard the narration of Sts. Barnabas and Paul setting sail from Syria to begin their first missionary journey. We paused to venerate that beautiful and decisive moment.

That moment also led to the most comical episode in the New Testament. Barnabas and Saul eventually reached the pagan town of Lystra, in Asia Minor. Paul healed a crippled man who believed the Gospel. The townspeople then decided that Barnabas and Paul must be… the gods Zeus and Hermes. The priest prepared oxen to sacrifice to them.

“Men, why are you doing this?! We are human beings like you! We proclaim the good news that you should turn from your idols to the living God, Who made heaven and earth and sea and all that is in them.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church quotes St. Barnabas on two important points…

1) “Do not live entirely isolated, as if you were already justified, but gather instead to seek the common good together.”

2) “You shall not slay the child by procuring an abortion.”

St. Barnabas loved his native Cyprus. He returned there after his many journeys to see to the Christian education of his people. Barnabas lived to be an old man, but eventually enemies of his from Syria came to Cyprus and conspired to have him killed. Barnabas suffered martyrdom by stoning.

Pray for us, holy apostle Barnabas! Give us a share in your majestic humility and zeal for souls!

Two Antiochs

Every year during the Easter season, Mother Church has us read Acts 13. The Apostle Paul has sailed to Cyprus, and now to Asia Minor. Then he traveled inland to Antioch in Pisidia.

antiochs-mapSidenote: There are two kinds of people. People who clearly understand the difference between Antioch in Syria and Pisidian Antioch, and people who can’t even spell Antioch or Pisidia or Syria.

The two New-Testament locations named Antioch were separated by the same distance that Martinsville, Va. is separated from Cincinnati, Ohio, which is a little further than the drive from Phoenix to Los Angeles.

One of the ancient Antiochs was a major commercial and cultural center, one of the great cities of the world. Namely, Syrian Antioch. The other was a small outpost, high on a plateau, a retirement village for pensioned Roman centurions. Pisidian Antioch.

No offense to anyone, but people who want to be taken seriously as readers of New Testament are required to be in Category #1, when it comes to knowing about the two Antiochs.

Because: When Paul arrived in Pisidian Antioch, it was a place where people had heard of God. A lot of them had heard of Moses and King David. Some of them had even heard of John the Baptist. But no one knew that the Christ had come. So St. Paul told them.

My point is that this is where we live. In the synagogue in Pisidian Antioch, St. Paul gave a nice straightforward speech. He explained what had come to pass–namely the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. He explained how this affected his audience, namely that now they had a chance to repent and believe. Some of them did.

We live under similar circumstances, and we have the same opportunity. St. Paul, pray for us! That we might have the same zeal for souls as you had. That the Lord might use us, like He used you, to help souls find Christ and get to heaven.

Setting Sail from Syrian Antioch

Sent forth by the holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia and from there sailed to Cyprus. (Acts 13:4)

Speaking for myself, I feel a fairly deep sense of reverence for the verses of the Acts of the Apostles that we read at Holy Mass today. Barnabas and Saul sailed from Antioch on the Orontes, and they made for Salamis, on the east end of the isle of Cyprus. And thus began…

The missionary journeys of St. Paul. The one whom St. Thomas Aquinas calls “The Apostle.”

Anyone ever heard of Odysseus and Aeneas, the heroes of the ancient pagan epics? Crafty, brave, muscular warriors, irresistible to the ladies. Odysseus and Aeneas sailed like Barnabas and Paul sailed, hoisting canvas in the Mediterranean wind, putting their future entirely into the hands of higher powers, into the hands of destiny.

But the drama of the ancient heroic pagan epics does not hold a candle to the adventure lived by the Apostle, the bookish Pharisee from Tarsus. Odysseus and Aeneas had wind, wit, will, and wanderlust. St. Paul had the Gospel of salvation and the power of the Holy Spirit. Odysseus and Aeneas left the legacy of successful sons of fortune. St. Paul built up the Church of God.

What the Apostle bequeathed, time has not erased. And I don’t just mean his letters–written in the throes of complicated circumstances, the particulars of which we can only begin to grasp–letters which nonetheless deliver to us the enduring Word of God.

No, not just his letters in the New Testament. St. Paul’s amazing adventure across the Mediterranean gave birth to Christian communities, to local churches, flowing with the sap that gives life to the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church of Jesus Christ.

Even though St. Paul lived a celibate life, he became a father in a way that Aeneas never did. Aeneas was revered by the ancient Romans as their father. But the chaste Apostle makes the lady-killing Aeneas look less-than-virile by comparison.

The Apostle sailed the Mediterranean in order to give to the poor the Good News of Jesus Christ. He hardly did it by swashbuckling, dashing gallantry. He made extra money by spending his days making tents. Not exactly romantic.

But, sailing hither and yon across the Mediterranean, St. Paul lived the adventure of divine love. Every day he grew closer to Christ, by sharing what he knew of Christ with others. And what greater adventure could there be?

