St. Paul on Respect for Authority

In daily Mass we have been reading from second chapter of the Letter to the Galatians. In it, St. Paul recounts his personal history and describes his authority. St. Paul’s story is interesting for three reasons:

  1. It shows that St. Paul did not ascend to the office of apostle (bishop) overly quickly but rather was formed in the community of the Church for quite some time and did not go on mission until he was sent.
  2. It spells out Paul’s relationship to authority within the Church.
  3. It shows the need for fraternal correction even of those under whose authority one falls.

Let’s take a look at each of these matters in turn.

1. On Paul’s conversion, formation, and ascent to the office of apostle (bishop) – Many people have oversimplified notions of Paul’s conversion and subsequent missionary activity. Many who have not carefully studied the texts of Acts, Galatians, and other references, incorrectly assume that Paul went right to work as a missionary immediately following his conversion.

Near the time of his conversion, Paul was described as “a young man” (neanias). Sometime after the death of Stephen, St. Paul had his conversion, encountering the risen Christ on the road to Damascus. Immediately following that encounter, he was blinded for three days and eventually healed by a Christian named Ananias, who also baptized him (Acts 9:9-19).

At that point, Paul went into the Desert of Arabia (Gal 1:17). Why he went there is not known, but it was likely to reflect and possibly to be further formed in the Christian faith to which he had come so suddenly and unexpectedly. Scholars differ on whether he was there for several years or just a brief time, but it would seem that some amount of time would be necessary to pray, reflect, and experience formation in the Christian way, possibly with other Christians. A period of one to three years would seem reasonable, but we can only speculate.

Paul then returned to Damascus, joining the Christian community there for a period of almost three years (Gal 1:18). While in Damascus, Paul took to debating in the synagogues. He was so effective in demonstrating that Jesus was the hoped-for Messiah, that some of the Jews there conspired to kill him.

St. Paul then fled Damascus and went to Jerusalem (Acts 9:20-25). He states that he went there to confer with Cephas (Peter) (Gal 1:18). Paul seems to imply that he thought it was time to confer with Peter because he had begun to teach and was gaining followers. Later, Paul would describe the purpose of another visit to Peter and the other leaders: to present the Gospel that I preach to the Gentiles … so that I might not be running or have run in vain (Gal 2:2). While there on this first visit, Paul stayed for 15 days, also meeting James.

After this consultation, Paul returned home to Tarsus and remained there for about three years. What he did during this time is unknown.

Barnabas then arrived and asked Paul to come to Antioch to help him to evangelize there (Acts 11:25-26). Paul stayed there for about a year.

Paul made another brief visit to Jerusalem to deliver a collection for the poor.

Upon his return to Antioch, Paul (Saul) was ordained as a bishop. The leaders of the Church at Antioch were praying and received instruction from the Holy Spirit to Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them (Acts 13:3). As a result, the leaders of the Church in Antioch then laid hands on Barnabas and Saul and send them forth on their mission. This is Paul’s ordination and the source of his status as apostle (bishop).

Notice, however, that this sending forth happens years after Paul’s conversion. Depending on how long we assume he spent in the desert, we are talking about 7-10 years during which Paul lived in community with other members of the Church and conferred with Peter. He was not a self-appointed missionary and his conversion required completion before the Church sent him forth. Paul only undertook this going forth after being sent.

2. On Paul’s submission to authority – Paul was not a “lone ranger.” He submitted what he taught, first to Peter and later to other apostles and leaders (Acts 11 and 15). Paul states that to preach something other than what the Church proposes would be to run “in vain” (Gal 2:2).

Here was a man who was formed by the community of the Church and who submitted his teachings to scrutiny by lawful authority.

Here was man who went forth on his missions only after he was ordained and sent.

He appointed other leaders. As they went through the towns and villages on their missionary journeys, Paul and Barnabas also established authority in each church community they founded by appointing presbyters in each town (Acts 14:23).

Upon completion of their first missionary journey, Paul and Barnabas reported back to the leaders at Antioch who had sent them (Acts 14:27) and later to the apostles in Jerusalem (Acts 15). Hence, we have an accountability structure in the early Church and a line of authority. Paul was not an independent operator. He was not a self-appointed or self-ordained leader. He both respected authority and established it in the churches he instituted. He also made it clear to the Galatians and others that he had authority and that he expected them to respect it.

3. On true respect for authority – Paul clearly respected the authority of Peter: he conferred with him early on and later set forth the gospel that Peter had preached. However, there is also this description of Paul offering fraternal correction to Peter:

When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong. Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray. When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs? (Gal 2:11-14)

There is something refreshing about this understanding of authority. Having authority does not mean that one is above reproof. Too many people shy away from speaking honestly to those in authority. Today that is beginning to change and well it should.

Paul stands face to face (κατὰ πρόσωπον αὐτῷ ἀντέστην) with Peter and rebukes his practice of sitting only with Jews. Peter had taught rightly of the equality of the Gentiles but drew back from keeping company with them. As Catholics, we teach of the infallibility of the Pope, but we do not teach that he is impeccable (sinless). Even those who teach rightly (as Peter did) sometimes struggle to fully live the truth they preach.

