By Ronald D. Witherup, S.S.
Paul of Tarsus is most frequently studied for his great theological insights, such as his eloquent passages on the significance of Jesus Christ or the beautiful images of the Church. The Year of Paul, however, has enabled a rare opportunity to explore this great Apostle's writings from multiple vantage points.
In this article, I will examine briefly Paul as a pastor, a topic that is particularly pertinent to the lives of priests today.
Using the word ''pastor,'' of course, is not to consider Paul from the perspective of canonical responsibilities toward a specific parish community. Nor does it evoke the idea of a residential minister (whether priest or bishop) who formally tends a certain congregation in pastoral ministry.
Paul was a missionary, an evangelizer, an itinerant preacher and teacher who gradually grew into an ongoing pastoral presence for all of his communities. Thus, calling Paul a ''pastor'' is to understand the term in its root sense: a good shepherd who cares for his flock and ministers to them in pastoral ways.
To explore this theme requires that we look at Paul's letters from the perspective of his pastoral practice. Doing so, in my judgment, leads to some interesting surprising observations. I will focus on five characteristics of Paul as a pastor, each of which has ramifications for pastoral ministry today.
The first characteristic of Paul's pastoral practice, and a foundational one, is a blend of theology and pastoral sensitivity. This assertion requires some explanation.
First and foremost in Paul's identity was his call to be an ''apostle.'' He emphasized repeatedly to his communities that he had been called by the risen Lord Jesus himself. Apostleship was neither a self-designation nor an independent license to practice ministry.
Paul acknowledges that he received the approval of the ''pillars'' of the Church (Peter and James the brother of the Lord) (see 1 Thes 2:7b-8,11-12), though virtually in the same breath he emphasizes that his apostolic call did not originate with any human being but was a divine call. It is thus not accidental that in the list of ministries in such communities as Corinth, ''apostle'' receives pride of place (see 1 Cor 12:28; Eph 4:11).
As an apostle, Paul was impelled to proclaim the ''gospel of God'' or the ''gospel of Christ'' (e.g., 2 Cor 11:7; Gal 1:6-7). In other words, his message was not of his own invention or making. His apostolic ministry required him to proclaim the good news of salvation in Christ Jesus, and everywhere he went this was his priority. So important was this task that Paul would brook no attempt to undermine it, as in fact happened in several of his communities, most notably at Galatia and Corinth.
One sees, then, at the foundation of Paul's pastoral ministry a commitment not to compromise the Gospel message. Although he shows himself to be very adept at addressing the practical problems of daily life that his communities experienced, he never strayed from the fundamental message that he brought to them as an apostle. In other words, Paul was a master at blending theology and pastoral practice.
Paul provides for contemporary priests a model to emulate in this regard. Although parochial ministry brings with it enormous pressures of complex, modern problems and increasingly difficult pastoral situations, we should never lose sight of the basic task of the priesthood: proclaiming in Word and Sacrament the salvation of Jesus Christ.
Pastoral ministry today still requires wrestling with the great theological themes that Paul proclaimed. Pious platitudes won't suffice. Like Paul, we need to explore intimately and deeply the mystery of God's salvation in Christ Jesus, in order to meet the pressing pastoral needs of our people today. Theology and pastoral ministry go hand in hand.
A second insight, and a rather surprising one, is that Paul insisted on manual labor in his pastoral ministry. This may strike us as strange. In the context of Paul's day, though, this issue was not a minor one.
Paul lived in the Greco-Roman world at a time when numerous philosophical schools, such as the Epicu- reans, the Cynics, and the Stoics, thrived. Some of these philosophers were perceived as little better than hucksters. Under the guise of disseminating their ''wisdom'' to help people confront the challenges of daily life, they would greedily seek and readily accept generous donations from grateful customers.
Paul, in contrast, worked at the task of tentmaking in order to earn money to sustain himself and not be a bother to the communities he served. He did not want to be perceived as a moocher. He tells the Thessalonians explicitly:
You recall, brothers and sisters, our toil and drudgery. Working night and day in order not to burden any of you, we proclaimed to you the Gospel of God (1 Thes 2:9).
This is not to say that Paul did not believe pastoral ministers deserved due compensation. To the contrary, he argues rather forcefully in First Corin- thians that an apostle has the right to just compensation (see 1 Cor 9:1-14. Note that Paul insists that he has not used this right). Moreover, Paul was not averse to accepting financial and other aid, especially in tight circumstances, as he tells the Philippians in gratitude for their assistance (see Phil 4:15-19).
But these examples do not negate the basic principle: apostolic ministry entails work. A pastor should not assume that he is to be waited on hand and foot in a princely fashion. Paul would include in this understanding, I think, that pastoral ministry often entailed for him many trials and tribulations. Suffering is part and parcel of apostolic ministry as well. It is a participation in the cross of Christ. Though it should not be sought, it is to be accepted when it comes our way.
