“The grace of God the Savior: free, sufficient, necessary for us”
In these words, Giovanni Battista Montini, in notes written as a young priest on the Epistles of St Paul, points to the experience and the message of the Apostle
by Don Giacomo Tantardini
Saint Paul, mosaic in the Palatine Chapel, Palermo
I have no specific qualification for speaking of St Paul. What I know of Paul comes simply from reading his Epistles, particularly from the reading done in the Mass and in the prayers of the breviary, and I think that is the most important thing. Quoting St Augustine in a speech at a convention of exegetes on the Resurrection of Jesus, Paul VI said that to understand the Scriptures “praecipue et maxime orent ut intelligant”, “the main and most important [thing] is to pray for understanding”.
Thus in prayer one may be granted insight into the experience that Paul made, the experience of being loved by Jesus. In opening the Pauline Year, Pope Benedict XVI said that Paul is a nothing loved by Jesus Christ. “I am nothing”, says Paul himself at the end of the Second Epistle to the Corinthians (2Cor 12, 11) and in the Epistle to the Galatians: “The Son of God Who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Gal 2, 20).
So to us, at an infinite remove from the apostle, the same experience can occur, the same communion of grace, because the communion of the saints is real. And it is this identity of experience, the experience of being loved gratuitously by Jesus Christ, that makes the words of the apostle live again, that can make Paul so close, so near, so much a friend, so familiar.
Let me begin by reading a few sentences spoken by Pope Benedict during the Angelus on Sunday, 25 January. This year, the feastday of the Conversion of St Paul fell on Sunday, and the Pope, explaining Saul’s encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus (in the Mass today, we again read it from the Acts of the Apostles), said these words that surprised and comforted me, and I have reread them many times: “In that moment [when he met Jesus: “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (Acts 9, 5)] Saul realized that his salvation [we can also say his happiness, because the human reflection of salvation is happiness, the human reflection of His grace is the pleasure of His grace] did not depend on good works done according to the Law [I was much struck by the adjective good. Good works. The Pope wanted to stress that salvation does not depend on good works, done according to the Law, good works, as the Law is good and holy (cf. Rom 7, 12)], but on the fact that Jesus had died also for him, the persecutor [“The Son of God Who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Gal 2, 20)], and was, and is risen”. The other word that struck me was that verb in the present: “He was, and is risen”.
This year Benedict XVI has led twenty meditations on St Paul during the Wednesday audiences. One of these meditations, perhaps the finest, the eleventh, dealt with Paul’s faith in the Resurrection of the Lord. Commenting on Chapter 15 of the First Epistle to the Corinthians, the Pope stressed that Paul hands on what he in turn received (cf. 1Cor 15, 3), namely “that Christ died for our sins, in accordance with the scriptures, and that He was buried; and that on the third day, He was raised to life in accordance with the Scriptures; and that He appeared to Cephas; and later to the Twelve” (1Cor 15, 3-5). The Resurrection of Jesus is an event that happened in a precise moment of time and He who came back to life, at that precise moment, is alive now, at this moment. He rose and hence is living in the present.
Paul’s conversion, according to the Pope, lies in this passage. The transition from believing that salvation depended on his good works, done in accordance with the Law (the Law is the Law of God, the Law is the Ten Commandments of God), to simply recognizing that salvation was and is the presence of Another. It was and is the presence of Jesus.
Pope Benedict XVI in the Angelus of Sunday 25 January (and the thing struck me not least because the Chief Rabbi of Rome, Riccardo Di Segni, whom I respect very much and whom I can say is a friend of 30Days, pointed out that mention of the Pope), added that one should not really speak of Paul’s conversion, because Paul already believed in the one true God and was “faultless” in relation to the Law of God. He himself says so in his Epistle to the Philippians (3, 6).
Paul’s conversion (and here let me echo the words that St Augustine used speaking about his own conversion) is simply the passage from his dedication to God to recognition of what God has done and does in Jesus.
Augustine describes his conversion thus: “When I read the apostle Paul [and immediately afterwards – because it is not enough to read the Scriptures – he adds:] and when Your hand healed the sadness of my heart, then I understood the difference inter praesumptionem et confessionem / between dedication and recognition”. Praesumptio does not initially indicate a bad thing. In the long term it decays into bad presumption, but initially it indicates a person’s attempt to achieve the good ideal intuited. Christian conversion is the passage from this attempt to do good (good works, said Pope Benedict) to the simple recognition of the presence of Jesus. From praesumptio, dedication, to confessio, recognition. The confessio, recognition, is like when the child says, ‘Mamma’. As when the mother comes towards the child and it says: ‘Mamma’.
