First Martyrs of the Church of Rome
There were Christians in Rome within a dozen or so years after the death of Jesus, though they were not the converts of the “Apostle of the Gentiles” (Romans 15:20). Paul had not yet visited them at the time he wrote his great letter in 57-58 A.D..
There was a large Jewish population in Rome. Probably as a result of controversy between Jews and Jewish Christians, the Emperor Claudius expelled all Jews from Rome in 49-50 A.D. Suetonius the historian says that the expulsion was due to disturbances in the city “caused by the certain Chrestus” [Christ]. Perhaps many came back after Claudius’s death in 54 A.D. Paul’s letter was addressed to a Church with members from Jewish and Gentile backgrounds.
In July of 64 A.D., more than half of Rome was destroyed by fire. Rumor blamed the tragedy on Nero, who wanted to enlarge his palace. He shifted the blame by accusing the Christians. According to the historian Tacitus, many Christians were put to death because of their “hatred of the human race.” Peter and Paul were probably among the victims.
Threatened by an army revolt and condemned to death by the senate, Nero committed suicide in 68 A.D. at the age of 31.
Wherever the Good News of Jesus was preached, it met the same opposition as Jesus did, and many of those who began to follow him shared his suffering and death. But no human force could stop the power of the Spirit unleashed upon the world. The blood of martyrs has always been, and will always be, the seed of Christians.
Pope Clement I, third successor of St. Peter, writes: “It was through envy and jealousy that the greatest and most upright pillars of the Church were persecuted and struggled unto death.... First of all, Peter, who because of unreasonable jealousy suffered not merely once or twice but many times, and, having thus given his witness, went to the place of glory that he deserved. It was through jealousy and conflict that Paul showed the way to the prize for perseverance. He was put in chains seven times, sent into exile, and stoned; a herald both in the east and the west, he achieved a noble fame by his faith....”
“Around these men with their holy lives there are gathered a great throng of the elect, who, though victims of jealousy, gave us the finest example of endurance in the midst of many indignities and tortures. Through jealousy women were tormented, like Dirce or the daughters of Danaus, suffering terrible and unholy acts of violence. But they courageously finished the course of faith and despite their bodily weakness won a noble prize.”
Today in the Latin Calendar we celebrate the Feast Day of S. Paul, Apostle. A story about this Feast Day can be found by Clicking Here.
Saint Paul is undoubtedly one of the most important figures in the history of the Western world. Just a quick look at the headlines of his life are enough to understand his impact; his works are some of the earliest Christian documents that we have, 13 of the 27 books of the bible are written by him, and he's the hero of another, Acts of the Apostles.
Famously converted on the road to Damascus, he travelled tens of thousands of miles around the Mediterranean spreading the word of Jesus and it was Paul who came up with the doctrine that would turn Christianity from a small sect of Judaism into a worldwide faith that was open to all.
What we know about Paul comes from two extraordinary sources. The first is the Acts of the Apostles, written after Paul's death, almost certainly by the same author who wrote St Luke's gospel. There is evidence that Acts was written to pass on the Christian message, but behind the theology lie clues about Paul's life. The author of Acts claims that he knew Paul and even accompanied him on many of his journeys. The second source is Paul's own letters. They represent Paul's own version of events, and it seems reasonable to accept them as the more reliable account.
The one thing most people do know about St Paul is that he underwent a dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus. Precisely what happened has been hard to determine as the accounts in Acts and the letters differ on the details. For example, when St Paul talks about his conversion he makes no mention of a journey from Jerusalem to Damascus.
But behind the paradoxes and the puzzles, there are fascinating glimpses of the man. Reading Paul's letters and Acts of the Apostles we learn that Paul was born in Tarsus, in modern day Eastern Turkey, he was a tent maker by trade, was an avid student under the top Jewish teacher in Jerusalem and was also a Roman citizen. Here is a man who worked with his hands but wrote with the grace of a Greek philosopher; a Jewish zealot who nevertheless enjoyed the rights of citizenship in the world's greatest empire.
In his letters, we also discover the Paul who writes warmly of his friends, both men and women, the Paul who frets about how the members of his churches are coping without him and who defends their status as true converts and the Paul who appeals for the freedom of a slave. But like all great and charismatic figures there is another side; the Paul who berates his followers for backsliding and doubting; the Paul who tells women to keep silent and condemns homosexuality and the Paul who'll stand up to the Apostle Peter, one of the most senior people in the early church and call him a hypocrite to his face.
Academics are trying to piece together these scraps of information with a new technique that's rather like a combination of sociology and forensic anthropology. They've come up with a picture of Paul who'd be a man of his time and place; a hot headed Mediterranean who'd be quick to defend his honour and the honour of his followers, but who'd demand loyalty in return.
Paul wrote some of the most beautiful and important passages in the whole of the Bible, but his works have also been used, among other things, to justify homophobia, slavery and anti-Semitism. He has also been accused of being anti-feminist, although many modern scholars would argue that in fact he championed the cause of women church leaders. In the final analysis, Paul was the first great Christian theologian, establishing some of the building blocks of the faith that we now take for granted, though there are those who argue that in laying out these ground rules, Paul has obscured and separated us from the true teachings of Jesus. But perhaps the true sign of Paul's importance is that even nearly 2000 years after his death he still inspires passion; whatever you feel, it's hard to feel neutral about Paul.
Paul in Scripture
However one explains the phenomenon, there is little doubt that the events of the first Easter, sometime in the early 30s of the first century, made a powerful impact on the first followers of Jesus. Yet the utterly bizarre nature of the claims that they were making is easy to miss after two thousand years of familiarity with Christianity. Let us pause to consider for a moment what it was that they were saying.
