By Ronald D. Witherup, S.S.
On June 28, 2007, Pope Benedict XVI surprised many people by announcing a special jubilee called ''The Year of Paul'' to commemorate the bi-millennium of the birth of the Apostle.
As the Holy Father noted, most scholars believe the Apostle to have been born late in the first decade of the Christian era, perhaps between A.D. 8-10. So it is appropriate to celebrate the two-thousandth anniversary of his birth in our own day. The year will run from June 28, 2008, to June 29, 2009, and ostensibly is intended to promote the study of the letters of Paul and to further ecumenical discussion.
In addition, the year will foster greater appreciation of the Word of God in a year that will also see a world synod of bishops devoted to that topic (October 2008). The purpose of the present article is to orient readers toward a greater appreciation of Paul and to provide some recommended resources for the jubilee year.
In my experience as a priest for more than 30 years, I have gained the impression that we Catholics don't give as much attention to Paul and his teaching as we should. Rarely is a Sunday homily ever devoted to Paul, despite the fact that many of his letters are used for the second reading every liturgical year. For understandable reasons, homilists tend to gravitate toward the Gospel and the first reading, which by design are often thematically linked.
Yet Paul's letters constitute an enormous treasure trove of insight. Thirteen out of 27 documents in the New Testament bear the Apostle's name. Moreover, his letters make up the single most important ''library'' of personal testimony from the first Christian century. No one wrote more extant letters or more personal testimony than Paul.
Another factor marks the importance of Paul from a Catholic perspective. His teachings have had a profound impact on almost elements of the faith. With few exceptions, most of the doctrinal teachings of the Church are rooted in Paul's letters. Yet few Catholics are probably aware of this far-reaching influence.
With the Year of Paul underway, we have a chance to correct this imbalance and to re-familiarize ourselves with Paul and his teachings. Priests especially, who are charged with the ministry of Word and Sacrament, would do well to resolve to bring the Apostle into focus throughout this year, for ourselves and the people we serve.
Pauline scholarship has remained a vibrant part of contemporary New Testament study. It can be difficult for scholars, let alone busy priests, to keep up with the flood of new publications, so I will try to summarize a few key points.
One area of interest has been the question of authorship. Of the thirteen letters attributed to Paul, seven are undisputedly from Paul (Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon). The remaining six are disputed with regard to authorship (Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, 1-2 Timothy, and Titus). These have become known as the Deutero-Pauline letters because many scholars have judged that, for reasons of vocabulary, style, or theology, these may have been written by a later disciple or acquaintance of Paul.
This theory of authorship retains its dominance among scholars, and it has helped clarify distinctions about what Paul may have thought or taught. But more recent research has revived the possibility that some of the Deutero-Pauline letters may originate with the Apostle himself or at the very least reflect an outgrowth of his teaching.
More importantly, homilists should recognize that this question is not particularly pertinent to the task of preaching from the letters. From a canonical perspective, all thirteen letters are in the Pauline tradition. Their content is most important, not theories of authorship. So we should not make too much of this scholarly debate but focus on more critical issues. I will point out three: theology, archaeology and sociology, and spirituality.
Theology. Many of the developments in Pauline scholarship in recent decades have focused on theological questions. This is not accidental. Paul's theology has had a profound impact on almost all theological discussions, and Protestant and Catholic scholars alike have retained a lively interest in Paul's teachings. Thus, one of Pope Benedict's goals of fostering ecumenical discussion during the Year of Paul fits neatly with current developments. Although the area of Pauline theology is vast, I have space to explore only one area of great significance, justification.
Agreement on Justification. The most obvious advance in theological dialogue between Catholics and Lutherans about Paul's theology dates back to 1999, but it has unfortunately not sifted down to the general public thoroughly. I refer to the signing of the agreement on October 31, 1999 between the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation concerning our mutual understanding of an important Pauline teaching, justification by faith. The document is titled ''Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification.'' This remarkable agreement, which was subsequently endorsed by the World Methodist Council in 2006, effectively dismisses centuries of caricaturing one another's teachings on justification.
Paragraph 15 contains the heart of the agreement: ''Together we confess: By grace alone, in faith in Christ's saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works.'' A phenomenal passage, given the history of the debate between faith and good works that characterized traditional Catholic and Lutheran (as well as other Protestant) debates!
The document did not solve every issue between our denominations, but it put on solid footing a common understanding of an important component of Paul's theology. Through Christ, God gave the world salvation. To oversimplify a bit, Catholics have had to re-learn that we don't earn our way to heaven by good works; salvation is God's free gift. Lutherans have had to re-learn that good works play an important role in living out the faith; salvation is not merely a matter of a verbal profession of faith. Both teachings are firmly Pauline in concept.
Archaeology and Sociology. A second development concerns the influence of more recent archaeological and sociological studies of Paul's world that have made an impact on the way we read Paul's letters. Archaeological sites such as Corinth and Ephesus, to name two, which were ancient cities proselytized by Paul and his companions, have yielded rich insights into the nature of daily life in the first century.
One can visualize Paul at work in the forum (Greek agora) and preaching the Gospel message to all who would listen. Or one can also get a good sense of a ''house-church'' by examining the Roman-era villas that have been unearthed in these settings. Moreover, both archaeology and sociology have produced new insights into the nature of daily life, the diverse roles of men and women in the first century, the nature of slavery and its impact on Paul's world, and so on. Happily many of these findings have made their way into commentaries on Paul's letters or introductions to Paul (see sidebar for some recommended resources).
Spirituality. A third and final area is a renewed interest in the spiritual dimensions of Paul's letters. This topic is also quite broad and somewhat difficult to define. It is also, admittedly, related to Paul's theology. Yet one can see in many contemporary works on Paul a greater sensitivity to the spiritual dimensions in Paul's letters.
For example, his emphasis on prayer and the sacramental life of the church have received more attention, as well as a re-examination of the so-called ''Damascus Road'' experience of the risen Lord Jesus as the basis for most, if not all, of his insights into what God has accomplished in Jesus Christ. This renewed interest in spirituality dovetails nicely with Pope Benedict's desire to promote lectio divina of Scrip- ture, i.e., a prayerful reading and meditation upon the Word of God that can help renew Christian life in our day.
In short, the Year of Paul offers an extraordinary opportunity for Catho- lics, and other Christians, to reflect on the meaning of this premier Apostle's life, ministry and teachings. I pray that we embrace it with an infectious enthusiasm that can spread around the globe, much as the Apostle himself envisioned his worldwide mission of evangelization. TP
FATHER WITHERUP, S.S., is provincial of the U.S. Province of Sulpicians and author of, among other books, St. Paul: Called to Conversion: A Seven-Day Retreat (St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2007).
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