On Saint Paul

Conversion of Saint Paul (Caravaggio)

Conversion of Saint Paul (Caravaggio)

January 25th—Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul

During his human life, Jesus chose twelve men to be His apostles; it was these men who formed the authoritative leadership of the Church after the Resurrection. Yet we also find among the apostles another figure: a man who did not join them until after Christ’s death and Resurrection, Saint Paul. After the Gospels, the book of Acts begins with the Twelve, but it ends with Paul. The epistles of the New Testament are predominated by Paul’s writing. Paul’s influence is such that some have claimed, implausibly but perhaps not unexpectedly, that Christianity is in fact a Pauline invention. How are we to understand, then, this preeminence of Paul? Why was Paul chosen to be one of the foremost spreaders of the Gospel in the early Church? Why do the Twelve, who spent their time with Christ while he was alive, seem almost to take a back seat to the zealous evangelism of this newcomer, who not only didn’t know Christ until after His Resurrection, but  was also an earlier persecutor of the Church?

The apostles are, first and foremost, witnesses. Christ is only significant if He is, in fact, the true historical figure we claim Him to be. In the end, it must be true that Christ lived and died and rose just as the Gospels claim that he did, or our faith is in vain (to quote Paul himself). Not being there ourselves to witness it historically, we must rely on the witness of the apostles. The Twelve were all there; they saw Jesus in his ordinary human life. They scattered when He was crucified, it is true, but they were there during His ministry, and they saw Him after the Resurrection. The Twelve, as witnesses, are witnesses of Christ’s real life, death, and Resurrection. They are necessary for our belief that He really lived.

Paul is a little different. Paul’s encounter with Christ is not less real than that of the Twelve, yet it is distinct in that it is solely an encounter with the risen Christ. Paul is, in a sense, an Apostle for the latter time, an Apostle not for the days of the Incarnation, but for the Last Age. Salvation history may be divided into three periods: the time before Christ, the time during His life, and the time after His Resurrection. Paul belongs entirely to this last period. St. Paul is the first apostle whose experience of Christ is like ours, in that it occurred after the event. Paul is chosen, in his own words, “last of all.” Yet this last place of witness is the first, in fact, of the modern Church.

There is no end to the reasons of Providence. I can only speculate, but Paul’s early influence might have been God’s way of emphatically beginning the mission of the missionary Church. Paul is the first leader  of the very first “New Evangelization”. Paul’s job, unlike the Twelve, is not to follow Christ as teacher during His earthly life; it is to bring the resurrected Christ to the world afterwards. Every believer who comes to Christ after His death must come to Him, in a certain sense, secondhand. Aside from the first disciples, individual Christians will not share the experience living daily life with Christ before his death. We only have the experience of Paul, of finding Christ after His Resurrection, when His reality is subject to the doses of skeptical criticism that so mark our times.

Skeptics do not wish to be duped; they just demand “reasons to believe.” Skepticism may of course be a cover for pride and a resistance to grace, but skepticism may also be healthy. Hilaire Belloc wrote that the sane and honest skeptic is in fact the nearest in mind and spirit to the sane and honest Catholic. God does not wish us to be dupes, either. Our belief, if perfected in grace and faith, ought to begin in nature and reason. How can we, though, who live two millennia later, believe like those men who saw Christ in his ordinary life, who “saw Him with their eyes and held Him in their hands”?

Paul faces our dilemma. Paul must believe, as we must believe, only after the events which define Christ’s eternal significance occurred. And yet it remains true that, as Christians, we are called to assent to the reality of a historical event and person. Saint Paul is the “Modern Apostle” in this sense: that he, like us, knows Christ after the fact, and yet is called, and in fact exemplifies, a life of total dedication to Him. If our faith is true and not a delusion, Paul is not shy about the necessity of evidence and of verification that the facts around His historical life are true. Yet Paul also knows that evidence can only go so far. Even though we have every good reason to believe in Christ, Paul knows, faith is necessary to complete the connection.  Faith is, finally, a supernatural gift. It can only be given by God to each individual man, and accepted as such. Paul stands forth as an example of the way.

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