September 26, 2008

Seeking the Face of the Lord

Year of St. Paul is a good time to read about great missionary

Pope Benedict XVI encouraged us to observe the “Year of St. Paul” beginning last June.

I can’t think of a better way to do that than to take time through the coming year to pick up the Bible and read from the Acts of the Apostles and the letters of St. Paul.

St. Paul is arguably the greatest missionary of all time and, in his writings, one picks up a vivid picture of his striking personality with all the human traits one would expect.

His endeavors were not very successful in the beginning of his missionary activities. In fact, early on he had pretty well given up this ministry.

It was only because St. Barnabas went looking for him and brought him to Antioch that Paul’s teaching of faith in Jesus Christ took hold. He became the premier missionary to the pagan world, but was often misunderstood and suffered severe persecution until he was finally martyred in Rome.

I don’t intend to share all the details of St. Paul’s life, most of which are pretty familiar to us, as we hear his words during the three-year cycle of scriptural readings at Mass.

It seems to me that it would be appropriate to identify some of the traits of this great evangelizer and pursue them in our own spiritual lives in an intentional way during this year especially dedicated to him.

It may be encouraging and therefore helpful for our spiritual development if we acknowledge from the start that Paul was quite human, that is to say, that he was far from perfect.

The quest for holiness is not only for those who seem perfect. We strive for holiness no matter what personal challenges we face because of our weaknesses.

Paul was a driven man and, when Jesus called him to conversion, he was a fierce and feared persecutor of Christians. He had to be knocked to the ground and temporarily blinded on the road to Damascus in order for Jesus to get his attention and bring him to conversion.

In other words, on the surface of things, Paul was not a likely candidate to become a Christian missionary.

First of all, then, we can note that no matter how limited we may be, we too, like him, can become holy by God’s grace.

St. Paul is an encouraging example of the truth of the assertion of Jesus that he came to serve, to heal, and to save the sick and the sinner, not the healthy.

Apparently, St. Paul was able to dig deep for the humility to accept the intervention of Jesus and, despite his blindness, to follow the instruction of Jesus to seek healing from the elderly Ananias.

Would we have been surprised if Paul had been furious at Jesus because of the humiliation and affliction he endured in his defeat? I suspect Paul had to struggle with himself in order to accept the call of Jesus. He is a witness of the importance of humility in our quest for holiness and saying yes to the will of Christ.

As St. Paul undertook his extraordinary missionary activity, he had to be courageous and persevering against all odds because of powerful opposition.

The Christian message was strange to the minds and ears of a pagan world whose gods were hardly models of generous integrity and good character. In this pagan world, Paul preached an unusual message about Jesus Christ, who preached a Gospel of self-effacing love and who came to serve and not to be served. Paul preached Jesus Christ, perfect God and perfect man.

To be people of faith requires the virtue of courage. Faith is not always easy, especially when we experience inevitable tough times that come our way.

Our culture may be quite different from that of the pagan world evangelized by St. Paul and his companions, but there are also striking similarities.

Many of the values that can influence us are godless; materialism and secularism relegate God to the realm of personal whim. God is not relevant for many. We walk against the stream because we believe in another kingdom that is not of this world. An intentional embrace of that challenge demands steady courage.

St. Paul’s role as a missionary was to preach Jesus Christ. First and foremost, this implied that he had to live Jesus Christ, to be Jesus Christ for others.

When deacons and priests are ordained, they are exhorted to believe the Word of God, to teach what they believe and to practice what they teach.

Actually, that exhortation is appropriate for all of us who believe in Christ.

Let reading the Word of God during this Year of St. Paul be the foundation for our part in the Church’s mission of evangelization. †

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