Opening of the Year of St. Paul

Author: Bishop Robert J. Baker

Opening of the Year of St. Paul

Bishop Robert J. Baker
Diocese of Birmingham, Alabama

Opening of the Year of St. Paul
Holy Mass – EWTN Chapel
June 29, 2008 – Homily
Bishop Robert J. Baker

Dear Friends in Christ,

On this solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul, under the direction of our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, the church inaugurates today the year of St. Paul. This special year is a wonderful blessing for the Universal Church, and it is a distinct blessing for the Diocese of Birmingham in Alabama. The patron saint of our diocese is St. Paul.

I'd like to make a few suggestions today on how Catholics might benefit from joining our Holy Father in celebrating the Year of St. Paul.

When Pope Benedict proclaimed this special year a year ago, he reminded us that St. Paul's extraordinary success in proclaiming the Gospel did not come from any brilliant rhetoric or refined apologetic and missionary strategies. It depended rather on his commitment to proclaiming the Gospel with total dedication to Christ, the kind of dedication that led him to fear neither risk, nor difficulty, nor persecution.

Remember Paul’s words to the Romans: “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).

My first suggestions for this year of St. Paul is that we ask God for the grace of total dedication of our lives to Christ in the spirit of a St. Paul – the grace of conversion of mind and heart to Christ. Reading and reflecting on the messages of St. Paul will help us to make that step toward total commitment to Christ.

Getting to know St. Paul is getting to know Jesus Christ. He writes to the Philippians, “to live is Christ” (1:21). St. Paul tells them, “your attitude must be that of Christ” (2:5). Paul's goal, he tells the Colossians, is to “make every man complete in Christ” (Col 1:29) Whatever we do, “whether in speech or in action,” we are to “do it in the name of the Lord Jesus,” giving “thanks to God the Father through him” (Col. 3:17). Paul describes himself to the Corinthians as, “by God’s will, an apostle of Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 1:1).
In this Year of St. Paul, might we consider one of our goals as imitating St. Paul in that deep personal relationship with Jesus Christ, leading to a fuller conversion of mind and heart to the Lord.

In this special year, could we consider using St. Paul as a guide to get to know Christ better? And what a great spiritual guide he is. Once he was embraced by the love of Jesus Christ, on the road to Damascus, his entire life changed. He was a different man. Paul's identification with Christ was so great that he could tell the Galatians that the life he lived was no longer his own. “Christ is living in me” (Gal. 2:20).

St. Gregory of Nyssa, writing about St. Paul, says that “no one has known Christ better than Paul, nor surpassed him in the careful example he gave of what anyone should be who bears Christ’s name. So precisely did he mirror his master that he became his very image. By a painstaking imitation, he was transformed into his model and it seemed to be no longer Paul who lived and spoke, but Christ himself.”

Wouldn't it be wonderful if words like that could be said of ourselves as well, in fact about every person purporting to be a disciple of Christ?

Could this year of grace be an opportunity to experience a deep personal encounter with Jesus Christ that leads us, as it did Paul, to a radical change of our lives, a total, 100% gift of our lives to Christ?

What obstacle is in the way? What attachment is leading us from Christ? What keeps us from loving and serving the Lord and our neighbor 100%? We ask St. Paul to intercede for us in this year to help us find our way to a deeper relationship with the Lord.

A second suggestion I would like to offer for your consideration in this year of St. Paul is for all Catholics to try to experience a greater bonding with our Church, to experience a sense of belonging to our Church, of true community, that is common unity within our Church.

In his remarks at St. Patrick’s' Cathedral in New York April 19th, Pope Benedict XVI mentioned that one of the great disappointments for all of us which followed the Second Vatican Council, with its call for a greater engagement in the Church's mission to the world, “has been the experience of division between different groups, different generations, different members of the same religious family.”

The Pope offered a solution to this dilemma that has taken a toll on our Church and all within the Church these past several years. The Pope says “we can only move forward if we turn our gaze together to Christ.”

Looking together to Christ, might we not be better able to find the Christ that is in each other? Looking together to the Christ of the Eucharist might we not be better able to find Christ more apparent in one another?

Could this year of St. Paul be a time for all Catholics to make a commitment to foster to a greater bonding with our Church – a united Church instead of a divided Church? In his letter to the Ephesians (5:23) St. Paul refers to Christ as the “head of his body, the Church, as well as its Savior,” the Church for St. Paul is the Body of Christ. We are one body in Christ Jesus. That body, to be healthy, needs to have all its organs and organisms functioning together, the one in support of the other, in unison, in harmony.

