In the 10 counties of the archdiocese we have three parish communities named and dedicated to the witness of the great Apostle Paul: one in Genesee Depot, one in Milwaukee and one in Racine.
This comes to mind again as we celebrate the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul (Jan. 25) and also as we mark the conclusion of our annual world-wide Octave of Prayer for Church Unity.
The Apostle’s heroic efforts to proclaim the Gospel and promote unity of faith and charity within the communities he founded remain a striking model and measuring stick for all pastoral work throughout the centuries. Sin shatters and divides us; the Gospel unites, deepens and matures us.
St. Paul also comes to mind these days because I just concluded an extraordinarily enjoyable week of retreat with some 24 members of the Community of Saint Paul at Siena Center in Racine. This unique group is a vibrant community of men and women, many professionals in their own right, who banded together as a post-Vatican II community, imbued with Paul’s apostolic convictions for the work of the Gospel today.
Originating from Barcelona (Spain), the group now boasts of small apostolic communities in Ethiopia, Bolivia, Colombia and Mexico with their U.S. national “headquarters” in Racine.
For a dozen years, they have staffed our archdiocesan mission in the Dominican Republic with priests, seminarians, college age students and medical professionals. They are very bright, filled with faith and extremely competent representatives of our archdiocese wherever they work. Most of the priests in the community are, in fact, fully incardinated members of our own archdiocesan presbyterate.
This January I was invited to offer a weeklong series of conferences on “The Prophetic Call” to those members of the community able to gather for their annual meeting.
I brought, by way of artistic illustration and inspiration, a small statue of the Prophet Jeremiah, sitting on a tree stump and punished by overnight constraint of head and hands in stocks for speaking an unwelcome word of God (Jer 20:1-6). Together we probed the calling of Israel’s classical prophets and tried to distill some of their perennial ancient wisdom for the life of Christians on mission to people of our own 21st century.
The Apostle Paul was someone suddenly forced by God’s grace to see a world larger than the specific traditions of the Judaism in which he had been raised. As a result of the dramatic call which he experienced on his way to Damascus (by the way, in Acts of the Apostles there is no horse mentioned from which he might have fallen, no matter what artistic tradition may imagine), Paul met the Risen Jesus of Nazareth.
He was almost compelled by the grace of his metanoia (change of attitude) to understand the intrinsic corporate identity of Jesus with his disciples as well as the place of the Gentiles in God’s plan of salvation for the world. The entire history of the world’s religious experience was dramatically and radically changed. Paul said, “Yes” and nothing was ever the same again!
The continuity between the prophets of ancient Israel and someone like Paul, called to proclaim God’s Word to a weak and troubled world, is striking. Each one had his – or her … don’t forget the famous Huldah in 2 Kings 22:14! – specific moment in history … with its sharply defined and often difficult task. Each had an initially small supportive community, an overwhelming obstacle as well as final vindication by God’s grace and power alone.
Sometimes only after decades or even centuries was the individual finally proven correct, and acknowledged a true prophet, namely one who read the signs of the times correctly and spoke in God’s name.
Like Israel’s prophets of old, Paul the Apostle had an abundance of obstacles and adversaries who did not as yet have the benefit of his inspiring vision. He wrote some passionate and profound letters of instruction, encouragement and admonition to the fledgling communities which he had founded.
Almost 21 centuries later, we read those same epistles in our eucharistic assemblies and in unison solemnly pronounce them “the Word of the Lord.”
This is a very special time as we pause to celebrate significant 50th anniversaries of events which were part of the church’s total transforming experience which we call the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).
This coming Saturday, for example, we will gather to ponder anew the anniversary of the initial promulgation of that Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 4 December, 1963).
The church rediscovered the richness of its worship and laid out the fundamental directives required to make our formal prayer more effective in a new culture with its own strengths, weaknesses and hungers. The rest is up to us and the Holy Spirit.
In all our parish communities, the genius of St. Paul and the work of the Holy Spirit which inspired him remains alive.
Our common task is to again embody his mission in our day, and to allow the same Holy Spirit to enliven us and to incorporate our human energies into the larger work of God in our time and place. That is what the forthcoming Archdiocesan Synod is all about.
Earlier this month, it was again clear that a group of faithful men and women like the Community of Saint Paul in Racine – and in its missions throughout the world – can offer inspiration and example for the work to which we all are summoned. It is the perennial grace of our baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection which sends us forth anew each day.