The conversion of Paul, Caravaggio, Cerasi Chapel, Church of Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome
We might also say that when by grace a person happens to live the same experience that Paul went through, his same experience, in the infinite remove from him, it is as if all the Christian words, the word faith, the word salvation, the word Church, were transparent of the initiative of Jesus Christ. It is He who stirs faith. Faith is His working. It is He who saves. Bestowing salvation is His initiative. It is He who builds His Church. “Aedificabo ecclesiam meam” (Mt 16, 18). Aedificabo is a future tense: “I will build my Church” on the profession of faith of Peter, on the grace of faith given to Peter (cf. Mt 16, 18). It is He who builds personally, in the present, His Church on a gift of His.
How fine it is to say the simplest Christian words, the word faith, the word hope, the word charity, and realize that these words indicate an initiative of His, give a glimpse of a gesture of His, His acting. As happened with St Theresa of the Child Jesus: “When I am charitable, it is only Jesus who acts in me”.
In the second week after Easter, we priests read in the breviary the passage from the Revelation the epistles that Jesus sends to the Seven Churches. In one of these epistles, Jesus says: “You did not disown my faith” (Rev 2, 13). My faith. It is the faith of Jesus.
“Gratia facit fidem.” How fine and simple is this phrase of St Thomas Aquinas! It is grace that creates faith. It is He who makes Himself known. “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father” (Jn 6, 44 and 65), says Jesus. And St Augustine comments: “Nemo venit nisi tractus / No one comes [to Jesus], if he is not drawn”. Faith is His initiative. Salvation is His initiative. His Church is His initiative.
Let me tell you about one of my first encounters with Don Giussani. The opportunity arose from the fact that in my seminar in Venegono I met Angelo Scola, the current patriarch of Venice. It was he who got me to meet Don Giussani. I still remember that meeting in Milan. Giussani was speaking to a group of young people. At a certain point he asked: “What puts us in relationship with Jesus Christ? What, now, puts us in relationship with Jesus Christ?”. People said: “The Church”, “The community”, “Our friendship”, and so on. At the end of all the suggestions, Giussani repeated the question: “What puts us in relationship with Jesus Christ?”. And then gave the answer himself: “The fact that He is risen”. I’ll never forget that! “The fact that He is risen.” Because were He not risen, were He not alive, the Church would be a merely human institution, like so many others. One burden more. All things merely human in the end become a burden.
“What puts us in relationship with Jesus Christ? The fact that He is risen”. The Church is the visibility of Him alive. “The Church has no other life,” says Paul VI’s Creed of the People of God, “except that of His grace”. It has no other origin, moment by moment, than His attraction, the attraction of His grace. The Church is the visible term of the gesture of the living Jesus who meets the heart and attracts it.
Reading St Paul, living through grace what Paul understood (as the Pope says) in his conversion, makes all the Christian words transparent of Him, with Jesus Christ, gives to all Christian words this lightness. Otherwise they become heavy. If faith were our initiative, we would be finished. Since it is His initiative, the renewal of His gift is always possible. And hence it’s always possible to start again. It is His initiative, in every moment. “Gratia facit fidem... quamdiu fides durat”.
It was a very good thing that in 1999 the Joint Catholic and Lutheran Commission for theological study, giving its worth to this phrase of St Thomas Aquinas, recognized that there is a surprising likeness between the theology of Luther on justification by faith and essential aspects of the dogmatic doctrine of the Council of Trent in the decree De iustificatione.
St Thomas Aquinas, therefore, says that “Grace creates faith not only when faith begins, but in every moment that it lasts”. And he adds this wonderful observation: it requires the same attraction of grace, the same treasure of grace, both to have remain in the faith, now, we who believe, and to get a person (if there was one here who does not believe) to pass from non-faith to faith.
I say this just to say that Paul’s conversion, as that of every Christian, is realized in the transition from the initiative of the person to the initiative of Jesus, to awe at the initiative of Jesus, to the confessio supplex. How fine it was, when, before the Sanctus in the Latin mass, “Supplici confessione / With recognition that pleads”, was always said. Because one cannot recognize a presence that loves you except by asking that it continue to love you.
Now, three suggestions.
The conversion of Paul, Monreale Cathedral, Palermo
Let us read Galatians 1, 15 where Paul himself describes the transition from his own initiative to the initiative of God.
“But when God, Who had set me apart from the time when I was in my mother’s womb... [there is a mystery out of which the grace of faith arises and it is God’s choice, election by God. We cannot judge this mystery: “You did not choose me, no, I chose you” (Jn 15, 16)] ... when God Who had chosen me from the time I was in my mother’s womb called me through His grace [how beautiful that called me through his grace! The voice is not enough, not even the voice of Jesus, if the attractiveness of Jesus does not touch the heart. It is His grace, it is His attraction that moves the heart] and chose to reveal His Son in me...” He deigned to show me His Son. This is Paul’s conversion. He who chose me and called me by His grace made me recognize His Son.