God has acted decisively, once for all, by sending his beloved Son to his own people, Israel. This Jesus, whom some acknowledged as Christ, was subjected to an appalling and humiliating death. Everyone in the Roman Empire knew about crucifixion and the fact that Jesus died in this way was not something one would expect anyone to have been proud of. That God's Anointed One could have been so publicly humiliated seemed outrageous. But for these early Jesus people, the public humiliation was conquered through resurrection, God's vindication of Jesus, and this convinced them that Jesus was not a criminal who had died for his own sins; he had died for the sins of others.
Paul the Persecutor
At this stage, it is incorrect to talk about Christianity. These earliest followers of Jesus were devout Jews who continued to offer sacrifice at the Temple and to observe the whole Jewish Law. Essentially, they were a small sect within Judaism. So how would such a sect have been viewed by other Jews who were not members of it? Thankfully, we have a pretty clear answer to this question because one of the most famous converts to the new Messianic sect was a Jew named Paul and before his conversion he was so horrified by the claims of this new movement that, he tells us, he persecuted it violently.
So why did people like Paul persecute Jesus' followers? The problem seems to have focused around the cross. It was simply intolerable to zealous Jews like Paul that God's special envoy could have died a criminal's death. He describes it as a "stumbling block" to Jews (1 Corinthians 1.23), using the Greek word skandalon from which we derive our word "scandal". It was unthinkable that the Messiah could have suffered in this way. The problem would have been sharply focused for someone like Paul. He was not from Israel but was born in Tarsus, in modern Turkey. Jews like Paul, who lived outside the Jewish homeland, were called diaspora Jews. Since they lived among pagans, they were particularly conscious of how their religion might appear to those around them. Jews were called to be a light to the nations (Isaiah 42.6); this story of a crucified Messiah might have the opposite effect. It could hold Judaism up to ridicule.
So Paul attempted to snuff out this fledgling movement before it could do too much damage.
The importance of Paul's conversion, his turn-around from persecuting Jesus to preaching Jesus, cannot be underestimated. Paul himself finds it difficult to describe what had happened and in a fascinating passage in one of his letters he explains this as a resurrection appearance of Jesus (1 Corinthians 15.8-10)
Paul the Missionary
The Damascus Road experience was both a conversion and a call. It was a conversion away from his previous life as a zealous persecutor of Jesus' followers and it was a call to a new life advancing the cause of the new movement with even more vigour than he had shown before. Now, with boundless energy, Paul preached the gospel of the Christ crucified for the sins of all people far and wide, beginning at Jerusalem and continuing all the way to Rome. His achievement was a matter of some pride for him:
Luke tells us of three enormous missionary journeys, charting [Paul's] progress from Antioch in Syria and moving westwards through (modern day) Turkey and Greece and finally back to Jerusalem again. For Paul this was a particularly punishing business. Unlike other early Christian missionaries, Paul earned his own living wherever he went. Luke says that he was a tentmaker (Acts 18.3) and Paul often talks about how he combined his preaching of the gospel with working with his hands (see 1 Corinthians 9).
Paul's life was remarkable and there is little doubt that it changed the course of Christianity. He made an impact as apostle, as theologian, and as letter-writer. Paul the apostle had expanded the church far and wide, flinging open the doors to Gentiles, strenuously fighting for his conviction that the gospel was for all people and that no barriers should be put in the way of Gentiles. Paul the theologian was the first to work through many of the intriguing questions that Jesus' life, death and resurrection had thrown up. And Paul the letter-writer gave us not only some of the profoundest pieces of early Christian theological reflection, but also some of the finest, most poignant writing in history.
At the end of the Bible, though, lies not Paul but Revelation, a book that at first sight looks like the black sheep in the New Testament family. With its fantastic visions of heaven, its gory stories of the future, its impenetrable signs and symbols, many a reader has given up in exasperation in the attempt to fathom out its mysteries.
Some Christians have struggled with Revelation; Luther wished it was not in the New Testament at all. Yet at heart, Revelation is a profoundly Christian book. Its central message is that in spite of any appearance to the contrary, God is still Lord and King over the universe. It is a vision of God's kingdom, his judgement but most importantly his sovereignty over everything. Where there is injustice in the world, this will be rectified. Where there is sin, sickness, disease and the devil, these will be eradicated. John, [its author] is a seer and has been given a revelation of what is going on in heaven. He is able to see God's perspective. And the message he hears there is that after all, God is indeed in control, through Jesus his Son, who has conquered death through his own victory over death.
S. Augustine tells us that progress in holiness depends on God and myself--on God's grace and on my will. Each of us must have a true and living resolution to reach holiness.
Quote by S. Padre Pio:
Every anxious thought is a mistake... The Lord works within you, and you must do nothing except leave the door to your heart wide open so that He might work as He pleases.
The Immensity of Your Mercy
At the beginning of my religious life, suffering and adversities frightened and disheartened me. So I prayed continuously, asking Jesus to strengthen me and to grant me the power of His Holy Spirit that I might carry out His holy will in all things, because from the beginning I have been aware of my weakness. I know very well what I am of myself, because for this purpose Jesus has opened the eyes of my soul; I am an abyss of misery, and hence I understand that whatever good there is in my soul consists solely of His holy grace. The knowledge of my own misery allows me, at the same time, to know the immensity of Your mercy. In my own interior life, I am looking with one eye at the abyss of my misery and baseness, and with the other, at the abyss of Your mercy, O God. - (Diary No. 56)