St. Paul’s place in the Church has been a bone of contention ever since he was knocked off his horse by our Lord on the way to Damascus.
He was a mass of paradoxes that seemed (to those who did not understand him) a mass of foolish contradictions.
- He loved Christ above all and was not infrequently named an enemy of God.
- He was all things to all and yet had a determined circle of enemies who regarded him as a two-faced phony.
- He labored to present the truth to wildly different audiences in terms they could understand, only to be suspected of compromising the truth.
- He declared those who received circumcision after baptism to be under a curse and he had one of his own disciples circumcised.
- He was devoted to the Tradition and yet hailed (and reviled) as an innovator.
How do we explain this complex, passionate, visionary, practical, mysterious, querulous, humble, brilliant, obscure man?
I think a big part of the answer is that he was a Catholic convert.
Unlike the original apostolic circle, Paul had not experienced the long slow process of discipleship to Christ. There were, for Paul, no long days of trekking around Judea and Galilee, listening to the preaching of Jesus, sharing a meal with him, or being astonished by his miracles. There was no moment at which love and devotion turned to cowardice and bitter tears of regret. On the contrary, for Paul, the walk of discipleship began with the stark apprehension that Jesus was a monstrous imposter who deserved what he got.
Unlike the other apostles—who had always loved Jesus, even when they were too cowardly to say so—Paul had been on the side of those who screamed for his blood, who felt satisfaction that the nails had been driven home, who prided themselves on having rid the world of a knave. When his tiny misgivings about the death of Stephen grew as he went from house to house dragging out people who prayed for his soul, he labored to suppress it, to “kick against the goads”. And when the Risen Christ suddenly overturned Paul’s world, the full horror of what he had done was fused with the full glory of the truth of Jesus’ mercy. Paul saw that God had been crucified by and for men like himself. God had, as he put it “made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephesians 1:9-10).
So Paul carried within himself the strange burden of knowing that he had been the persecutor of Christ and that the very One he had persecuted had, as both a grace and a penance, called him to suffer for his Name. Fired by this new vision of God “reconciling all things to himself, whether things on earth or things in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (Colossians 1:20), Paul’s whole life was spent living out this reconciliation of Jew and Gentile, barbarian and Scythian, slave and free, male and female, and, above all, of God and each person. To the world this was and is “folly”.
But to Paul it was and is the simple consistency of “Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:23-24).