This year the feast of the great apostles Peter and Paul supersedes the 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time. The readings for the Masses during the day (and the vigil) stress the complementarity between the two apostles. The passage from Acts 12 shows how much Peter and others suffered for their fidelity to the Gospel, and how God miraculously rescued Peter from imprisonment. The selection from 2 Timothy 4 is part of Paul’s farewell discourse, or testament, in which the apostle looks back on his career (“I have finished the race”) and looks forward to his eternal reward (“the crown of righteousness”). The famous text from Matthew 16 features Jesus’ blessing of Simon Peter as the recipient of the revelation about his true identity (“the Christ, the Son of the living God”) and his promise to build his church on Peter as its “rock” (a play on Peter’s name). According to early Christian tradition, both Peter and Paul suffered martyrdom in Rome.
Pope Benedict XVI has proclaimed the period from June 29, 2008, to June 29, 2009, as the Pauline Year. This is meant to commemorate the 2,000th anniversary of the apostle’s birth. Although biblical scholars argue about the precise year of Paul’s birth, the observance of the Pauline Year provides a good opportunity to reflect on Paul as one of the most important and influential figures in Christian history.
Next to Jesus, Paul is the most prominent person in the New Testament. Of its 27 books, 13 are letters attributed to Paul. More than half of the Acts of the Apostles is devoted to Paul’s conversion and his apostolic activities in spreading the good news about Jesus around the Mediterranean world. Paul is best described as a pastoral theologian. He perceived his apostleship as preaching the Gospel where it had not yet been heard and founding new churches (see Rom 15:14-29). His letters were extensions of his pastoral work, and he formulated his theology mainly in response to problems and crises that arose in the churches he had founded.
The Paul who emerges from the New Testament is an angular character. He is energetic, committed and heroic. But he is also defensive, sarcastic and even nasty (see Gal 5:12 and Phil 3:2). His opponents dismissed him as weak in bodily appearance and contemptible in speech. Paul’s greatness resided in his passion for the good news about Jesus and his desire to share it.
The church of the 21st century can learn much from Paul about the human condition, how Jesus has changed everything, the church as the body of Christ and the people of God, the role of women in Paul’s collaborative ministry, worship in everyday life, the centrality of baptism and the Eucharist, the gifts of the Holy Spirit and the balance between present blessedness and the crown of righteousness. Paul the apostle stands out not only as a great figure in earliest Christianity but also as a wise guide to the present and future of the church.