What St. Paul can teach us about living the faith in 2023

saint paul statue saint paul seminary
The statue of St. Paul overlooks the courtyard at The Saint Paul Seminary.

By now, perhaps you’ve heard the phrase “New Apostolic Age” thrown about in Catholic circles. There are a few ways this can be defined, but suffice it to say there’s a movement within the Church to draw on inspiration from the Apostles; after all, they were charged with living and spreading the faith in a time and culture when it wasn’t very popular.

Which is where find ourselves today.

One follower of Christ himself who can serve as a primary model is St. Paul. You probably know him as “the guy who had St. Stephen stoned, converted and went on to write a lot of the New Testament.”

But there’s more to St. Paul than this brief biography. The story of Paul about 2,000 years ago shows how Catholics can lead and live in faith today.

A deep conviction from personal experience

caravaggio conversion way damascus
Caravaggio’s “Conversion on the Way to Damascus.”

To be credible leaders, teachers and preachers, we need to be able to give personal testimony to Christ working in our lives. St. Paul based much of his ministry and teaching off his own experience.

Each year, the Church celebrates the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul on Jan. 25. This pivotal moment in Church history is beautiful depicted in Caravaggio’s “Conversion on the Way to Damascus.” While traveling from Jerusalem to Damascus to arrest followers of Jesus, Saul — a devout Jew — was met by a blinding light and the voice of Christ asking “Saul, why do you persecute me?” This dramatic conversion experience caused Saul to change his name to Paul and, instead of hunting down Christians, joining them. He went on to travel throughout the region proclaiming the Gospel, eventually being imprisoned and put to death by the Romans in about 67 A.D.

It’s from prison that Paul wrote many of his letters, called epistles, that make up the New Testament.

In one of them, Paul points out how during and after his conversion he was  keenly aware of his unworthiness (1 Corinthians 15:9-10a).

St. Luke relates Paul’s conversion story three times in the Acts of the Apostles: Acts 9, 22 and 26.

Acts also displays Paul from St. John Chrysostom’s perspective as he says, from the Liturgy of the Hours: “The most important thing of all to [Paul], however, was that he knew himself to be loved by Christ. Enjoying this love, he considered himself happier than anyone else; were he without it, it would be no satisfaction to be the friend of principalities and powers. … So, too, in being loved by Christ he thought of himself as possessing life, the world, the angels, present and future, the kingdom, the promise and countless blessings. … Death itself and pain and whatever torments might come were but child’s play to him, provided that thereby he might bear some burden for the sake of Christ.”

Paul’s theology of justification in his Letter to the Romans reads  “[The Gospel] is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: for the Jew first, and then Greek” (Romans 1:16a).

Paul also enlightens us by writing “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, to prove his righteousness because of the sins previously committed” (Romans 3:23-25).

Furthermore, in Romans 8, St. Paul often references “new life in Christ.”

If you’re Catholic, you believe you, too, have been given this new life. And we can share the story of it with those around us as a means of evangelization.


Zeal and charity

St. Paul’s zeal and heart for others begins with the first moment of his conversion (Acts 19:19b-22). His openness to the Lord’s will makes way for him to make a gift of himself for others.

In the seminary world, this is how we speak of the journey of formation: a transition from self-awareness to self-possession to self gift. Just Google the term “self-awareness” and you’ll see dozens of books and talks from thought leaders claiming this as a key to happiness.

This is made apparent in St. Pauls’ life by his drive to evangelize, especially to the Gentiles (see Romans 11:13 and 15:16; 1 Corinthians 9:16 and 9:19).

“When I came to you, brothers, proclaiming the mystery of God, I did not come with sublimity of words or of wisdom. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness and fear and much trembling, and my message and my proclamation were not with persuasive [words of] wisdom, but with a demonstration of spirit and power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom but on the power of God.” (1 Corinthians 2:1-5)

If you have time, read Acts and trace on a map around the modern-day Mediterranean and Middle East that Paul traversed. Luke records three main journeys covering a ton of miles — by both land and see — in Acts 13, 16-18 and 19-20. His travels weren’t easy (2 Corinthians 11:23b-28).

Nor was his final “missionary journey” to Rome, where Paul was eventually martyred in the ultimate gift of self.

We aren’t all called to be physical martyrs. But the act of being a gift of self to those around us — even via small gestures — is often more impactful than the words we say.

Charisms and gifts of the Holy Spirit

Every human being created by God has some combination of spiritual gifts from Him.

There are two types of spiritual gifts that we have. One type is the seven sanctifying gifts of the Holy Spirit which are to help make us holy (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1845):

  • Wisdom
  • Understanding
  • Counsel
  • Fortitude
  • Knowledge
  • Piety
  • Fear of the Lord

The second type of spiritual gifts is the various charisms which are ordered to helping make other people holy, i.e., gifts for ministry (CCC 800).

Paul gives lists of charisms three times: Romans 12:6-8; 1 Corinthians 12:8-10, 13:1-3; and Ephesians 4:11.

“Charisms are to be accepted with gratitude by the person who receives them and by all members of the Church as well,” the Catechism says. “They are a wonderfully rich grace for the apostolic vitality and for the holiness of the entire Body of Christ.” (CCC 800)

Paul offers a pretty thorough catechesis on the charisms in 1 Corinthians 12-14. He does this by encouraging us to desire them and to be eager to receive them. We can read how he wants us to be educated in them. We are enlightened by his words that the various charisms all come from the same Holy Spirit, so we should avoid any semblance of superiority or pride. We read in 1 Corinthians 13 that love is above all and is to govern all and are then reminded of the authenticity of the gifts is to be discerned and that they are to be exercised in good order.

Paul exercised the charisms himself and imparted them to others; we can read a general description of this in Romans 15:18-19, 1 Thessalonians 2:5, Colossians 1:29, and 1 Corinthians 2:4-5. Examples of specific gifts that Paul exercised in these passages are tongues (1 Corinthians 14:18, Romans 8:26), prophecy (Acts 16:9-10, 1 Corinthians 14:31), healing (Acts 14:8-10, Acts 20:10, Acts 28:9), and discernment of spirits and deliverance (Acts 16:16-18).

Like priests and bishops today, Paul laid hands on others and imparted the Holy Spirit and the gifts to others (Acts 19:6-7, 2 Timothy 1:6-7).

‘Hold fast to what is good’

Paul tells us in 1 Thessalonians 5:21 to “test all things; hold fast to what is good.”

If we take this approach to the world in which God has placed us, we, like Paul, can begin to share his Good News with those in it.

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