Clearly, correction and/or frank discussion should be done charitably, but it should be done. Paul is bolder than I would be, but he also lived in a different culture than I do. As we can see from the Gospels and other writings, Jesus and the apostles really “mixed it up” with others. The ancient Jews were famous for frank and vigorous discussion of issues, often including a lot of hyperbole. Our own culture prefers a gentler approach. Perhaps the modern rule is best stated this way: “Clarity with charity.”

Clarity – We show far greater respect for authority figures by speaking clearly and directly to them than through false flattery, inappropriate silence, or sinfully speaking scornfully of them behind their backs.

Charity – The need for clarity does not exclude an accompanying need for charity and proper respect for office and age. Sadly, I have found that those who wish to correct clergy today often go to the other extreme: using bold, disrespectful, and even insulting language; name calling; and impugning motives. Not only is this unnecessary, it is ineffective, especially in these times.

St. Paul demonstrates refreshing honesty with Peter, acknowledging his authority while respecting him enough to speak to him directly and clearly, not behind his back.

This video provides a brief summary of St. Paul’s life. Most scholars don’t agree with the remark (at about the 2:55 mark in the clip) that Paul was released from his imprisonment in Rome and then went to Spain, but there are two traditions in this regard.

A Solemn Warning from St. Paul

Within his many letters, St. Paul occasionally gives us a glimpse of early Christian hymns and sayings. While he may have been their author, it is more likely that he is quoting or summarizing others. Here are some of the hymns he includes in his letters:

      • Hymn of Christ and Creation (Colossians 1:15-20)
      • Hymn of the Humbled and Exalted Christ (Philippians 2:5-11)
      • Hymn of Redemption in Christ (Ephesians 1:3-12)

St. Paul also refers to “sayings” in some of his letters (e.g., Titus 3:8, 1 Tim 4:9, Titus 1:13, 1 Timothy 3:1, 1 Timothy 1:15).

Another one occurred in the readings this past Sunday (28th Sunday of the Year) and it is worth a look, as it puzzles some who read it.

This saying is trustworthy:

If we have died with him,
we shall also live with him;

if we persevere
we shall also reign with him.

But if we deny him
he will deny us.

If we are unfaithful
he remains faithful,
for he cannot deny himself
(2 Tim 2:11-13).

William Barclay called this “The Song of the Martyr.” Such a title does seem fitting, at least in a general way, although there is also a baptismal theme.

The first strophe seems clear. If we have died with Christ, whether in baptism or martyrdom, we will live with Him. The baptismal theme comes in because the phraseology echoes a passage in Romans:

Are you not aware that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? We therefore were buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with Him like this in His death, we will certainly also be united with Him in His resurrection (Romans 6:3-5).

All of us who die with Christ to this world through baptism and/or martyrdom (bloody martyrdom or the white martyrdom of those who confess the faith publicly despite the cost) will live with Christ.

The second strophe reminds us that we must persevere. This echoes Jesus’ words in the Gospel of Matthew: But the one who perseveres to the end will be saved (Matt 24:13). This need for perseverance seems clear as well, though many try to appeal to the fact that they were baptized or answered an altar call, forgetting that they must live the daily call of discipleship as well.

The third strophe is a little less clear, at least to some. The Greek word used is ἀρνέομαι (arneomai), and it is properly translated here as “deny.” It can also mean to repudiate, contradict, or say no. There are indeed some (Christ says many) who deny Him or say no to God’s offer; the text says that the Lord will also deny them.

This concept offends some modern readers who prefer to speak endlessly of God’s unconditional mercy. This strophe can be understood as meaning that the Lord affirms or accepts the unrepentant sinner’s denial of Him, His values, and His Kingdom. God will not force anyone to love what and whom He loves. The Lord’s denial of the person is a respectful acknowledgement of the free decision the person made to deny Him.

The last strophe is perhaps the most potentially confusing. It says, in effect, that even if we are unfaithful to the groom of our soul and the Bridegroom of the Church, He will not be unfaithful to us. God will never say to the soul that rejects or hates Him, “I hate you.” The Lord cannot be anything other than Himself. He who is love cannot hate.

However, and more soberly, the text means that Lord, who is truth itself, cannot ignore the fact that someone has freely chosen to deny, contradict, and reject His offer and the faith. God cannot “pretend” at the moment of judgment that an unrepentant sinner has in fact accepted Him and been faithful because pretending is contrary to the truth; doing so would be denying His very nature.

St. Paul follows the “saying” with this caution: Remind them of these things, solemnly charging them to stop disputing about words.

We should consider ourselves reminded; we are charged to hear and heed this solemn warning before going to the great judgment seat of Christ.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: A Solemn Warning from St. Paul

On the Power of Liturgy and Prayer

There is a text from the Acts of the Apostles that sets forth quite well some of the qualities of the Sacred Liturgy. Although the “liturgy” cited in this passage is not a Mass, the description should apply to all our liturgies; from the Liturgy of the Hours to baptism, from a penance service to a full sung Mass. Let’s look at the passage and learn from it the power of liturgy to deliver, instruct, and transform us and the world.

