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.
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:
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.
It spells out Paul’s relationship to authority within the Church.
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.
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).
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.
There is a war we must wage in our mind. Indeed, the mind is the central battlefield of our Christian journey. The mind is where we “live,” where we are alone with our thoughts and with God; it is where we think, deliberate, and decide. Our “thought life” determines our ultimate destiny:
Sow a thought, reap a deed. Sow a deed, reap a habit. Sow a habit, reap a character. Sow a character, reap a destiny.
It all begins in the mind. If you can get a person to think in a certain way, you can control his feelings, decisions, and ultimately his destiny. The world and the devil seek access to our minds. They try to influence us, to sow seeds of sin, doubt, and confusion. In addition, our own flesh seems to like being deceived. Too easily we are like those who, as St. Paul says, will not tolerate sound doctrine, but with itching ears will gather around themselves teachers to suit their own desires (2 Tim 4:3).
We must engage in this battle both for ourselves and those whom we love, especially today when the distracting influences of the world are so numerous and so cunning. There is much in the writings of St. Paul to give us encouragement in this battle. Consider these passages:
We tear down arguments, and every presumption set up against the knowledge of God; and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ (2 Cor 10:4-5).
Every thought should be subject to the standard of the Gospel: is this it in conformity with what God teaches or not? If it is not, it is to be taken captive and either excluded or made pure in reference to Christ.
Is this what we do? Too often it is not! Instead, we tolerate error, darkness, impurity, foolishness, and outright blasphemy. Rather than rendering it captive, we allow it free access to our innermost mind and heart. Through movies, music, the Internet, and all sorts of media, we expose ourselves to what is base, boorish, uncharitable, unchaste, violent, dysfunctional, and just plain evil. Not everything in the world is evil or base but, as St. Paul says in Thessalonians, Test everything. Hold fast to what is good. Abstain from every form of evil (1 Thess 5:21-22).
When ideas or any content fails this test, we ought to arrest it and hold it captive. Too often we tolerate or even welcome it. We have too little sense of the battle for our mind and we are easily deceived, carried off by any foolish, unchaste, or ungodly thing. Pay attention, fellow Christians; we are at war and the battleground is our mind.
So, I tell you this, and testify to it in the Lord: You must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding and alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardness of their hearts. Having lost all sense of shame, they have given themselves over to sensuality for the practice of every kind of impurity, with a craving for more. But this is not the way you came to know Christ. Surely you heard of Him and were taught in Him in keeping with the truth that is in Jesus. You were taught to put off your former way of life, your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be renewed in the spirit of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. Therefore, each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor, for we are members of one another (Eph 4:17-45).
We are so easily mesmerized by the world, seeing its ways as sophisticated, classy, and cultural—but this is a deception. St. Paul (with the Holy Spirit) speaks of these things and describes those who promote them as lost in futility, desensitized to evil, as having darkened minds and hardened hearts. We are summoned to separate ourselves from all that and be renewed in our minds and washed in the truth. In other words, do not admire the glamorized evils of this world or by its often-foolish priorities and futile pursuits.
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to discern what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God (Rom 12:2).
There is no safer place in the world than inside the will of God. Our goal is to be transformed into the image of God, not conformed to a doomed and passing world. Our goal is to be sober and to discern the will of God in all things. This alone will bring us satisfaction and salvation. Only by the clear discernment of the will of God can we know the way home.
Are you on the battlefield with the Lord? Where is your mind right now? Be attentive to the battle for your mind. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings (Heb 13:8-9).
Today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles tells of the stoning of St. Paul. We do well to ponder the kinds of sufferings the Apostles endured to announce the Gospel and win souls for Christ. In the “softer” Church of the declining West, it is hard for us even to imagine such suffering. How many Catholics today can even bear to rouse themselves to get to an hour-long Mass on Sunday? How many of us clergy will not speak the truth so as to avoid a raised eyebrow?
All but one of the first apostles suffered martyrdom as well as countless other sufferings before their lives were brutally ended. Arguably, 30 of the first 33 popes died as martyrs. Two others died in exile. Only one died in his bed.
We should never fail to thank God for the heroic ministry of the early Christians, clergy and laity alike, who risked everything to believe and to announce the Gospel. Having encountered Christ, they were so transfixed by His truth and His very person that they could not remain silent. Even in the face of persecution and death, the apostles declared, simply and forcefully, we cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard (Acts 4:20).
As a tribute to them and to the early Church I present here a catalogue of sorts of St. Paul’s sufferings. We know the most about his trials, but surely many others also suffered. As you read through what Paul endured, remember the many others as well. When discomfited by a mere inconvenience or a minor persecution, consider the price that others paid so that we could know Christ and be saved.