In this year of St. Paul could we make a concerted effort to avoid that kind of carping criticism of our church, public or private, which undermines the unity of the Church. Yes we should strive for the healthy kind of critiques that are positive and uplifting, but never the kind that demeans another person or destroys that person's reputation. That is counterproductive to the experience of the community that is Church.

In this year of St. Paul, could we bond more fully with our Church with the help of the Church's Sacraments? Father Mitch Pacwa's recent Bible study guide for Catholics talks about the sacraments in St. Paul. Six of the seven sacraments are found in St. Paul's writings. The seventh, anointing of the sick is found elsewhere in the scriptures, especially in the Letter of James.

For Paul the Eucharistic Bread which we break is a participation in the Body of Christ, and the Cup of Blessing which we bless is a participation in the Blood of Christ (1 Co. 10:16).

What hinders us from experiencing the support of the community of the Church – a lack of warmth or welcome, some hurt that we experienced in the past or some scandal related to certain persons in the Church?   If we are unreconciled with the Body of Christ that is the Church, could we find our way to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, taking advantage of the indulgences that are granted in conjunction with pilgrimages this year to sacred sites, which could lift temporal punishment that lingers due to our sins? Could we seek to be reconciled with God through his Church in this Year of St. Paul?

My third suggestion would be that we add to our strong religious experience of Christ and a profound experience of the community of the Church a deeper knowledge of the Word of God and the contents of our faith.

Perhaps also we are struggling with a lack of understanding of the teachings of the Church or questions we have about teachings in the Bible. Could we begin a quest this year to deepen our understanding of the Church's teachings? Could we begin to read the letters of St. Paul and parts of Acts of the Apostles if we haven't done so already, spending ten minutes a day each day until we have read all of Paul’s Letters and references to him in Acts of the Apostles? And might this effort result in a deeper appreciation of the Word of God during this Year of St. Paul?

Shortly after I became the Bishop of Birmingham, a sophomore student at one of our Catholic high schools came to interview me. She had a number of questions for me. What led me to be a priest, and so on?

Eventually we got around to talking about the year of St. Paul, and I explained that my hope was that all who could would read all the Letters of St. Paul. She told me, "Bishop, I’ve already done that!" That kind of surprised me, but she floored me when she said that she planned to memorize a scripture passage a day during the season of Lent. We were in that holy season of Lent when she visited me. Imagine that, a fifteen year old who was really into reading the Bible and taking its messages seriously. Then she said to me, "By the way bishop, I’m a Methodist." She was a Methodist who had been a Catholic school student.

There you have it! I thought later, if a 15 year old Methodist at a Catholic school could have an appreciation for the Bible, so also could a 15 year old Catholic student. So also could all Catholics!

Why not, all of us Catholics who can, make a special effort at reading St. Paul's Letters in the year of St. Paul?

My fourth and final suggestion is to remind you that St. Paul was a great missionary. St. Paul went all over the world of the Roman Empire to enchant people with the person and message of Jesus Christ. Once he found Christ, he could not keep his discovery secret. He suffered the consequences of tireless devotion to the Gospel. He was stoned in Lystra. He was imprisoned, shipwrecked, and accused of worshiping God in ways contrary to the law. But he was always willing to pay the price of being a devoted missionary for Jesus Christ.

A missionary is one who reaches out to those inside and outside the Church, who is concerned about their situation, and wants to enchant them or reenchant them with Christ and his Church, and invite them into a relationship with Christ through the Church that the missionary has.

All confirmed Christians are called to be missionaries of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Enchanted by the gospel they naturally want to enchant others with the gospel, in the manner of their own particular vocation in life.

Too few Catholics have the kind of missionary zeal about them that St. Paul had. In this special year of St. Paul, perhaps all of us can become more dedicated missionaries for Christ, especially helping reach out to fellow Catholics, our family members or friends, who have left the Church.

If a person has the message in his heart, he wants to share it. Consider yourself one of those people called to mission in this special year of St. Paul.

May St. Paul motivate us all to a deeper conversion of life to the Lord, a deeper union in faith with our Church, the Body of Christ, a greater understanding of its teachings and a greater dedication to reading the Sacred Scriptures – and in this year of St. Paul, the Letters of St. Paul. And finally may we all be motivated to share our faith, to enchant others or reenchant them with the person and message of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ –  in the spirit of the great missionary – St. Paul.

May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you – always!

Prayer to the Apostle Paul

Glorious St. Paul, most zealous Apostle, martyr for the love of Christ, give us a deep faith, a steadfast hope, a burning love for our Lord. So that we can proclaim with you, "It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me."  Help us to become apostles serving the Church with a pure heart, witnesses to her truth and beauty amidst the darkness of our days. With you we praise God our Father: "To him be the glory, in the Church and in Christ, now and forever." Amen.