The account of St. Paul’s address on the Areopagus in Athens, found in the seventeenth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, is a sort of master class in the evangelization of the culture, and anyone engaged today in that essential task should read it with care. The context for Paul’s speech is his mission to Greece, which commenced when he crossed over from Asia Minor to the mainland of Europe. As the great Catholic historian Christopher Dawson indicated, this transition of an itinerant Jewish preacher from one side of the Aegean to the other would have excited the interest of no conventional historian or commentator of the time, but constituted, nevertheless, one of the most decisive events in history, for it signaled the introduction of Christianity to Europe and, through Europe, to the rest of the world. A first lesson for us: the evangelist never rests, for the call of the Lord is to announce the Good News to the ends of earth.
After spending time in the northern reaches of the territory—Macedonia, Philippi, Thessalonica—Paul made his way eventually to Athens. It should be noted that though his preaching in the north met with some success, it also stirred up fierce opposition. He was arrested and imprisoned in Philippi and chased aggressively out of Thessalonica by an angry mob. From the very beginning, Christian proclamation has been opposed and Christian preachers have found themselves in danger. Those who venture into the field today should not be surprised that they meet with some pretty rough plowing. But I want to place special emphasis on the fact that Paul went to Athens, arguably the most important cultural center of the ancient Roman world. It is by a sure instinct that Christians—from Paul and Augustine to Thomas Aquinas, John Henry Newman, and John Paul II—have made their way to centers of thought, communication, and the arts. If Jesus’ great commission is to be honored, culture must be evangelized.
Upon arriving in the great city, Paul made a beeline—as was his wont—to the synagogue, for his Good News is that God, in Christ Jesus, had fulfilled all of the promises he made to Israel. He knew that Jews were in the best position to understand what he was talking about. We find here another crucial lesson for present-day evangelizers: we must not forget the unbreakable connection between Jesus and the Jews. When we speak of Jesus in abstraction from Torah, temple, prophecy, and covenant, he devolves rather rapidly into a mildly inspiring teacher of timeless truths. But when we announce him as the climax of the story of Israel, our listeners’ hearts catch on fire.
Next, we are told that Paul went out “in the marketplace and spoke with those who happened to be there.” Sons and daughters of Israel might be those best disposed to accept Paul’s message, but the Gospel is meant for everyone. Thus, his evangelization was extravagant, indiscriminate, offered on the streets and from the rooftops, to anyone willing to listen. Ours should have a like character. I know that even the prospect of it is pretty daunting, but I’ve always been a fan of street preaching—just getting up on a corner or on a soapbox and announcing Jesus. Will you be roundly mocked? Sure. But so was Paul. And in demonstration of the full extent and range of his outreach, we are told that Paul dialogued with some of the “Stoics and Epicureans”—which is to say, with the leading philosophical voices of that time and place. The evangelist must be, as Paul himself said, “all things to all people,” capable of speaking to the most ordinary and the most sophisticated.
When he arrives at the Areopagus—a rocky outcropping just below the Parthenon—Paul delivered himself of a justly celebrated speech. In accord with the old rhetorical device of captatio benevolentiae (capturing the good will of one’s audience), Paul compliments the Athenians on their spirituality: “I see how extremely religious you are in every way.” There is more here, of course, than mere courtesy, for Paul is in fact appealing to what the Fathers of the Church would later call logoi spermatikoi (seeds of the Word)—that is to say, hints, echoes, and indications of the Logos that is fully disclosed in Christ. “For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’” In a word, he elected to build upon a religious foundation already in place in the society he was addressing, assimilating into his distinctively Christian proclamation what he could. My mentor Francis Cardinal George often remarked that one cannot really evangelize a culture that one doesn’t love.
At the same time, Paul doesn’t simply affirm the society he was addressing. Standing just below the Parthenon—the most impressive temple in the ancient world, which housed a massive sculpture of the goddess Athena—Paul announced, “The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands.” That must have gotten their attention! There were indeed seeds of the word in the Athenian culture, but there were idolatrous practices and errant theologies as well. The canny evangelist, moving through the culture of his time, assimilates what he can and resists what he must. The dichotomy, so often invoked today, between being “open” to the culture or a “warrior” against it is simplistic and gets us precisely nowhere.
One might think that, in the wake of his magnificent address, Paul brought in boatloads of converts, but in fact the payoff was pretty slim: “When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, ‘We will hear you again about this.’” A handful of people who were willing to give Paul the benefit of the doubt—and yet, they were the seeds of European Christianity, and hence of a Christianity that would spread throughout the world. A final lesson for evangelists: in accord with Mother Teresa’s principle, don’t worry about being successful; worry about being faithful. Announce the Gospel, don’t count converts, and leave the increase up to God.