In this first passage, God announced Paul’s sufferings to Ananias:
For he is a chosen vessel of mine to bear My name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel. I will show him how many things he must suffer for My name’s sake (Acts 9:15-16).
Here are some of Paul’s own descriptions of what he endured:
We are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed — always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. For we who live are always manifesting the death of Jesus’ sake, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So then death is working in us, but life in you (2 Corinthians 4:8-12).
… in labors more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequently, in deaths often. From the Jews five times I received forty stripes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fasting often, in cold and nakedness—besides the other things, what comes upon me daily: my deep concern for all the churches (2 Corinthians 11:23-27).
… in much patience, in tribulations, in needs, in distresses, in stripes, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labors, in sleeplessness, in fasting; by purity, by knowledge, by longsuffering, by kindness, by the Holy Spirit, by sincere love, by the word of truth, by the power of God, by the armor of righteousness on the right hand and on the left, by honor and dishonor, by evil report and good report; as deceivers, and yet true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold we live; as chastened, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing all things (2 Corinthians 6:3-20).
Why do I still suffer persecution? [For, if not] the offense of the cross has ceased (Galatians 5:11).
Therefore, I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12:10).
… my doctrine, my manner of life, purpose, faith, longsuffering, love, perseverance, persecutions, afflictions, which happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium, at Lystra—what persecutions I endured. And out of them all the Lord delivered me. (2 Timothy 3:10-11)
And why do we stand in jeopardy every hour? I affirm, by the boasting in you which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die daily …. [Indeed] I have fought with beasts at Ephesus (1 Corinthians 15:30-32).
And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure. Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me. And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore, most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore, I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12:7-10).
You know that because of physical infirmity I preached the gospel to you at the first … (Galatians 4:13).
From now on let no one trouble me, for I bear in my body the brandmarks of the Lord Jesus (Galatians 6:7).
I tell the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and continual grief in my heart (Romans 9:1-2).
Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica. Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia. Luke alone is with me …. Tychicus I have sent to Ephesus …. Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm; the Lord will repay him according to his deeds. Beware of him yourself, for he strongly opposed our message. At my first defense [in Jerusalem] no one came to stand by me, but all deserted me. May it not be charged against them! But the Lord stood by me and strengthened me, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So, I was rescued from the lion’s mouth (2 Timothy 4:10-17).
For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have longed for His appearing (2 Timothy 4:6-8).
Lest you think that St. Paul exaggerated in his descriptions, consider the following occurrences documented by St. Luke in the Acts of the Apostles:
Fellow Jews plot to kill him in Damascus, must be lowered in a basket from city walls to escape (Acts 9:23).
Hellenists seek to kill him in Jerusalem, must flee to Caesarea (Acts 9:29).
Paul is persecuted and run out of Antioch in Pisidia (Acts 13:15).
Facing likely arrest and stoning at Iconium, Paul flees to Lystra and Derbe (Acts 14:5).
He is stoned, dragged out of Lystra, and left for dead (Acts 14:19).
Paul is opposed by elders and others in Jerusalem (Acts 15:11).
He is arrested as a disturber of the peace, beaten with rods, and imprisoned at Philippi (Acts 16:23).
Paul is ordered by Roman officials to leave Philippi (Acts 16:39)
Attacked where he lodged in Thessalonica, he must be secreted away to Beroea (Acts 17:5-7, 10).
Paul is forced out of Beroea and must flee to Athens (Acts 17:13-15).
He is mocked in Athens for teaching about the resurrection (Acts 17:32).
Paul is apprehended by fellow Jews and taken before the judgment seat of Gallio in Corinth (Acts 18:12).
He is opposed by the silversmiths in Ephesus, who riot against him (Acts 19:23-41).
Paul is plotted against by the Jews in Greece (Acts 20:3).
He is apprehended by the mob in Jerusalem (Acts 21:27-30).
Paul is arrested and detained by the Romans (Acts 22:24).
He barely escapes being scourged (Acts 22:24-29).
Paul is rescued from the Sanhedrin and Pharisees during their violent uprising in Jerusalem (Acts 23:1-10).
Assassination plots are made against him by fellow Jews, who swear an oath to find and kill him (Acts 23:12-22)
Paul endures a two-year imprisonment in Caesarea (Acts 23:33-27:2).
He is shipwrecked on the island of Malta (Acts 27:41-28:1).
Paul is bitten by a snake (Acts 28:3-5).
He is imprisoned in Rome (Acts 28:16-31).
Paul was executed by decapitation ca. 68 A.D.
Never forget the price that others have paid in order that we may come to saving faith. Each Sunday, remember that the Creed we profess was written in the blood of martyrs.
