After Jesus died, rose from the dead and ascended into heaven, he left followers behind to build his Church, with Peter as their leader. Since they had actually seen the risen Jesus, and knew that in following him they also would rise like him on the last day, they enthusiastically shared the Good News of victory over death with others.
They were the living stones of the new Church, built on the foundation of the old Jewish roots. They met in synagogues to hear the scriptures and learn how to live morally. Then they celebrated the Eucharist (a Greek word) in their homes.
We assume that Paul, who was first known as Saul, never went to hear Jesus in person, but we do know that he began life as a devout Pharisee and was sincerely devoted to the true God, believing that all blasphemies and untruths had to be eradicated. So he diligently participated in persecuting early Christians, even participating in the stoning death of the first martyr, Stephen.
Jesus himself appeared to Saul and struck him blind. But then Jesus sent him to the Church in Damascus, where they cured him, forgave him of his sins and baptized him. Because of his miraculous and humbling experience, Saul converted and became Paul, who then went on to change the world.
Even though Peter and some of the disciples had converted Gentiles, it was Paul who became their first evangelist, changing the character of the Church from Jewish to Gentile. As can be seen in the “Acts of the Apostles,” the first great controversy in the Church was whether Gentile converts had to become Jews. Paul explained that it was their faith in Jesus that saved them, not the dead external works, such as circumcision, that the Jews practiced.
Paul and the other Apostles spread out across the Roman Empire, first preaching to their own people. But when the Gospel that Jesus was the Messiah whom they had long awaited was rejected, Paul turned to the Gentiles.
Because of the animosity of the Jews, Paul had to flee from many of the cities and towns where he established early churches. The persecutor had become the persecuted!
However, he left behind the foundations of Christianity in Europe and Asia Minor. Three centuries later, the Emperor Constantine, whose mother was a Christian, legalized Christianity, and the people of the Roman Empire, who had been impressed by the fervor of the martyrs, and also following their leaders, converted en masse from their pagan practices.
Then they went on to build many magnificent structures that today, millennia later, are in ruins alongside the magnificent public buildings that were built by the pagans.
It wasn’t easy “following in the steps of St. Paul,” as the pilgrimage I went on recently was advertised. We traveled by bus and plane and were never personally threatened by persecutors, but the distances were great between the stops.
We, heirs of the good news and accustomed to modern conveniences, saw what remains of the world Paul, who suffered much more than we did in the pre-Christian world, traveled through in his zeal to spread Christ’s love.
We visited Greece and Turkey, where the congregations were that Paul addressed in his encyclicals and John wrote to in the Apocalypse. The Apostles, Andrew and Philip, were martyred in Greece. John’s tomb is in Ephesus.
They also left behind followers whose blood became the seed of Christians. After Jesus from the Cross had placed his beloved mother, Mary, under John’s care, she went with him to Ephesus, probably to escape the first persecution that broke out in Israel under King Herod.
Her home is near that ancient city. I cannot imagine Paul not visiting her during his three-year stay there to talk about their beloved master! We also saw where the first seven Ecumenical Councils were held. At that time the country was ancient Asia Minor, which later became part of the Ottoman Empire and is now modern Turkey.
Because of the New Testament, Greece and Turkey are also holy lands. The ruins that I saw are the dead stones of the living Church that survived earthquakes, fires and persecutions.
Today we cannot imagine the pagan darkness that Saul’s world suffered. But we can enjoy the knowledge of the love of God because of Paul’s loving efforts and the new life he brought to that part of the world.
Louis Shapiro, a notary in the archdiocesan tribunal, is a parishioner at Immaculate Conception in Los Angeles.