May 8, 2015

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Early Church: The importance of St. Paul

John F. Fink(Fifth in a series of columns)

A series about the early Church absolutely must include something about St. Paul because the Church as we know it wouldn’t exist if he hadn’t labored so hard, despite horrendous obstacles and sufferings, for 34 years, from the time of his conversion around 33 until his martyrdom around 67 at age 73.

However, I hesitate to write too much about him now because I wrote a series of 19 columns about Paul back in 2005. Yes, that was 10 years ago, but I don’t think I should repeat myself. Nevertheless, his importance deserved those 19 columns—and then some.

Most Catholic Bibles include maps that show Paul’s three missionary journeys, detailed in the Acts of the Apostles. The first was to cities in a province (then known as Galatia) in modern Turkey where he established his first communities. During the second, he crossed west into Greece, and during the third he revisited his churches in Greece and along the coast of Galatia.

He returned to Jerusalem to take a collection for the Church there, but ended up in prison in Caesarea for two years. The Roman government then shipped him to Rome, where he spent another two years under house arrest.

When he was freed, he seemed to have gone to Spain but that mission would appear to have been a failure because he couldn’t speak the Latin that was spoken there; he spoke Greek. He revisited some of his communities, but returned to Rome during Nero’s persecution and was beheaded.

Modern readers really can’t appreciate the length of time it took for things to happen during Paul’s lifetime. Paul traveled great distances by foot when going west, or by ship when headed east because of prevailing winds. He couldn’t travel much of anyplace during winters, so he always had to plan where he would spend those months.

He endured great hardships, some of which he wrote about: “Far more imprisonments, far worse beatings, and numerous brushes with death. Five times at the hands of the Jews I received forty lashes minus one. Three times, I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I passed a night and a day on the deep” (2 Cor 11:23-25).

Paul kept in touch with his communities and with his collaborators—Timothy, Titus, Apollos, Aquila and Prisca—by writing letters, sometimes from prison. Of course, those letters took months to be delivered. Thirteen of the 21 letters in the New Testament are attributed to Paul, although four of them may have been written by his disciples. In them, we learn how he constantly had to defend his teachings about the way he was preaching to the gentiles.

His opponents were Jewish Christians who insisted, even after the Council of Jerusalem, that converts to Christianity had to be circumcised and observe Jewish laws. He could be tough at times, at one time saying about those who insisted on circumcision, “Would that those who are upsetting you might also castrate themselves!” (Gal 5:12).

Ultimately, of course, his views prevailed, but it was a mighty struggle that we modern Christians need to understand and appreciate.†

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