Writing as I am on the Feast of Saint James, likely the first Apostle to be martyred, I’d like to ponder the kinds of sufferings the Apostles endured in order 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. How many Catholics today can barely rouse themselves to get to an hour-long Mass on Sunday? How many of us clergy will not risk so much as a raised eyebrow in order to speak the truth?
Yet 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).
In tribute to them and to the early Church I want to present a kind of catalogue of the sufferings of St. Paul. Of him we know the most, but surely many others suffered as he did. As you read of what Paul endured, remember the many others as well, and when discomfited by a mere inconvenience or minor persecution, consider the price that others paid so that we could know Christ and be saved.
In this first passage, Paul’s sufferings were announced by God to Ananias:
• Acts 9:15-16 – 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:
• 2 Corinthians 4:8-12 – 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 11:23-27 – … 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 6:3-20 – … 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.
• Galatians 5:11 – Why do I still suffer persecution? [For, if not] the offense of the cross has ceased.
• 2 Corinthians 12:10 – 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 Timothy 3:10-11 – … 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.
• 1 Corinthians 15:30-32 – 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.
• 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 – 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.
• Galatians 4:13 – You know that because of physical infirmity I preached the gospel to you at the first ….
• Galatians 6:7 – From now on let no one trouble me, for I bear in my body the brandmarks of the Lord Jesus.
• Romans 9:1-2 – 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.
• 2 Timothy 4:10-17 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 4:6-8 – 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.
And lest we think that St. Paul may have exaggerated his sufferings, consider the following occurrences documented by Luke in the Acts of the Apostles:
• Acts 9:23 – Fellow Jews plot to kill him in Damascus, must be lowered in a basket from city walls to escape
• Acts 9:29 – Hellenists seek to kill him in Jerusalem, must flee to Caesarea
• Acts 13:15 – Persecuted and run out of Antioch in Pisidia
• Acts 14:5 – Facing likely arrest and stoning at Iconium, flees to Lystra and Derbe
• Acts 14:19 – Stoned, dragged out of Lystra and left for dead
• Acts 15:11 – Opposed by elders and others in Jerusalem
• Acts 16:23 – Arrested as a disturber of the peace, beaten with rods, and imprisoned at Philippi
• Acts 16:39 – Ordered by Roman officials to leave Philippi
• Acts 17:5-7, 10 – Attacked where he lodged in Thessalonica, must be secreted away to Beroea
• Acts 17:13-15 – Forced out of Beroea, must flee to Athens
• Acts 17:32 – Mocked in Athens for teaching about the resurrection
• Acts 18:12 – Apprehended by fellow Jews and taken before the judgment seat of Gallio in Corinth
• Acts 19:23-41 – Opposed by the silversmiths in Ephesus, who riot against him
• Acts 20:3 – Plotted against by the Jews in Greece
• Acts 21:27-30 – Apprehended by the mob in Jerusalem
• Acts 22:24 – Arrested and detained by the Romans
• Acts 22:24-29 – Barely escaped being scourged
• Acts 23:1-10 – Rescued from the Sanhedrin and Pharisees during their violent uprising in Jerusalem
• Acts 23:12-22 – Assassination plots made against him by fellow Jews, who swear an oath to find and kill him
• Acts 23:33-27:2 – Two-year imprisonment in Caesarea
• Acts 27:41-28:1 – Shipwrecked on the island of Malta
• Acts 28:3-5 – Suffered a snakebite
• Acts 28:16-31 – Imprisoned in the Rome
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 was written in the blood of martyrs.
Warning: the following video graphically depicts the sufferings of the early martyrs in the arena: