Anyone approaching Rome’s magnificent basilica of St Paul Outside the Walls through the front courtyard comes face to face with an extraordinary statue of the basilica’s namesake. Cloaked, hooded, and wielding a massive sword, this particular representation of St Paul can have a disconcerting effect upon the visitor – “passive” is not exactly the word I would choose to describe it. It’s more like he’s poised to unleash some tremendous force, or embark energetically upon some titanic endeavor. He has a purpose in life so patent that it seems to burst forth from the rock itself.
And that’s why this particular statue of St Paul is a bit uncomfortable. It’s uncomfortable because it forces me to realize the responsibility of being a Christian. I see the effect that one person with a vision and a message can have upon the course of history, and I realize that because I’m a baptized Catholic I share in that vision and in that message.
Let’s take a look at some characteristics of St Paul, since it reminds us what we can become if we are willing to cooperate with God. So, to list just a few, he was tireless, fearless, and humble. And, to sum it all up, he was holy.
He was unquestionably tireless. In fact, to put it bluntly, the guy was volcanic. Set him next to the CEO of any Fortune 500 company and the executive would probably be begging for vacation time within a week. He crisscrossed the ancient world: Syria to Palestine to Turkey to Greece to Turkey to Palestine, up until his martyrdom in Rome. And even then he was planning a journey to Spain. None of this was first class travel either – it involved exhausted horses, leaky ships, rebarbative camels, and it was, quite often, on foot.
Why? St Paul was supremely motivated. In fact, you could say that whatever a businessman would do for a dollar, St Paul would do for the salvation of souls. So late nights and early mornings were the norm, quick meals and tired eyes were everyday occurrences, and life out of a saddlebag became almost bearable.
This was because he believed that he could make a difference. We hear that expression all the time, and maybe it seems trite. But it’s not just empty optimism – God himself told us that we have a purpose and a plan, and that there is a role that only we can fulfill. Each one of us has an irreplaceable part in God’s plan. St Paul saw this with vivid clarity, and this is what motivated him to become the best messenger that he could be.
Fearlessness was another of St Paul’s salient characteristic. Read the Acts of the Apostles, and notice how many times his life is threatened. But what’s so interesting is that he responds with boldness. The word bold is used over and over again to describe St Paul’s attitude towards death and danger, and towards all those who wanted him dead. Boldness does not mean recklessness or indifference – St Paul loved life and lived it to the full – it means confidence in God and his plan. As he himself said, “I know him in whom I have believed, and I am confident.”
Now an important question arises: is this compatible with kindness? St Paul was certainly tough, we’ve already seen ample evidence of that, but was he also kind? In order to answer that question, it suffices to read 1 Corinthians 13 and see how St Paul describes love. For a Christian, love is the greatest and most divine of all virtues, and St Paul describes it in detail: “Love is patient, love is kind, it is not quick-tempered…” And thus we understand that kindness, or the generous decision to share one’s goods – whether spiritual or temporal – was a supreme factor in St Paul’s tireless exertions to help others know and love the Jesus Christ.
So St Paul had it all: energy, vision, fearlessness, kindness. But all these qualities were complemented (and perhaps we can even say enabled) by something else – St Paul was a humble man. Humility is the truth, and the truth can be painful, which is why we often tend to be too hard on ourselves in some respects, and too lenient in others. Humility, however, provides balance and ensures that we see all our qualities and defects in the context of God’s mercy.
That’s why it’s no surprise to find St Paul – a world traveler, supremely self-confident – saying “when I am weak, then I am strong.” Everything good comes from God – we already know that – but it’s no less true that God will also use our weaknesses and deficiencies to bring us to heaven and bring others along with us. As St Paul famously put it, “everything works out for the good of those who love God.” Humility is truth, and truth is freedom, confidence, and motivation.
To sum it all up, then, St Paul was holy. He freely chose to conform to God’s blueprint for him, and the results were astounding. To be a saint means to be the best you can be – in everything. God doesn’t ask us to be someone else, but he does expect us to optimize all the gifts he has given us. And largely because of St Paul’s response to God’s plan, Christianity spread throughout Europe. The missionaries who carried Christ’s liberating message around the world are his heirs – and, as baptized Catholics, so are we.
And that brings me to perhaps the most relevant point of all for our world today. In God’s plan, holiness is not just for St Paul: we are all created to be saints. This is what drove St Paul to share the message he received, and this is what motivates the saints to keep trying when things get hard. It won’t be easy, but it’s worth it.
But how can I do it? The world has changed over the last 2000 years, and I have responsibilities which won’t allow me to just run off to Macedonia or wherever to help others discover the treasure I’ve found. I think St Paul himself has the answer when he says whatever you do, do it for the glory of God. That means in my life as it is right now. If I’m married, it means trying to be the best I can be with my spouse and children – patient, faithful, forgiving. If I’m single, it means striving to be the best I can be now, for the sake of my future family. If I’m consecrated to Christ or a priest it means imaging heaven and loving my flock. It means that I appreciate the gift of my Catholic Faith, that I’ve discovered the adventure and happiness of being a Catholic and I want to tell others about it. It means I aim for excellence in my prayer, my studies, my work, in sports – because God wants me to be the best that I can be – and it also means that I leave the results in his hands.
Ultimately it means that I know my Catholic Faith, I live it with pride, and I share it with others. Obviously there are countless ways of doing this, and it’s up to each one to determine how to know, love, and share the Faith we’ve received as a gift, a legacy, and a challenge. And that, finally, brings us back to the striking statue in front of St Paul Outside the Walls and the message it conveys. I am created for excellence. I have a purpose in life, a responsibility that only I can fulfill. I can’t just sit back and let the tide of life bear me along aimlessly. Will I share the message I have received? What is my response going to be?
This post was originally published in the Institute for the Psychological Sciences’s Virtual Chapel.