When St. Paul had his conversion experience, it can rightly be said that he was “cut to the heart” just as the three thousand souls in the Acts of the Apostles were shortly after Pentecost (Acts 2:37-42). When one has a conversion experience like this, an experience which leads one to forsake all other things for living the precepts of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the first thing ones wants to do is share it. Our Lord Jesus rightfully said that one would be foolish to hide their lamp under a bushel. When we have the light of joy in our hearts, we need to let that light manifest before others.
Learning from St. Paul
This is exactly what St. Paul did, and is why his letters dominate the New Testament. In a most profound way, he was especially cut to the heart, wanting to share the good news with all peoples far and wide. It’s no wonder, then, that he sometimes people refer to him as simply “the Apostle”. He traveled to places he knew were populous, and was unafraid to transmit the gospel to those who would listen. But what meaning does this have for us in our day? Wasn’t St. Paul an “extraordinary” person, outside the norm? We might be tempted to think that St. Paul was unique in his role as a preacher, but we would be missing the mark. Looking at the wisdom of the popes throughout the years, we can more clearly see how we as “ordinary” Catholics have a lot to learn from St. Paul.
The Same Gospel as the Apostles
To answer the second question first, we first have to realize that St. Paul was an ordinary, flesh-and-blood person like you and me. He certainly did have extraordinary charisms, but this should actually be the norm for all professed Christians. Compare this to the example of the ascetics, like St. Anthony the Great. Right at the beginning of Lent, I heard a priest say during his homily that the virtues and graces of the ascetics are not something impossible for us to attain or some kind of aberration in Christian history. That is to be the norm for all of us: a life of prayer, penance, mortification and sacrifice.
In the same way, St. Paul’s travels to the middle of public squares and the Roman roads should not be seen in an “extraordinary” light, but as something that is a constitutive element to our very fibers and beings as baptized Christians. We recognize our Lord has called us by name (Isaiah 43:1), but are we always aware to what he has called us to?
The first place to look is Scripture. Our Lord simply says “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). This is not something that Christ commissioned only to the apostles. This should be apparent as men who we know of as apostles, like St. Matthias and St. Paul, were not there to physically hear our Lord speak these words. Yet they still took up the task, and this is because they were baptized into Christ. Do St. Matthias, St. Paul, St. Barnabas and all the other early Church leaders have a different baptism from you and me? Certainly not, as we were all baptized in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
How Can They Known What They Haven’t Heard?
These great saints, particularly St. Paul, did what God expects of all Christians. Of course, we might go about things in different ways due to our current station in life, but the call to go and urgently spread the gospel is our inherent call and mission. Bishop R. Daniel Conlon of the Diocese of Joliet made this very topic the subject of his recent pastoral letter:
“It is critically important to keep the mission in front of us. That mission can be defined as the salvation of souls, the building up of God’s kingdom, getting people to heaven, and in other ways. They all constitute the same end as did Christ’s mission, when He was sent by the Father.”
This was St. Paul’s mission in the first century, and it is our mission in the twenty-first century. It is the desire of God that every person be in heaven at the end of their earthly life. Thankfully, he has provided the Church to us as a means of sanctification, to receive the graces needed to remain in friendship with him. But how can people obtain the salvation of someone they have never heard of, or have only heard of in a deficient way?
Longing to Spread the Gospel
There are so many misconceptions about God throughout secular media and culture. This is why it is necessary that we be present in all areas of society, just as St. Paul and the other apostles were. In this way, we can better proclaim the Truth and dispel the wrong notions that people spread about the Catholic Faith. Pope Benedict XVI happily notices that this longing to spread the gospel, felt deeply in the hearts of many Christians, is gaining some more traction somewhat recently:
“One of the promising indications of a renewal in the Church’s missionary consciousness in recent decades has been the growing desire of many lay men and women, whether single or married, to cooperate generously in the missio ad gentes. As the [Second Vatican] Council stressed, the work of evangelization is a fundamental duty incumbent upon the whole People of God, and all the baptized are called to ‘a lively awareness of their personal responsibility for the spreading of the Gospel’.”
Where Is the Metropolis of Our Day?
This “missionary consciousness” doesn’t necessarily need to take us to faraway lands as it did for St. Paul. However, we can learn quite a bit from his methods and the specific places he went. Take for instance his visits to Troas (more commonly known as Troy), seen multiple times in the Acts of the Apostles. Troas was one of the “free cities” of the Roman Empire, and the Romans almost made it the capital of the entire empire on more than one occasion. More a region than just a city, Troas had a port as well.
Clearly, St. Paul targeted large metropolises, knowing that not only the many locals, but visitors to Troas as well, would be able to hear and receive the gospel for the first time. This is just one of the many cities that St. Paul visited throughout his many journeys, but we can look at this as a sort of case study. We can rightfully ask ourselves, where is the Troas of our day?