About midnight, while Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God as the prisoners listened, there was suddenly such a severe earthquake that the foundations of the jail shook; all the doors flew open, and the chains of all were pulled loose.

When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, thinking that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted out in a loud voice, “Do no harm to yourself; we are all here.” He asked for a light and rushed in and, trembling with fear, he fell down before Paul and Silas.

Then he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you and your household will be saved.” And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family (Acts 15:25-33).

Determination About midnight, while Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God as the prisoners listened … Here they are in an awful place, a deep dungeon with rats and filth all about, and yet they are singing.

An old hymn reminds us to persevere in praise: “Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say, ‘It is well with my soul, it is well.’” Yes, happiness is an inside job. There may be times when we don’t feel emotionally ready to praise God, but we have to command our soul. In the words of the psalm, I will bless the Lord at all times. His praise shall continually be in my mouth (Psalm 34:1).

Note that this is communal not personal prayer, and thus it is a kind of liturgy. They are singing hymns, a form of communal and liturgical prayer. More literally, the Greek text says that they were singing praises (humneo) to God. “Hymn” comes from humneo. Perhaps they were singing psalms or perhaps they were singing newly composed hymns such as we see in Philippians 2:5-11, Ephesians 1:3-14, or Colossians 1:15-19. But note their determination to praise the Lord anyway. Such praises will bring blessings, for when praises go up, blessings come down.

The Church must always be determined to celebrate the liturgy. The last thing we should ever consider stopping is the Mass! Recall how many priests and bishops locked up in prisons were earnest to obtain even the slightest scraps of bread or drops of wine in order to celebrate the Mass. Recall the many martyred priests during troubled times in England who risked everything to celebrate the Holy Mass. We must always be determined to pray, and whenever possible, to celebrate the Sacred Liturgy, even at great risk.

Disturbance … suddenly such a severe earthquake that the foundations of the jail shook … Does our worship rock this world to its foundations? It should. The world ought to know and experience that we are at prayer! We should rock this world with our refusal to be discouraged at what it dishes out.

Further, good prayer, preaching, and the simple presence of the Church ought to shake things up a bit. It is said that a good preacher will comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Each of us has a little of both within us.

Note that the early Christians were often arrested for being “disturbers of the peace.” They said politically dangerous things like “Jesus is Lord” rather than “Caesar is Lord.” Religiously, they upset the order by announcing that many of the old rites were now fulfilled. Temple worship was over. Jesus was the true temple and Lord, and the Eucharist now supplanted the lucrative temple rites. Morally, the Church shook things up by demanding love of one’s enemies and that people no longer live as did the pagans, in the futility of their minds. These things and more tended to disturb the political, social, and religious order. Liturgically, we gather to celebrate and learn many earthshaking truths and to be liberated from the hold of the world, the flesh, and the devil.

Yes, the presence of the early Church was a kind of earthquake. When the Church is strong she not only consoles; she disturbs and even rocks things to their foundations by the simple declaration, “Thus says the Lord” and by our praise of Him who is true Lord and Sovereign King, far outranking all other kings and those who demand our loyalty and conformity.

Deliverance … all the doors flew open, and the chains of all were pulled loose. The liturgy of praise and worship of God should effect an ongoing deliverance. The prayer of the Church in her liturgy should set people free: prison doors swing open, chains fall loose, and increasing freedom is granted to faithful.

I am a witness to this and I pray that you are as well. I have attended and celebrated Mass every day for more than thirty years now. In that time, through praise, hearing God’s Word, being instructed in God’s Word, receiving the Word Made Flesh in Holy Communion, and deep abiding fellowship with believers, I am a changed man. Many shackles have come loose. A new mind and heart have been given to me and the prison cells of anxiety are no longer. Deliverance is what happened to us when the Lord took us out of the kingdom of darkness and into the Kingdom of Light. Through the liturgy, that deliverance becomes deeper, richer, broader, and higher.

Dignity When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, thinking that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted out in a loud voice, “Do no harm to yourself; we are all here.” The liturgy we celebrate is that of the Catholic Church. The term Catholic refers to the universality of the Church’s mission. All are to be called.

One effect of the liturgy on us should be that we neither hate nor exclude anyone. Paul and Silas do not gloat over the misfortune of their jailer. Knowing his dignity, they call out to him, even at the risk of their lives.

The Church, too, seeks the welfare and salvation of even our most bitter opponents. Our liturgy is celebrated not only for our friends but for the whole world.

The Church is Catholic; all are called. Painting a picture of the Church, Scripture says, I [John] looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands (Rev 7:9). I realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right. Everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name (Acts 10: 34-35, 43).

Discipleship [The jailer] asked for a light and rushed in and, trembling with fear, he fell down before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you and your household will be saved.” And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family.

Making disciples (not just members) is the primary job of the Church. To be a disciple is to be a follower of the Lord, but the word “disciple” also comes from the same Latin root (discere) as the word “learning.” Thus, the Church in her liturgy not only worships the Lord, she instructs the faithful and supplies the sacraments.

Note that the jailer asks for light. Do not think of this as merely a practical request. Asking for light is asking for the enlightenment that comes from Faith and Baptism. The Church in her liturgy and by her witness supplies light and acclimates the faithful to that light.

