April 28, 2006

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Beginning a new series about St. Paul

When I began my series of columns, “Jesus in the Gospels,” in the Jan. 14, 2005, issue of The Criterion, I had no idea that it would take me 64 columns “to try to help you know Jesus as one person knows another,” as I expressed my purpose in writing the columns. As a follow-up to those columns, it seems appropriate to move on to St. Paul. I promise, though, to do it in fewer than 64 columns.

Why does it seem appropriate? Because he played a gigantic role in forming Christianity into the religion that we practice today. Some biblical exegetes go so far as to claim that he was really the founder of Christianity. No one would be quicker to deny that than Paul himself. In fact, he would undoubtedly vehemently and passionately object to such an idea, as only he could do.

Nevertheless, no other early Christian was nearly as important as was Paul in the formation of Christian theology. His letters make up nearly one-third of the New Testament, and more than half of the Acts of the Apostles concerns his conversion and subsequent missionary journeys.

Christianity needed someone like Paul. As we saw in my columns about Jesus in the Gospels, the Apostles were unlearned men, slow to realize who Jesus was. Much of that changed with the descent of the Holy Spirit on them at Pentecost, but nothing in the Acts of the Apostles tells us that they suddenly became intellectuals or great theologians.

Paul was. His preaching and his letters explain the mystical body of Christ and include such basic doctrines as the divine plan of God the Father through his Son’s incarnation, death and resurrection. He teaches us about grace, faith, free will and love.

But do we really know Paul? We hear fragments of his letters during Mass on weekends, but we really need to know more about the man—why he wrote those letters and under what circumstances.

As I write this series, I hope you will put yourself mentally in the first century. The first thing that will require is slowing down. In today’s world of instant communication and ease of travel, we tend to forget how different it was in Paul’s time. When he wrote a letter, it would take weeks or even months before it would get to its recipients.

When he traveled, he would usually average about 20 miles a day, depending upon the weather. During parts of the year when there was snow on the ground, he might not have been able to travel at all. He had to decide whether to walk or go by ship. Ships didn’t sail during the winter, so he had to plan where he would spend that time. It was dangerous to travel the roads alone because of the threat of bandits, so he had to wait to join a caravan that was going where he wanted to go.

We will start next week with what we know about his life before his conversion. †


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