Preaching the Unknown God
I recently spoke with a priest in the Colorado Springs area who mentioned that a local church maintains a chapel at a local mall. There, Mass happens everyday. The Lord is present in the tabernacle in the Eucharist. Confessions are also heard every day at every hour. The people that walk through a mall come from all walks of life. It is therefore fitting that our Lord Jesus, who calls all men to himself, is present there among them.
This priest told me that I couldn’t begin to imagine how many confessions they heard during a regular week. Even in a Western culture that is becoming more and more secular, it’s amazing how much the general public still inquires about the transcendent. Those that identify as “spiritual” but not “religious” are not few. Just as St. Paul was speaking to those same kinds of people before the temple of the unknown God, so do we as baptized Christians have to do so today.
The Church Exists to Evangelize
This priest and his companions at the local mall embody exactly what St. Paul was trying to do. St. Paul identified where people were congregating. He then began to preach the gospel. He established churches wherever he went and would often return to build up the leaders there and find ways to bring new people into the one sheepfold. This is the nitty-gritty work of evangelization. Pope St. Paul VI showed in his 1975 Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii nuntiandi, that the laity need to get their hands “dirty” as well:
“It is a task and mission which the vast and profound changes of present-day society make all the more urgent. Evangelizing is in fact the grace and vocation proper to the Church, her deepest identity. She exists in order to evangelize, that is to say, in order to preach and teach, to be the channel of the gift of grace, to reconcile sinners with God, and to perpetuate Christ’s sacrifice in the Mass, which is the memorial of His death and glorious resurrection.”
We as the baptized lay faithful also make up the Church. We are the members, the hands and feet, of the Church. With Christ as our head, we carry out his will to make disciples of all nations. St. Paul VI’s words should “cut us to the heart”, just as so many were in the early days of the Church. But don’t think that this is something that we’ve only recovered in recent decades, this evangelical understanding of the Church’s mission. Even before terms like “the new evangelization” hit the scene, the successors of Peter were just as adamant as St. Paul VI in their exhortations to the lay faithful.
In the Interest of God and Souls
In his 1903 encyclical, E Supremi, Pope St. Pius X acts much like the priest from Colorado Springs. Desiring for the entire human race to be restored, he urges priests to assist the lay faithful in reaching their peers:
“It is true, Venerable Brethren, that in this arduous task of the restoration of the human race in Christ neither you nor your clergy should exclude all assistance. We know that God recommended everyone to have a care for his neighbor (Eccli. xvii., 12). For it is not priests alone, but all the faithful without exception, who must concern themselves with the interests of God and souls…
“Our predecessors have long since approved and blessed those Catholics who have banded together in societies of various kinds, but always religious in their aim. We, too, have no hesitation in awarding Our praise to this great idea, and We earnestly desire to see it propagated and flourish in town and country.”
Evangelization in the 21st Century
One of these societies we see today, as I’ve written about before (much like the chapel ministry at the mall in Colorado Springs), is St. Paul’s Street Evangelization (SPSE). At the direction of St. Pius X, societies and apostolates such as this should be flourishing in every city! Does that mean we have to stand on a street corner blaring obnoxiously at people? No, because St. Paul didn’t do that. He had conversations with people. He preached to them in a winsome way. To briefly describe one of my recent experiences with SPSE, I found myself at one of the largest hubs of civilization: a large shopping district a week before Christmas.
A group of us decided that this shopping mall/district, which saw many people both inside and outside, needed to hear the message of Christ. We gathered together in the square, just as St. Paul did, and sang Christmas hymns describing Christ’s glory. People stopped to watch. They smiled, and some sang along. Others approached my team members as we ended our brief attempt at evangelizing consumers on one of the busiest shopping days of the year. It was a great and simple way to witness to Christ, and we’re looking forward to doing it again soon.
This is but one way of evangelizing. There is no one way to go about it, and we need to adjust our strategies to each of our specific states of life and duties. But we can take these cues from St. Paul and the early Christians, and repackage them in a way that really doesn’t look all that different even in the twenty-first century.
For Heaven’s Sake
We are preaching the same Christ, who is the same yesterday, today and forever, and we are preaching it to the same people, that is, the entire human race. The things St. Paul accomplished came about because he was firm in his faith and he utilized the graces that were given to him, cooperating with God’s plan. If we do the same, we may not win thousands and thousands of souls for our Lord, but we can at least be confident that our efforts will help further the cause of the eternal salvation of all those people we encounter. We may not see what our good works do here in this life, but we will know in heaven.
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About Nicholas LaBanca
Nicholas is a cradle Catholic and hopes to give a unique perspective on life in the Church as a millennial. His favorite saints include his patron St. Nicholas, St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. John Mary Vianney, and St. Athanasius of Alexandria.