The jailer, having asked for the light, been instructed, and become accustomed to the light, is baptized.

Here, then, are some goals of and a description of true liturgy, one that rocks the world and yet delivers the faith, forming the people in the beauty of God’s grace. Do you and your fellow parishioners see the liturgy this way or do you see it as distant, even boring? See what this Scripture passage teaches about the truest goals and nature of every liturgy, great or small, in the Church.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: On the Power of Liturgy and Prayer

Was St. Paul a Poor Preacher?

For many years, the image I had of St. Paul was that of a bold evangelist who went from town to town teaching and preaching powerfully about Christ. I envisioned his audience mesmerized as he preached and took on his opponents.

I ultimately altered my view a bit based on scriptural descriptions, some of which we are currently reading in the Office of Readings. I have no doubt that he was a brilliant theologian. Paul was reputed to have been one of the greatest students of one of the greatest rabbis of the time, Gamaliel (Acts 22:3). I also do not question his zeal for Christ, and I can picture that fervor reflected on his face as he preached and taught. However, it would seem that Paul was not in fact recognized as a particularly gifted preacher. Consider the following texts from Scripture:

    • Now I myself, Paul, urge you through the gentleness and clemency of Christ, I who (you say) am humble when present in your midst, but bold toward you when absent … (2 Cor 10:1)

The key element to glean from this passage is that people regarded Paul as rather humble in person but in contrast quite bold and assertive in his letters. This does not paint the picture of a bold, fearsome preacher.

    • For someone will say, “His [Paul’s] letters are severe and forceful, but his bodily presence is weak and his speech contemptible” (2 Cor 10:10).

Here is even clearer evidence that some (though surely not all or even most) thought of Paul’s presence and preaching as weak and of no account. The Greek phrase λόγος ἐξουθενημένος (logos exouthenhmenos), translated here as “speech contemptible,” can also be translated as “words or speech of no account,” or “words or speech to be despised.” Of course, because Paul himself is reporting this, he may well be exaggerating the perception of his preaching out of a kind of humility. However, this is further evidence that Paul may not have been a highly gifted or bold preacher, at least from a worldly perspective.

    • For I think that I am not in any way inferior to these “superapostles.” Even if I am untrained in speaking, I am not so in knowledge; in every way we have made this plain to you in all things (2 Cor 11:5-6).

The identity of the “superapostles” is debated, but there is wide agreement that it does not refer to the twelve apostles chosen by Christ. Rather, Paul is likely alluding to itinerant preachers of the time, most of  whom were well known for their oratorical skills. Some of them may have been Judaizers who opposed Paul, but it would seem that they could draw a crowd. Perhaps they are somewhat like the revivalists of today. Paul seems to acknowledge that he is not a great speaker but refuses to concede that he is inferior to anyone in knowledge of the faith.

    • For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with the cleverness of human eloquence, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its meaning (1 Cor 1:17).

Paul claims no “clever” oratorical skill; rather, he underscores his lack of eloquence to emphasize that the power is in the cross of Christ.

    • On the first day of the week we came together to break bread. Paul spoke to the people and, because he intended to leave the next day, kept on talking until midnight. … Seated in a window was a young man named Eutychus, who was sinking into a deep sleep as Paul talked on and on. When he was sound asleep, he fell to the ground from the third story and was picked up dead. Paul went down, threw himself on the young man and put his arms around him. “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “He’s alive.” Then he went upstairs again and broke bread (Acts 20:7-11).

Luke describes Paul as talking “on and on.” The sermon seems to have put the young Eutychus right to sleep, and results in his falling three flights to his death. Paul runs down and raises him from the dead. (All in a night’s work, I guess!) Paul then goes back upstairs to complete the Mass. It is a humorous and touching anecdote in many ways, but it is also a story that illustrates the somewhat soporific effect of Paul’s preaching.

So, it would seem that Paul did not possess great oratorical. This is somewhat surprising given his astonishing missionary accomplishments, but we must avoid superficiality in understanding the power of God’s Word. The power is in God; the battle is His. We may prefer to listen to skilled speakers, but God can write straight with crooked lines and make a way out of no way. If God could speak through Balaam’s donkey (see Num 22:21), He can speak through us, too.

Avoiding Superficiality – As a priest, I work hard to develop my preaching skills because I think the people of God deserve this. In the end, though, none of us should ignore the fact that God can speak in and through the humblest of people and in the most unlikely circumstances. Paul may not have had the rhetorical skills we think he should have had, but he was blessed with many other gifts. He was a brilliant theologian, had amazing zeal and energy, and was committed enough to walk thousands of miles and endure horrible sufferings so that he could proclaim Christ crucified and risen. Paul was also a natural leader and one of the most fruitful evangelizers the Church has ever known. We tend to prize oratorical skill and force of personality, but there is obviously more to evangelizing effectively than eloquence and charisma.

Our culture—particularly since the advent of television, radio, and the Internet—has come to focus primarily on personal magnetism and the ability to “turn a phrase.” The ability to communicate well is surely a great gift, but there are many others as well. In valuing certain gifts over others, we risk injustice and superficiality. The Church needs all our gifts.