Don’t we want to be on the boat, setting out from Antioch, with Barnabas and Saul? The wide sea opening before us, with the prospect of souls on all the father shores, with whom the Lord is asking us to share His love?

That adventure awaits us even now. That ship is sailing even now. The adventure that St. Paul lived is by no means over. In truth, it has only just begun.


mosaic-saint-paulEvery once in a blue moon, January 25 falls on a Sunday.

On January 25, the Church commemorates the conversion of Saul of Tarsus to Her faith.

Usually, our observance of Sunday supersedes this commemoration.

But: The last time January 25 fell on a Sunday, we were in the middle of keeping a whole year in honor of the two-thousandth anniversary of St. Paul’s birth.

So Pope Benedict XVI allowed the celebration of the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul on Sunday that year.

Looking back, I see I gave a homily about St. Paul’s interpretation of the phrase “Kingdom of God.”

Philemon and Cabrini

Holy Mass on Mother Cabrini's tomb.  She was beatified 76 years ago today!
Holy Mass on Mother Cabrini’s tomb. She was beatified 76 years ago today! (photo credit Mr. Dan Shanahan)

Hard to imagine any document more truly ennobling to the reader than St. Paul’s letter to Philemon. My dime-store summary:

Dear Philemon,

Your beloved slave Onesimus (whose name means ‘useful’) found me here in prison. Since running away from you, he has become a Christian, like you. As I know that you aspire to a true practice of the religion of Christ, I point out the following to you.

1. You owe me your life, as if you were my bondslave in the Lord, since I preached the Gospel of salvation to you and baptized you. I won you from the devil. You are, in the sight of God, my chattel.

But as I, too, strive to follow in the footsteps of the humble, divine Servant of mankind, I will not give you any orders. I leave you free to choose what you believe is the best course.

2. Mr. Useful, according to the calculus of this passing world, has a discrete monetary value to you, as your slave. By running away from you, he has effectively robbed you of that amount. If you wish, I myself will pay you that debt in cash, in order to make you whole monetarily.

3. Now that he, too, has been redeemed by Christ from the eternal slavery of sin, you must regard Mr. Useful as a brother. No longer just useful, but now beloved. I would rather that he stayed here with me–since he really is remarkably useful! 🙂 But that would be stealing; that would be me forcing your hand—which I will not do. So I send Mr. Useful, my beloved brother, back to you, who are also my beloved brother. I will not use either of you.

I request, I beg you to be useful to me, and treat Mr. Useful as something more than useful.

Love, Paul

Being useful can lead to a person feeling used. The Christian never uses another human being as a means to an end. Because the Christian is free with the freedom of God.

Seeing a fellow human being as a slave, as a means, a tool—to see the world that way is the worst slavery of all. It means being trapped in the jail of a world without love.

But if I see in my neighbor’s eyes the doorway to an invisible throne room, where a human person chooses the good, chooses love, chooses God—if I behold the tabernacle of freedom in my neighbor, then I have been liberated from the slavery of using people. And I live now in the wide-open freedom of the only absolutely free One, namely God.

Peter, Paul, Rome, and Us

peterpaulEvery year we keep a solemnity in honor of the founders of the church in Rome. Every five or six years, this feast day falls on a Sunday. This year, the Solemnity of Ss. Peter and Paul not only falls on Sunday, it falls on a Sunday during… Well, during two things.

1. Each summer now for three summers, we have prayed and fasted for two weeks, a fortnight. For freedom of religion in America.

The ancient Romans believed supernatural powers upheld their vast empire. The emperor encouraged everyone to believe that he was divine as well as human. And it annoyed him immensely when events occurred that made him look weak in the supernatural department. Things like military defeats. Or like the city of Rome burning down in a massive fire. How to explain such cruel luck when a divine emperor ruled? Well, it must have happened because the Christians refused to offer the customary pagan sacrifices.

Continue reading “Peter, Paul, Rome, and Us”

Bringing God’s Word to Completion

Iron Butterfly

St. Paul wrote to the Colossians:

I am a minister of the Body of Christ…to bring to completion for you the word of God. (1:25)

To bring the word of God to completion for you.

Now, in this letter, it seems that St. Paul was addressing a largely non-Jewish audience. In other words, a confused and deluded, formerly pagan audience. At the beginning of the letter, the Apostle gave them a vivid image by which they can understand reality. To summarize:

The Creator made all things through His eternal Word, Who is now made man, Jesus. Jesus gives the universe and history its center. His resurrection began the final fulfillment of God’s original purpose in creating the world. Everything has been made to serve as a kind of choir, giving praise to the eternal glory of the Maker. Christ sings the first voice of the choir, by the entirety of His life. All the rest of the music proceeds from Him, as we strive to harmonize.