Galatians 2, 20: “The life that I am now living, subject to the limitation of human nature [in the human condition, marked by original sin, even after baptism. Baptism takes away sin, but leaves the weakness that comes from sin and inclines one to sin], I am living in faith, faith in the Son of God [in the recognition of the Son of God], who loved me and gave Himself for me”.
Let me read you what Pope Benedict XVI said in commentary on this sentence: “His faith [the faith of Paul] is the experience of being loved by Jesus Christ in an altogether personal way... Christ faced death... for love of him – of Paul – and, as the Risen One, loves him still. ...His faith is not a theory, an opinion on God and on the world. His faith is the impact of the love of God on his heart”.
Faith is born from the impact of the love of Jesus on the heart of Paul. Faith is the initiative of the love of Jesus Christ on his heart.
Let me read you a sentence which I found going to pray at Cascia to Saint Rita (St Rita was married and had two children. Her husband was killed and she publicly forgave his killer and asked that his two sons not avenge their father. Then she entered the convent of the Augustinian nuns of Cascia). The sentence I read is from a blessed Augustine monk whose writing on the passion of Jesus was known to Saint Rita: “Friendship is a virtue, but being loved is not a virtue, it is happiness”. It seems to me that these words indicate from whence comes charity and what charity is. Friendship is a virtue, it is the summit of virtue. St Thomas Aquinas says that charity is friendship. But being loved is not a virtue, it is happiness. Being loved is prior (cf. 1Jn 4, 19). To love one first needs to be loved. One first needs to be glad at being loved.
St Augustine – in that wonderful passage in which, comparing the apostles Peter and John, wonders who is the better of the two – says that Peter is better, so much so that when Jesus asks him: “Simon son of John, do you love me [agapâs me?] more than these others do”? (Jn 21, 15), Peter replied, “Yes, Lord, you know I love [filô se] you” (Jn 21, 15). So Peter is better than John. By comparing the condition of Peter, who loves Jesus more, with the condition of John, who is more loved by Jesus, Augustine says: “Facile responderem meliorem Petrum, feliciorem Ioannem / It’s easy for me to say that Peter is better [because he loves Jesus more], but John is happier [because he is more loved by Jesus]”. Being happy depends upon being loved. It doesn’t depend on our poor love either. Peter is better because he loves Jesus more, but John is happier because he is more loved by Jesus
The Pope says that Paul’s faith is the impact of Jesus’ love on his heart and so this same faith, precisely because it is the impact of the love of Jesus on his heart, stirs and also is Paul’s poor love for Jesus. This loving attraction of Jesus, making Paul’s heart glad, also stirs the poor love of Paul for Jesus, poor as that of Peter.
In a Wednesday audience, commenting on “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”, Jesus’ question to Peter, Pope Benedict stressed the difference between the Greek verbs that Jesus and Peter use. Jesus uses a verb [agapáo] that indicates an all-in-all love (“... do you love [agapâs me? ] me?”). Peter uses a verb that expresses poor human love [filéo] (“you know that I love you” [filô se]). “I love you as well as a poor man can”. Then, the third time (the Pope describes this very finely!), Jesus adjusts himself to the poor human love of Peter and simply asks him if he loves him, as a poor man can love.
Let me now read 1Corinthians 15, 8 and following. Here, too, Paul describes the encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus: “Last of all...”. How fine that last of all! In the Mass of the Ambrosian liturgy the celebrant says: “Nobis quoque minimis et peccatoribus”. In the Roman liturgy he only says: “Nobis quoque peccatoribus”. In the Ambrosian liturgy the celebrant of Mass, whether he be bishop or the lowliest priest, says: “Even to us who are the least and sinners”. So Paul says he is the last, the least.
“Last of all He appeared to me too, as though I was a child born abnormally. For I am the least of the apostles and am not really fit to be called an apostle, because I had been persecuting the Church of God; but what I am now, I am through the grace of God, and the grace which was given to me has not been wasted. Indeed, I have worked harder than all the others – not I, but the grace of God which is with me”.
Ananias baptizing Paul, Monreale Cathedral, Palermo
Paul is always dependent upon the initiative of grace. And this is one of the most impressive things for those who read his Epistles. Not only the beginning is grace, not only the beginning is the initiative of Jesus. Paul is always dependent upon the initiative of Jesus, moment by moment. Just how it is in reality for each of us. But Paul’s experience, from this point of view, has a drama and a unique beauty.
Let me read you a passage that was already a great comfort to me in the seminary, from the Second Epistle to the Corinthians, 12, 7 and following. What struck me then were the words, now the journey through life, by His grace and His renewed mercy, has given these words a reality.