What gifts do you have? God can use them!

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Was St. Paul a Poor Preacher?

Why St. Paul Called Some Disciples Stupid

The first reading for Thursday’s Mass (27th week of the year) contains St. Paul’s provocative assessment that some of us are stupid.

The Greek word used is ἀνόητος (anóētos), which comes from a (without) + noiéō, (to think). Therefore, this refers to not thinking, not reasoning through a matter, being unmindful, or acting in a mindless, dense way. This is rendered in English as “stupid.”

There are three reasons that he calls some people stupid:

1. They have looked away from the Cross. The text says,

O stupid Galatians! Who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified? (Gal 3:1)

Paul engages in a kind of wordplay here. The Greek word translated here as bewitched is βασκαίνω (baskaino), which more literally means to give an evil eye to someone. Hence, they have permitted someone to give them an evil eye even though Christ had been portrayed to their eyes as crucified.

For us, the danger is that we look away from the Cross of Jesus and think that there is some other way we can be saved. Some evil eye looks at us or winks at us to draw our attention away from Christ. The cross is an absurdity to the world, but to us who are being saved it is the power and wisdom of God. Yet, we are too easily convinced to look away to passing pleasures or sinful sights. We adopt the bewitched notion that these can give us the happiness we seek.

St. Paul calls this stupid, and deep down we know that this is so. No limited thing can fill the God-sized hole in our heart. Only through the Cross of Christ can we attain to that place where true joys are found. Only the Cross can purify us and get us to Heaven, where God and God alone can show us joys unspeakable and glories untold.

An eye that looks anywhere else is the evil eye of a stupid person.

2. They think they can save themselves. The text says,

I want to learn only this from you: did you receive the Spirit from works of the law, or from faith in what you heard? Are you so stupid? (Gal 3:2-3)

Thinking we can save ourselves is a stupid though. I can barely perform minor surgery on myself, let alone save myself. Do you have a ladder tall enough to reach Heaven? Do you have a rocket ship powerful enough to soar to Heaven? And even if you did, how would you know the coordinates of Heaven so that you could soar there? Stupid, stupid, stupid!

No, the only way we can get to Heaven is to listen to God by faith and follow Him in the grace of that faith working through love (see Gal 5:6). We often think that we will be well through science, medicine, therapy, wealth, popularity, and so forth. This is stupid. Individually and collectively we have attained to all these things and yet I would argue that we are more miserable than ever. We have never been healthier and yet we have never worried more about our health. We have never been more well fed and yet we have never worried more about what we eat. Despite this, we easily think these sorts of things will fill the bill. St. Paul simply calls this “stupid.”

3. They focus on the flesh not the spirit. The text says,

Are you so stupid? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh? (Gal 3:3)

We are too easily preoccupied with our bodies and with things related to the flesh and the material world. That’s pretty stupid, really. Such things are dying, rusting, and decaying. In contrast, the things of the Spirit will last forever. A bowl of porridge is just a meal, but the Word of the Lord endures forever; it can be a saving word for us and the joy of our soul even now. We must care for the body, but our obsession with looking good and our pathological fear of the bodily effects of aging manifest a stupid and foolish preoccupation. The soul should be our priority, for our good treatment of it will have eternal effects. Instead, we focus on what passes and ignore what is eternal. Paul has a word for this: stupid.

Don’t be stupid.

St. Paul on Respect for Authority

In daily Mass we have been reading from second chapter of the Letter to the Galatians. In it, St. Paul recounts his personal history and describes his authority. St. Paul’s story is interesting for three reasons:

  1. It shows that St. Paul did not ascend to the office of apostle (bishop) overly quickly but rather was formed in the community of the Church for quite some time and did not go on mission until he was sent.
  2. It spells out Paul’s relationship to authority within the Church.
  3. It shows the need for fraternal correction even of those under whose authority one falls.

Let’s take a look at each of these matters in turn.

1. On Paul’s conversion, formation, and ascent to the office of apostle (bishop) – Many people have oversimplified notions of Paul’s conversion and subsequent missionary activity. Many who have not carefully studied the texts of Acts, Galatians, and other references, incorrectly assume that Paul went right to work as a missionary immediately following his conversion.

Near the time of his conversion, Paul was described as “a young man” (neanias). Sometime after the death of Stephen, St. Paul had his conversion, encountering the risen Christ on the road to Damascus. Immediately following that encounter, he was blinded for three days and eventually healed by a Christian named Ananias, who also baptized him (Acts 9:9-19).

At that point, Paul went into the Desert of Arabia (Gal 1:17). Why he went there is not known, but it was likely to reflect and possibly to be further formed in the Christian faith to which he had come so suddenly and unexpectedly. Scholars differ on whether he was there for several years or just a brief time, but it would seem that some amount of time would be necessary to pray, reflect, and experience formation in the Christian way, possibly with other Christians. A period of one to three years would seem reasonable, but we can only speculate.

Paul then returned to Damascus, joining the Christian community there for a period of almost three years (Gal 1:18). While in Damascus, Paul took to debating in the synagogues. He was so effective in demonstrating that Jesus was the hoped-for Messiah, that some of the Jews there conspired to kill him.