Continue reading “Bringing God’s Word to Completion


St. Paul in Prison by Rembrandt

On every page of every letter of St. Paul preserved in the New Testament, we can feel the tension between the fact of his physical removal from his audience and his desire to share what he has with them.

He loves the written word, because it allows him to communicate across the vast Mediterranean. But he hates it, because he would prefer to be there. In most of his letters, St. Paul writes to people he knows well, people he loves, people he would still be with—were it not for the inexorable impulse from above which keeps him moving to spread the kingdom of Christ.

Like all the “books” of the New Testament, St. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians bears witness to the inadequacy of written words to convey the Gospel. I & II Corinthians, the canonical gospels, the entire New Testament: really just a beautiful shadow of the immeasurably more beautiful reality to which all these documents testify.

mosesSo: our passage from the first reading at Holy Mass today

The context: I am writing to you again because I wrote before, and yet you still carry on like non-Christians. Yes, my letters have authority. But the real “letter” I want to write is: you Corinthians.

You, acting like members of Jesus’ Body, like redeemed children of eternity. That is the only letter I really want to “write,” and would that I could write it by standing there among you and teaching you in person!

Does St. Paul go on to compare himself to Moses, to the pre-eminent prophet who spoke face-to-face with God and returned to the children of Israel with skin blazing with divine glory? Yes, the Apostle does presume to compare himself to Moses. But only because Christ is Christ. Because Christ is God reconciling to Himself all the sinners who have broken Moses’ holy law.

If Moses’ face shone—if the face of the man who saw God inscribe the Law of justice, in words, shone—then how much more will the face of the Apostle of Christ shine? Christ Who is Justice and Who gives justice to the unjust. Christ the one and altogether true Word of divine love, Who makes all other words sound like gongs and clanging cymbals.

St. Paul wrote with a fire and a zeal, with a sympathy and an insight, that few writers could claim to possess. After all, he wrote as a chosen Apostle of the divine Redeemer, a messenger of Revelation.

But St. Paul would prefer not to write with words on paper. He would prefer face-to-face. Face-to-face with his audience to teach them about coming face-to-face God.

Customs and Evangelization (Understanding Galatians)

The first age of history awaited the coming of Christ. Right after the Fall of man, the Lord promised a Redeemer Who would crush the head of Satan. Then He promised Abraham that the world’s blessing would come from among Abraham’s descendants. As a sign of his faith in this promise, Abraham submitted to circumcision.

Forty-two generations passed between the Lord’s promise to Abraham and its fulfillment in the womb of the Virgin. Plenty of time to build up a complex set of customs, even if your nation isn’t being given explicit commandments by Almighty God Himself. When you throw that into the mix, you wind up with customs that have all the trappings of sacredness. Circumcision may not be pretty, but sacred? Yes.

However: The actual coming of the promised Messiah requires a thorough re-evaluation of all customs, no matter how sacred. Yes, the Lord commanded circumcision as a sign of Abraham’s faith in what was to come. But now that the hope of ancient Israel has been fulfilled, and Abraham himself has rejoiced to see the day of Christ, maybe we don’t necessarily have to insist that all new Christian men submit to the mohel’s knife?

Indeed not. The Messiah said baptize, not circumcise. Circumcision was always a symbol of the interior reality anyway. As the Lord put it through the prophet Jeremiah (4:4), Remove the foreskins, not of your outer members, but of your hearts!

Now, certainly it is true that, without our established customs, we lose our way altogether. When in doubt—which we often are—it usually makes sense just to do things the way we have “always” done them. The longer we have been doing something in a particular way, the more likely that there are a million reasons, which we don’t even know, as to why we should, indeed, do it that way.

But no custom can bind us definitively unless Jesus Christ Himself instituted it. Christ Himself, and His love for every human being, must be the measure of all human customs.

We live in the age of the New Evangelization, which means we must consider ourselves the spiritual brothers and sisters of the Apostles and first Christians. A world that does not know the Savior awaits us, and that world needs Christ.

The world, though, does not necessarily need to be like us. Yes, like us, precisely to the extent that Christ has taken over our lives. Yes, like us, if “like us” means like the saints. But, otherwise, Christ wants everyone to be themselves. On the one hand, there are the basic rules of Christian living, the fundamental principles of decency, justice, and respect. Then, on the other hand, there is the breathtaking array of ways in which God has made us to be ourselves.

Our parish communities have excellent customs. Some of them may have been originated by the Apostles, like serving spaghetti dinners one Friday a month, or eating cookies after Mass, or having committees.

But: There are our community’s beautiful particular customs, and then there is the fundamental life of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. We always have to keep in mind that everyone is welcome to experience, and indeed everyone has a right to experience, the fundamental life of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church right here in our parish-church buildings.

In other words, everyone has the right to hear the Word of God and to receive the sacraments from the hands of the priest, according to the rules established by a higher authority than us—and that is the fundamental reason why our buildings were built.

The more we keep this in mind, the more evangelical a community we will be.