I think it’s important for all of us, just once in our lives, to go to the places of the Saints, so that we can soak up their spirit, which never leaves these areas. There is such a strong sense of the Saints at their shrines. It permeates your skin, and goes deep into your soul.
That’s what happened when we went to the Church of St. Paul Outside the Walls, in Rome. Paul was martyred in this area. After the Church was legitimized by Constantine, his bones were brought back to this spot, to be his final resting place. When we walked through the gates of the courtyard, a formidable statue of St. Paul loomed high above us. He wielded a huge sword; he stared deep into our souls. He was so strong! We asked our guide why he was buried outside the city walls. The guide raised himself to his full five feet, two inches, and proclaimed, “It was his right as a Roman citizen, Signor. The Christians were fed to the lions in the Colosseum during the persecution. But Paul was allowed to die outside the city walls with dignity, as was his birthright.” That didn’t make any sense. He was a Pharisee from the Holy Land, as best we knew. He was converted in Damascus, knocked down off his high horse, so to speak. How did he get to be a Roman citizen?
Then we went to the Mamertine Prison in Rome. This was Paul’s home prior to his death. We walked down, deep into the dark, damp hole of the cave, There was a dim light from a bare 30 watt bulb, dangling from the ceiling. An exhaust fan made a feeble attempt to suck out the foul-smelling, humid air, which permeated the prison. It was damp and gloomy, a very depressing scene. And that was now, in the twentieth century! We could not begin to imagine how it had been when Paul was imprisoned here. Our priest was well-versed in Scripture, and the historical background of the Gospel. He shared with us the ending of Paul’s letter to the Philippians. He shared Paul’s last testimony to Timothy. They are the most touching, uplifting, beautiful letters Paul wrote. And they were written here, in the stinking bowels of the earth. We had never known much about this pioneer and martyr for our Faith, but here in this cell, we came to love him very much.
That’s how they get you, these Saints. You ask a little question; you discover something that doesn’t quite fit in, and the next thing you know, you’re deeply engrossed in the life of the Saint. This is how we began to learn about Paul. We didn’t do it to share with anyone. We were in love with Church. This man was our Church! We had to know more about him. Who was he? What made him turn so completely towards Jesus and the Gospel message, at the height of his persecution of the Church? We know now, why the Lord gave us the gift of being able to search out and study this man. Jesus wants us to know about those who struggled and died for us; He wants us to be proud of our ancestors, and never forget them! He wants us to follow in their footsteps. On that note, we invite you to join us as we share the life of one of the most powerful men our Church has ever known, St. Paul the Apostle.
Paul was born in Tarsus, a port city in the southeastern part of Turkey. He was from a Jewish family, who traced their roots back to the tribe of Benjamin. This Jewish community had been sent to Tarsus during the Diaspora. Pompey had made Tarsus the capital of the province of Cilicia. Mark Anthony gave the people of Tarsus freedom, immunity, and the right to become Roman citizens, which accounts for Paul’s reference to, and pride in, his Roman citizenship. He invoked his rights as a Roman citizen many times during his ministry to get out of some serious scrapes with the Jews.
Paul was originally named Saul, after the first king of the Jews. But the Jews in Tarsus had assimilated so greatly with the Romans that he was probably given the Roman equivalent of Saul, which is Paul, at birth. He was called Paul in public, and Saul among Jewish gatherings. It was not unusual for Jews who had integrated into foreign cultures to take on a Hebrew name, and an ethnic name. He grew up under two cultures, that of his Hebrew ancestors, and the Greco-Roman customs of his adopted country. He was greatly influenced by the Greek background; Greek was a second language to him; he studied Greek philosophers.
Nothing is certain as to when he came to Jerusalem. His whole family moved there when he was a young man. The year 30 A.D. is as good a barometer as it gets. Scripture scholars claim there was little possibility that he ever saw Jesus during His lifetime. There are others who believe that, while he may never have spoken to the Lord, he may have seen Him before His death. Remember, they really frequented the same circles. They were at different ends of the spectrum, but they were both religious men.
Paul was a Pharisee. He studied under Gamaliel for three or four years. This would have been during the time of Jesus’ ministry, 30 to 33 AD. Jesus became very prominent after the arrest and murder of John the Baptist, probably about a year or so into His ministry. The temple area of Jerusalem was always abuzz with rumors about this new Prophet. The personality of Paul was that of a zealot, a nosy body, who had to know everything that was going on, all the time. Also, he was a defender of the Jewish law, which he believed Jesus was breaking. Paul would have agreed with those who considered Jesus a blasphemer and lawbreaker, who should be dealt with accordingly.
We don’t mean to imply for a minute that Paul was ever a vindictive person. He was a passionate person. The Lord can work with people like Paul. His passion was for God. He had committed himself to the service of God. He truly believed he was doing the Lord’s will in stamping out these blasphemers (Christians). The same firebrand fervor he employed in defending God against the Christians, was put to use in proclaiming our Lord Jesus Christ, after Paul’s conversion. It’s so exciting to see God in action! He chooses His people so carefully. We believe, Paul was part of the Divine Plan from before the beginning of time. He was groomed so well for his part in Salvation history. The area of the world in which he was born, his knowledge of the Greek and Roman languages and cultures, his schooling in Jerusalem, all of this was necessary for his role in proclaiming the Gospel throughout the Roman Empire. We can’t help but see the Lord’s Hand in Paul’s development.
All of the above is just to give us a feeling for this man specially chosen by God. We have to see him as a very human, very touchable role model. He had all the shortcomings of man: ambition, impulsiveness, pride, anger, bullheadedness and a sharp tongue. However, when used for the glory of God, they were turned into selflessness, determination, durability, suffering, poverty, fearlessness, humiliation and persecution besides. He could get extremely hot in defense of his converts, and the next moment, he could be as tender as a lamb. He ran the gamut of emotions, and offered all to his God. You have to know who this “Great Lion of God” was, and what made him tick.
The first mention of Paul in the Gospel is as the young man who piled coats of those who stoned St. Stephen to death. After the stoning of Stephen, the Christians scattered all over the area. Saul became the dread of the Christians as he received permission to hunt them down and crush the movement. He began in Jerusalem, tracking down Christians, going into house after house, dragging men and women out and throwing them into jail. His reputation spread throughout Judea and Syria, very quickly. His very name brought fear to Christians.
Saul was not a vindictive or vengeful person, but he had a mission. He contended, he was ridding the Hebrew community of a plague that threatened its very existence. And as we mentioned before, he was very ambitious. Once given a job, he went at it tooth and nail. He believed, the Lord had called him to do this. It was towards this end that Paul went to Damascus. He was on a roll! He had begun a momentum, which could not stop until all these offenders who had adopted this “new way,” had been stamped out. It was about this time Jesus decided that He and Saul should have a talk. This confrontation took place on the road to Damascus.
Saul and his cohorts were traveling at breakneck speed to get to Damascus. A brilliant flash of light streaked across the sky. Saul was thrown to the ground. He tried to see what had happened, but the strong beam blinded him. He heard a voice; his head turned quickly in the direction of the sound. He could make out a figure, but it was hazy. “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Who could this be, he wondered. “Who are you, sir?” The voice responded, “I am Jesus, the one you are persecuting.” Jesus? How could this be Jesus? He was dead! Then Saul could see more clearly through the haze. The figure of a man became visible to him. It was Jesus! Saul could actually make out the figure of Jesus. The voice continued, “Get up and go into the city, where you will be told what to do.” The figure of Jesus faded slowly, and then all went black. Saul could see nothing. He got up, groped around, completely blind, though his eyes were wide open.