Conforming to God’s Blueprint

A reflection on Saint Paul and the Pauline year of excellence.
by Brother John Pietropaoli, LC | Source:

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, and reminds me that it’s not easy to compare myself to him. It’s not easy 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.

On June 28, the eve of the inauguration of the year of St Paul, the Holy Father put it clearly: “We are gathered, therefore, to question ourselves about the great apostle of the Gentiles. Not only do we ask ourselves, 'Who was Paul?' Above all, we ask ourselves 'Who is Paul?' 'What is he saying to me?'"

With this in mind let’s take a look at some characteristics of St Paul, since it reminds us what we can become if we are willing to make the effort. So, to list just a few, he was tireless, motivated, fearless, kind, humble, 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 – exhausted horses, leaky ships, rebarbative camels, and, 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 in the Bible, and notice how many times his life is threatened. It’s a constant menace, and no empty one either, as his catalogue of sufferings in Second Corinthians makes quite clear: stoned, scourged, beaten with rods, shipwrecked… 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, danger, and 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 interesting question arises: is toughness 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 the 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 truth. 

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 help us get 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 response to God’s plan, Christianity spread throughout Europe. The missionaries who carried Christ’s liberating message around the world are his heirs – and so are we. In this context, we see that Pope Benedict did not declare this year of St Paul with only priests and nuns in mind. He did it for the entire Church, for every one of who has been baptized into the Catholic Church.

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 created for excellence in this life and in heaven, and the amazing fact is that we can also help others reach this excellence. 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 – work, a family – all of which means I can’t 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. Living this Year of St Paul means that I appreciate the gift of my Catholic Faith, that I’ve discovered the adventure and happiness of being a Catholic and 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. 

Ultimately, it means that I know my Catholic Faith, I live it with pride, and I share it with others – that I strive for excellence in everything. 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’s 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 where it will. Will I share the message I have received?  What is my response going to be?   

Brother John Pietropaoli, of the Legionaries of Christ, studies for the priesthood in New York.

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Post a Comment
Published by: Kathryn Cunningham
Date: 2009-01-01 10:00:00
This is a great article by a very talented writer. Thank you Brother John.

Published by: Kathryn Cunningham
Date: 2009-01-01 10:00:00
This is a great article by a very talented writer. Thank you Brother John.

Published by: Kathryn Cunningham
Date: 2009-01-01 10:00:00
This is a great article by a very talented writer. Thank you Brother John.

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