Another surprising feature of Paul's activity as a pastor is his actions toward his communities as a parental figure. In fact, Paul extensively uses the meta- phor of a family to describe pastoral ministry in its various facets.
For example, he tells the Corinthi- ans they are his children, and he holds himself up as their (spiritual) father (1 Cor 4:15: ''...I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel.'' Cf. 1 Cor 4:14; 2 Cor 6:13.). Sometimes, Paul also recognized that his young communities could be like infants who could only be fed milk (not substantive teachings) before they grew to the point of eating solid food (1 Cor 3:2).
Perhaps one could understand Paul's use of ''father'' as a pastoral image, but even more surprising is that he sometimes compares himself to a nursing mother with regard to his communities. In one extended passage, Paul uses both the father and mother image together to emphasize that his pastoral embrace of them encompasses the whole of parental duties.
Rather, we were gentle among you, as a nursing mother cares for her children. With such affection for you, we were determined to share with you not only the Gospel of God, but our very selves as well, so dearly beloved had you become to us. ...As you know, we treated each one of you as a father treats his children, exhorting and encouraging you and insisting that you conduct yourselves as worthy of the God who calls you into his kingdom and glory (1 Thes 2:7b-8,11-12).
It is important to notice that Paul's use of this metaphorical language is based genuinely on his affection, or rather, his love of these communities. Any good pastor, even when he acts in a firm or disciplinary manner, does so out of love for the people he serves. Paul shows himself truly to be a good pastor in this sense. He remained supportive and encouraging, but he also was vigilant to guard against any wandering from the truth of the Gospel.
A fourth characteristic of Paul as a pastor was his view of what we would now term collaborative ministry. Paul was clearly not a ''Lone Ranger'' in ministry. The sheer number of people named as ''coworkers'' or colleagues, both male and female, is quite astounding. Depending on how one applies the term, there as many as 90 colleagues of Paul mentioned in his 13 letters in the New Testament. Some are married couples, like Prisca and Aquila, who were also fellow tentmakers.
Others are younger colleagues whom Paul virtually mentored in ministry, such as Timothy and Titus. Many of these colleagues are rather obscure figures, about whom we have little factual knowledge other than their names, such as the extensive list found in Romans 16.
The important point, though, is that Paul envisioned pastoral ministry from a collaborative perspective. As he put it so eloquently to the Corinthians, ''There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit...'' (1 Cor 12:4). At times, he ministered in communities that had been founded by others and to which he made a contribution of his own, such as at Colossae.
Most of the time, however, Paul evangelized virgin territory and founded communities of faithful to whom he was especially devoted. It would also not be an exaggeration to point out that his very letters were a way for Paul to stay in contact with his communities after he had left them to evangelize farther afield. Even apart from them, Paul desired to bolster his communities with his advice, encouragement, and further teaching.
His letters were an alternative presence, a good substitute for his physical presence. His colleagues frequently functioned as couriers for these missives, and they in turn acted as direct sources of information for the status of his communities. The nature of this collaborative ministry is quite consistent with our own modern efforts to promote collegiality in ministry.
The fifth and final characteristic to which I draw attention is Paul's view of the utmost value of the Christian community itself. As a good pastor, Paul knew that there were many potential realities that could disturb the unity of the community. For him, everything was supposed to build up the community, not tear it apart. As he reminded the Corinthians, a community that experienced severe divisions and factionalism:
So with yourselves: since you strive eagerly for spirits, seek to have an abundance of them for building up the Church (1 Cor 14:12).
Paul encouraged the many gifted individuals in the community, but he warned against using the gifts for building oneself up. More important was the building up and sustaining of the faith community. Fellowship (Greek, koinonia) was the priority, promoting unity in Christ. One of the greatest scandals of Christianity was and remains the terrible scar of divisions.
Paul understood well that it is not easy to maintain unity in the midst of individuals' preferences or desires. As a pastor, however, he promoted unity at all times and emphasized the need for vigilance, especially when new ''gifts'' would come along and begin to undermine the unity of the community.
Pastors today face no less a challenge than Paul in this regard. There is a plethora of movements, societies and political persuasions that sometimes jockey for influence in parishes. While most of these are genuinely good and even inspiring, one needs to examine how well they build up the community and promote unity within it.
These five characteristics barely scratch the surface of Paul's pastoral practice. They indicate, however, that Paul had formulated and acted upon a pastoral vision that shaped his communities of faith and that continues to shape the life of the Church.
Pastors today would do well to reexamine the letters of Paul with an eye toward asking pastoral questions of them. The fact is any priest will find there an inspiring model to emulate. As Paul himself said: ''Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ'' (1 Cor 11:1). TP
FATHER WITHERUP, S.S., is Superior General of the Sulpicians and the author of, most recently, Stations of the Cross According to Saint Paul (Paulist Press, 2008).