We’ve been looking at some of the ways in which St. Paul battled for the gospel against the powers and principalities in the heavenlies, as well as against a host of earthly foes. In this last part of our series, let’s note a few basic principles that Paul exemplifies.
Caesar’s Job Is Earthly Justice, Not Defending God
Paul, like modern Catholics, lived in a state that could not care less about what is sacred to Catholics. So he did not waste time trying to get Caesar to act as though blasphemy was a civil crime. Instead, he took a different approach. He forgave his persecutors for their sins against against God, against him, and against the Church—and he appealed to Caesar’s protection on the basis of the common good.
So, for instance, in Acts 22, Paul appeals, not to his standing as a child of God or an apostle, but to his status as a citizen of Rome in order to ward off a flogging from a Roman soldier. Not long after, he will make use of Roman protection in order to foil a plot on his life by some Jewish enemies. This is perfectly legitimate for us today as well. The job of Caesar is to preserve the common good. Where appropriate, it is perfectly legitimate to seek Caesar’s protection when societal ills threaten the Church. So, for instance, there is nothing wrong, in principle, with appealing to Caesar should someone violently disrupt a Mass or initiate a campaign to begin stealing and desecrating the Eucharist. Such behavior is every bit the threat to the common good that, say, spray-painting swastikas on a synagogue is.
Be Wise as a Serpent and Innocent as a Dove
When Paul was hauled before the Sanhedrin in Acts 23, he knew his life hung by a thread. He also knew he had the obligation to a) try to stay alive and b) bear witness to Christ. So he did both:
But when Paul perceived that one part were Sadducees and the other Pharisees, he cried out in the council, “Brethren, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees; with respect to the hope and the resurrection of the dead I am on trial.” And when he had said this, a dissension arose between the Pharisees and the Sadducees; and the assembly was divided. (Acts 23:6-7)
In the same way, our fractured culture today is hostile to the Faith, but also affords witnesses to Christ opportunities to bear witness to Christ. The world will never love the Church, but those who are in the world are searching for him every day. Our task is to speak to them where they will listen, if possible.
Look for Teaching Moments
Paul didn’t simply use Caesar for protection. He also sought to teach Caesar about Christ. Paul did not hesitate to speak to the civil authority about Christ and call him, like everybody else, to faith in Christ Jesus. Paul looked at arrest and imprisonment as just another opportunity to spread the gospel to whatever corner he found himself in. From Philippian jailers to Roman governors to the court of Caesar himself, Paul repeatedly grabbed hold of whatever life tossed his way and turned it to the spread of the gospel. When he found himself on a storm-tossed ship driven toward destruction, he used the moment to bear witness to Christ—which astonished his guards. Washed ashore on Malta, his first impulse was to evangelize. Immersed in a pagan culture that did nothing but talk about the latest ideas and, to hedge its bets, worship the unknown god, Paul took that as his cue to testify to Christ.
It’s Not About You
Paul was so focused on the glory of God that even enemies who tried to make him look bad and make life hard for him during his arrest were an occasion of rejoicing for him:
Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel; the former proclaim Christ out of partisanship, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed; and in that I rejoice. (Philippians 1:15-18)
Indeed, one of the trials Paul faced was the temptation of many to make it All About Himself. But whether it was the Corinthian faction that shouted “I am of Paul!” or the Corinthian faction that rejected his gospel because he was not one of the Twelve, Paul was the same: the focus had to be on Jesus. Paul’s defense of his apostleship was for one purpose, to glorify God, not himself.
That’s always the mission.