The movie Paul, Apostle of Christ is a worthy tribute to St. Paul and the suffering of the early Christians:
Over a month ago I was blessed to get an early view of the new movie, Paul, Apostle of Christ. It is indeed wonderful — beautifully filmed and with a moving ending. It is not a simple retelling of the Acts of the Apostles; such films have already been made. Instead, it is a moving portrait of St. Paul (James Faulkner) and St. Luke (Jim Caviezel).
The setting is Rome during St. Paul’s last days. Great persecutions are underway, taking a heavy toll on the Christians there. The movie presents the humanness of these struggles, both individually and communally. It weaves many of Paul’s writings in, but not in an artificial way. It also depicts a personal dimension of Paul by developing certain painful memories he carried with him. While these memories are mentioned in Paul’s writings, their creative treatment in the movie leads to its powerful conclusion.
To avoid having to issue a “spoiler alert” I will not say any more about the movie, but I strongly encourage you to see it. Expect less of a retelling of Acts or a presentation of Paul’s writings and more of a treatment of Paul, Luke, and the early Christians, who endured so as to hand the faith on to us.
Today in daily Mass we read the well-known story of St. Paul’s conversion. There is a detail in the story that I have often pondered. Although I am speculating on the specifics, I think it ought not to be overlooked. Even my choice of the words “speculating” and “overlooked” (both of which refer to the eyes) indicate that we ought to “give an eye” to St. Paul’s eyes.
As you probably recall, St. Paul was not just struck down on the road to Damascus—he was blinded as well.
Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him to Damascus. For three days he was unable to see, and he neither ate nor drank (Acts 9:8-10).
Having persecuted the Lord, Paul was now confronted with the darkness of sin and unbelief. It is as though the Lord wanted nothing to distract Paul as he pondered his experience, neither the delights of food and drink nor the delights of the eye. It was a kind of dying and being with Christ for three days in the tomb before rising. Like the dead, Paul was unable to eat and was enveloped in complete darkness of blindness. He could do little during that time but think and pray.
And pray he did!
[The Lord said to Ananias,]“Get up and go to the street called Straight and ask at the house of Judas for a man from Tarsus named Saul. He is there praying, and in a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him, that he may regain his sight.”
… Ananias went and entered the house; laying his hands on him, he said, “Saul, my brother, the Lord has sent me, Jesus who appeared to you on the way by which you came, that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Immediately things like scales fell from his eyes and he regained his sight. He got up and was baptized, and when he had eaten, he recovered his strength.
Through Word and Sacrament, Paul’s eyes were healed—or were they? Surely they were, for in the years that would follow, Paul saw well enough to travel the world speaking of Christ.
I’m convinced that some vestige of blindness, some physical memory remained in Paul’s eyes for his entire life, something to remind him of his need for mercy and to keep him humbly mindful of how that mercy was extended.
As background, we do well to recall the story of Jacob, who wrestled with God one night. Jacob proved strong in that great contest, so strong that God gave him a new name, Israel, which means “he wrestles (or struggles) with God.” God also left Jacob with a permanent memory of that nighttime battle. Scripture says that God knocked out Jacob’s sciatic muscle (Genesis 32:32), such that he would walk with a limp for the rest of his life, leaning on a staff. It was a reminder to Jacob that he was always to lean on the Lord (Heb 11:21).
So, too, perhaps, for St. Paul. Although he persevered through three dark days with God and although his eyesight was restored, it would seem that some weakness remained in his eyes. Later, St. Paul would speak of an ailment, a mysterious thorn in his flesh (2 Cor 12:7). Three times he begged God to remove it but the Lord told him to endure it for the sake of humility.
What was it? What was this mysterious physical affliction? I’m convinced that it had something to do with his eyes. Paul told the Galatians,
As you know, it was because of an illness that I first preached the gospel to you, and even though my illness was a trial to you, you did not treat me with contempt or scorn. Instead, you welcomed me as if I were an angel of God, as if I were Christ Jesus himself. Where, then, is your blessing of me now? I can testify that, if you could have done so, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me (Gal 4:13-15).
While I am speculating, it seems to me that Paul had something to akin to conjunctivitis (pink eye), an affliction that make the eyes fill with a sticky yellowish discharge and become red. It can be extremely contagious and is often repulsive to others. Indeed, it was quite difficult to endure in the era before modern medicine.
Whatever his actual affliction, it seems (if the Galatians text is acknowledged as descriptive) to have involved Paul’s eyes, the same eyes that had been healed but perhaps with a reminder left in them of the need for humility and for remembrance of how God saved him.
What is your thorn? What is your limp? What is your conjunctivitis? All of us have things that keep us humble. They remind us of our need to lean on God and to look to Him, not with haughty eyes, but with eyes that are humble, respectful, and grateful.
This song says, “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen. Nobody knows but Jesus”