St. Paul then fled Damascus and went to Jerusalem (Acts 9:20-25). He states that he went there to confer with Cephas (Peter) (Gal 1:18). Paul seems to imply that he thought it was time to confer with Peter because he had begun to teach and was gaining followers. Later, Paul would describe the purpose of another visit to Peter and the other leaders: to present the Gospel that I preach to the Gentiles … so that I might not be running or have run in vain (Gal 2:2). While there on this first visit, Paul stayed for 15 days, also meeting James.

After this consultation, Paul returned home to Tarsus and remained there for about three years. What he did during this time is unknown.

Barnabas then arrived and asked Paul to come to Antioch to help him to evangelize there (Acts 11:25-26). Paul stayed there for about a year.

Paul made another brief visit to Jerusalem to deliver a collection for the poor.

Upon his return to Antioch, Paul (Saul) was ordained as a bishop. The leaders of the Church at Antioch were praying and received instruction from the Holy Spirit to Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them (Acts 13:3). As a result, the leaders of the Church in Antioch then laid hands on Barnabas and Saul and send them forth on their mission. This is Paul’s ordination and the source of his status as apostle (bishop).

Notice, however, that this sending forth happens years after Paul’s conversion. Depending on how long we assume he spent in the desert, we are talking about 7-10 years during which Paul lived in community with other members of the Church and conferred with Peter. He was not a self-appointed missionary and his conversion required completion before the Church sent him forth. Paul only undertook this going forth after being sent.

2. On Paul’s submission to authority – Paul was not a “lone ranger.” He submitted what he taught, first to Peter and later to other apostles and leaders (Acts 11 and 15). Paul states that to preach something other than what the Church proposes would be to run “in vain” (Gal 2:2).

Here was a man who was formed by the community of the Church and who submitted his teachings to scrutiny by lawful authority.

Here was man who went forth on his missions only after he was ordained and sent.

He appointed other leaders. As they went through the towns and villages on their missionary journeys, Paul and Barnabas also established authority in each church community they founded by appointing presbyters in each town (Acts 14:23).

Upon completion of their first missionary journey, Paul and Barnabas reported back to the leaders at Antioch who had sent them (Acts 14:27) and later to the apostles in Jerusalem (Acts 15). Hence, we have an accountability structure in the early Church and a line of authority. Paul was not an independent operator. He was not a self-appointed or self-ordained leader. He both respected authority and established it in the churches he instituted. He also made it clear to the Galatians and others that he had authority and that he expected them to respect it.

3. On true respect for authority – Paul clearly respected the authority of Peter: he conferred with him early on and later set forth the gospel that Peter had preached. However, there is also this description of Paul offering fraternal correction to Peter:

When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong. Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray. When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs? (Gal 2:11-14)

There is something refreshing about this understanding of authority. Having authority does not mean that one is above reproof. Too many people shy away from speaking honestly to those in authority. Today that is beginning to change and well it should.

Paul stands face to face (κατὰ πρόσωπον αὐτῷ ἀντέστην) with Peter and rebukes his practice of sitting only with Jews. Peter had taught rightly of the equality of the Gentiles but drew back from keeping company with them. As Catholics, we teach of the infallibility of the Pope, but we do not teach that he is impeccable (sinless). Even those who teach rightly (as Peter did) sometimes struggle to fully live the truth they preach.

Clearly, correction and/or frank discussion should be done charitably, but it should be done. Paul is bolder than I would be, but he also lived in a different culture than I do. As we can see from the Gospels and other writings, Jesus and the apostles really “mixed it up” with others. The ancient Jews were famous for frank and vigorous discussion of issues, often including a lot of hyperbole. Our own culture prefers a gentler approach. Perhaps the modern rule is best stated this way: “Clarity with charity.”

Clarity – We show far greater respect for authority figures by speaking clearly and directly to them than through false flattery, inappropriate silence, or sinfully speaking scornfully of them behind their backs.

Charity – The need for clarity does not exclude an accompanying need for charity and proper respect for office and age. Sadly, I have found that those who wish to correct clergy today often go to the other extreme: using bold, disrespectful, and even insulting language; name calling; and impugning motives. Not only is this unnecessary, it is ineffective, especially in these times.

St. Paul demonstrates refreshing honesty with Peter, acknowledging his authority while respecting him enough to speak to him directly and clearly, not behind his back.

This video provides a brief summary of St. Paul’s life. Most scholars don’t agree with the remark (at about the 2:55 mark in the clip) that Paul was released from his imprisonment in Rome and then went to Spain, but there are two traditions in this regard.

Pondering St. Paul’s Lament of Savage Wolves

In the first reading for Wednesday of the 7th Week of Easter, St. Paul warns of perhaps the most damaging and wrenching evil that the Church must face: dissension from within.

I know that after my departure savage wolves will come among you, and they will not spare the flock. And from your own group, men will come forward perverting the truth to draw the disciples away after them. (Acts 20:30-31).

St. Paul calls them savage wolves. Is this hyperbole? No, for their work is to devour the flock. They may do this with subtlety and smooth words, but they (and the evil one who inspires them) devour the flock nonetheless. Let’s ponder this troubling truth in three ways:

I. There are false prophets.

Scripture warns of this repeatedly:

  • Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits …. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire (Mat 7:15, 19-20).
  • And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray …. For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect. See, I have told you beforehand (Mat 24:11, 24-25).
  • But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed. And in their greed, they will exploit you with false words. Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep. For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell … (2 Peter 2:1-4).
  • There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures. You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability (2 Peter 3:16-17).
  • But you must remember, beloved, the predictions of the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ. They said to you, “In the last time there will be scoffers, following their own ungodly passions.” It is these who cause divisions, worldly people, devoid of the Spirit (Jude 1:17-23).
  • Children, it is the last hour; and just as you have heard that the antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have appeared. This is how we know it is the last hour. They went out from us, but they did not belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us. But their departure made it clear that none of them belonged to us (1 John 2:18-19).

There are more passages like these, but allow this sample to demonstrate the consistent warning of the apostles that deceivers, scoffers, and false prophets would arise.

II. Of special concern are false prophets who come from within.

There is a special subtlety in this kind of deceiver, especially if he wears a collar or priestly robes, and even more if he be of the rank of bishop. Down through the centuries there has been particular harm caused by wayward clergy. The grief is especially deep because so many of the faithful have been rightly encouraged to love and listen to the clergy.

Therefore, in the passage from the Acts of the Apostles, St. Paul calls them savage wolves. This terminology is true on its face because their goal is to devour and scatter the flock, but St. Paul’s language also indicates an especially sharp pain caused by this sort of betrayal. Other scriptures affirm this deep pain:

  • For it is not an enemy who taunts me—then I could bear it; it is not an adversary who deals insolently with me— then I could hide from him. But it is you, a man, my equal, my companion, my familiar friend. We used to take sweet counsel together; within God’s house we walked in the throng. Let death steal over them; let them go down to Sheol alive; for evil is in their dwelling place and in their heart (Psalm 55:12-15).
  • Even my close friend in whom I trusted, who ate my bread, has lifted up his heel against me (Psalm 41:9).
  • Even my trusted friends, watching for my fall, say, “Perhaps he will be deceived, so that we may prevail against him and take our revenge on him” (Jer 20:21).
  • The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with Me will betray Me (Mat 26:23).
  • Look! The hand of My betrayer is with Me, even at the table (Luke 22:21).
  • Judas, would you betray the Son of Man with a kiss? (Luke 22:48)

Yes, there is a special grief when error and sin come from within the Church. It should be enough that the world hates and derides us, but internal wounds are the most painful of all.

Our Lady spoke to St. Agnes Sasagawa in Akita, Japan (an approved apparition) and said with sadness,

The work of the devil will infiltrate even into the Church in such a way that one will see cardinals opposing cardinals, bishops against bishops. The priests who venerate me will be scorned and opposed by their confreres … churches and altars sacked; the Church will be full of those who accept compromises and the demon will press many priests and consecrated souls to leave the service of the Lord. The demon will be especially implacable against souls consecrated to God (Message of Oct 13, 1973).

III. What are the faithful to do?

First, from the Scriptures above, we must understand the warning that such things would happen. Indeed, they have happened down through history. False prophets arise, even from within. The Lord says thorough His apostles, “Remember that I have told these things would inevitably occur.” Therefore, we ought not be dismayed, but rather sober.

The first Letter of St. John says,

Who is the liar, if it is not the one who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, who denies the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son can have the Father; whoever confesses the Son has the Father as well. As for you, let what you have heard from the beginning remain in you. If it does, you will also remain in the Son and in the Father. And this is the promise that He Himself made to us: eternal life. I have written these things to you about those who are trying to deceive you…And now, little children, remain in Him, so that when He appears, we may be confident and unashamed before Him at His coming. (1 John 2:15ff).

St. Paul adds,

Evidently some people are troubling you and trying to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be anathema (under a divine curse!) As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you embraced from us, let him be under a divine curse! (Galatians 1:7-9)

The Letter of Jude says,

But you, beloved, build yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life. And have mercy on those who doubt; save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh (Jude 1:20-23).

Catholics today must remember that the teaching of the faith is not simply anything that any clergy of any rank utters. The magisterium is more than that! Everything we hear is to be squared with the consistent teaching of the Church, back through the centuries, as articulated in Scripture and in the doctrinal and dogmatic teachings of the Church. Stay close to the catechism, close to Scripture, close to the Fathers of the Church!

We began with St. Paul’s lament of savage wolves who would seek to mislead and scatter the flock he had labored so hard to build. Mysteriously, the Lord allows some degree of dissent, but He has left us with warnings. Our task is to heed these warnings and judge everything we hear by the deposit of the faith as articulated consistently in the Church down through the ages. Look to the most certain sources: Scripture, the fundamental dogmas of the Faith, the Fathers of the Church, the Catechism, and St. Thomas Aquinas. These are bulwarks for us.

I look to the faithful in the land
that they may dwell with me.
He who walk in the way of perfection
shall be my friend
(Psalm 101:6).

We Must Teach and Insist on the “Whole Counsel of God”

The first reading from Tuesday’s Mass is Paul’s farewell speech to the presbyters (priests) of the early Church. Here is a skilled bishop and pastor exhorting others who have pastoral roles within the Church. Let’s examine this text and apply its wisdom to bishops and priests as well as to parents and other leaders in the Church.

Paul’s Farewell Sermon – The scene is Miletus, a town in Asia Minor on the coast not far from Ephesus. Paul, who is about to depart for Jerusalem, summons the presbyters of the early Church at Ephesus. He has ministered there for three years and now summons the priests for this final exhortation. In the sermon, St. Paul cites his own example of having been a zealous teacher of the faith who did not fail to preach the “whole counsel of God.” He did not merely preach what suited him or made him popular; he preached it all. To these early priests, Paul leaves this legacy and would have them follow in his footsteps. Let’s look at some excerpts from this final exhortation.

From Miletus Paul had the presbyters of the Church at Ephesus summoned. When they came to him, he addressed them, “You know how I lived among you the whole time from the day I first came to the province of Asia. I served the Lord with all humility and with the tears and trials that came to me … and I did not at all shrink from telling you what was for your benefit, or from teaching you in public or in your homes. I earnestly bore witness for both Jews and Greeks to repentance before God and to faith in our Lord Jesus … But now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem … But now I know that none of you to whom I preached the kingdom during my travels will ever see my face again. And so I solemnly declare to you this day that I am not responsible for the blood of any of you, for I did not shrink from proclaiming to you the entire plan of God … (Acts 20:17-27 selected).

Here, then, is the prescription for every bishop, priest, deacon, catechist, parent, and Catholic: we should preach the whole counsel, the entire plan of God. It is too easy for us to emphasize only that which pleases us, or makes sense to us, or fits in with our world view. There are some who love the Lord’s sermons on love but cannot abide his teachings on death, judgment, Heaven, and Hell. Some love to discuss liturgy and ceremony, but the care of the poor is far from them. Others point to His compassion but neglect His call to repentance. Some love the way He dispatches the Pharisees and other leaders of the day but suddenly become deaf when the Lord warns against fornication or insists that we love our spouse, neighbor, and enemy. Some love to focus inwardly and debate doctrine but neglect the outward focus of true evangelization to which we are commanded (cf Mat 28:19).

In the Church today, we too easily divide out rather predictably along certain lines and emphases: life issues here and social justice over there, strong moral preaching here and compassionate inclusiveness over there. When one side speaks, the other side says, “There they go again!”

We must be able to say, like St. Paul, that we did not shrink from proclaiming the whole counsel of God. While this is especially incumbent on the clergy, it is also the responsibility of parents and all who attain any leadership in the Church. All the issues above are important and must have their proper places in the preaching and witness of every Catholic, both clergy and lay. While we may have particular gifts to work in certain areas, we should learn to appreciate the whole counsel and the fact that others in the Church may be needed to balance and complete our work. While we must exclude notions that stray from revealed doctrine, within doctrine’s protective walls it is necessary that we not shrink from proclaiming and appreciating the whole counsel of God.

If we do this, we will suffer. Paul speaks above of tears and trials. In preaching the whole counsel of God (not just your favorite passages or politically correct, “safe” themes), expect to suffer. Expect to not quite fit in with people’s expectations. Jesus got into trouble with just about everyone. He didn’t offend just the elite and powerful. For example, even His own disciples puzzled over His teachings on divorce, saying, “If that is the case of man not being able to divorce his wife it is better never to marry!” (Matt 19) As a result of Jesus’ teaching on the Eucharist, many left Him and would no longer walk in His company (John 6). When Jesus spoke of His divine origins, many took up stones with which to stone Him, but He passed through their midst unharmed (Jn 8). In addition, Jesus spoke of taking up crosses, forgiving one’s enemies, and preferring nothing to Him. He forbade even lustful thoughts, let alone fornication, and insisted we learn to curb our unrighteous anger. Yes, preaching the whole counsel of God is guaranteed to earn us the wrath of many.

Sadly, over my years as a priest, I have had to bid farewell to many congregations. This farewell speech of Paul is a critical one I use to examine my ministry. Did I preach even the difficult things? Was I willing to suffer for the truth? Did my people hear from me the whole counsel of God or just what was “safe”?

What about you? Have you proclaimed the whole counsel of God? If you are a clergyman, when you move on; if you are a parent, when your child leaves for college; if you are a youth catechist, when the children are ready to be confirmed; if you teach in RCIA, when the time comes for Easter sacraments—can you say you preached it all? God warned Ezekiel that if he failed to warn the sinner, that sinner would surely die for his sins but that Ezekiel himself would be responsible for his death (Ez 3:17 ff). Paul can truthfully say that he is not responsible for the death (the blood) of any of them because he did not shrink from proclaiming the whole counsel of God. What about us?

We must proclaim the whole counsel of God, not just the safe or popular things, not just what agrees with our own politics or those of our friends. We must present the whole counsel, even the hard parts, even the things that are ridiculed. Yes, we must proclaim the whole counsel of God.