The Second Epistle to the Corinthians is in my opinion the finest Epistle because it is the one in which Paul – he himself says so – opens his whole heart (2Cor 6, 11). It is the Epistle in which Paul in the face of “the gentleness and forebearance of Christ”(2Cor 10, 1) describes what he is, the helplessness that he is, the weakness that he is.
“Wherefore, so that I should not get above myself, I was given a thorn in the flesh, a messenger from Satan to batter me and prevent me from getting above myself [however one reads this “thorn in the flesh”, this fragility, this temptation, that’s what Paul says]. About this, [because of this suffering] I have three times pleaded with the Lord that it might leave me [that He take away this suffering, this temptation, this fragility from me]; but He has answered me: ‘My grace is enough for you; for power is at full stretch in weakness’”. His power is fully revealed in weakness.
Let me make a small correction to a phrase which I read before on a panel at the exhibition on St Paul. I wouldn’t have written that Paul is “proud of his weakness”. One can’t be proud of one’s weakness. St Irenaeus, commenting on this passage from the Second Epistle to the Corinthians, and having Gnosticism in mind (one of the essential elements of the Gnostic heresy is the lack of distinction between good and evil, to the point of posing, and Hegel theorized it, evil in God and from God), is most careful to distinguish weakness from grace. Weakness makes grace evident. Weakness, when it is embraced, makes being embraced more obvious. But the good news is being embraced, not weakness. In weakness, which is the human condition, being gratuitously embraced by Jesus is more evident. When a child is ill, it’s as if the mother and father loved it more, but the child’s being sick is not a value. It’s that the weakness makes being loved more evident. At a time when Gnosticism is culturally hegemonic in the mentality of the world and so often even in the Church of the Lord, how important this distinction is! Weakness is not in itself a good thing. Weakness makes being embraced more evident when one is embraced, being loved when one is loved. It makes clearer the gratuity of being loved. Sin is sin and mortal sin deserves hell, as the Catechism says. But when Jesus, after having been betrayed, looked at Peter (Luke 22, 61), that look made more evident the love of Jesus for poor Peter.
“It is, then, about my weaknesses that I am happiest of all to boast, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me”. Weakness is the condition whereby His power may reveal itself with more clarity to all.
Portrait of St Paul, El Greco, Casa y Museo de El Greco, Toledo
Two brief remarks on Paul’s proclamation.
What does Paul proclaim? First and foremost, what he, in his turn, has received. How splendid it is! Paul does not invent anything, he proclaims what he, in turn, has received.
Let me read 1Corinthians 15, 1 and following. These verses enfold Paul’s whole message. The whole message of Jesus Christ.
“I want to make quite clear to you, brothers, what the message of the gospel that I preached to you is; you accepted it and took your stand on it, and you are saved by it, if you keep to the message I preached to you; otherwise your coming to believe was in vain. The tradition I handed on to you in the first place, a tradition which I had myself received, was that Christ died for our sins, in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he was buried; and that on the third day, he was raised to life, in accordance with the Scriptures; and that he appeared to Cephas; and later to the Twelve”. Paul proclaims the testimony of Jesus “The testimony of God” (1Cor 2, 1). The testimony [martyrion] that God gave in raising Jesus from the dead. The testimony that Jesus Christ gave of being risen by showing Himself to the disciples. The making Himself visible of the Risen Christ to the witnesses that He chooses is part of the essence of the Christian proclamation. If He had not made Himself visible to the witnesses, if He had not Himself given witness to being resurrected, the testimony of the apostles would have been their invention.
How Heinrich Schlier, whom I consider the greatest exegete the Church had in the last century, insists on this fact! It is Jesus who, by making Himself visible, bears witness to Himself. It is Jesus who, by making Himself visible to the apostles, by letting Himself be touched and eating with them, testifies to the reality of His Resurrection: “Thomas, ‘Put your finger here’” (cf. Jn 20, 27). “Visus est, tactus est et manducavit. Ipse certe erat / He was seen, was touched, ate. It was truly Him”, says St Augustine in a discourse against the Gnostics, commenting on the apparition of the risen Jesus to the apostles in the Gospel of Luke (Lk 24, 36-49).
It is Jesus who, by making Himself visible, bears witness to being risen, to being alive. The testimony of the apostles is a reflection of His testimony. How important this is! The light of the Church is only a reflected light. “Lumen gentium cum sit Christus / Christ is the light of the peoples”. The Church reflects His light as in a mirror. One of Paul’s most beautiful phrases, which is very dear to me, runs: “And all of us, with our unveiled faces like mirrors reflecting the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the image [the reflection of Jesus is efficacious: it changes one’s life] that we reflect in brighter and brighter glory; this is the working of the Lord who is the Spirit” (2Cor 3, 18).
Paul proclaims what he has received, what Jesus Christ Himself testified to His apostles.
A second remark on Paul’s proclamation. This splendid thing is also to be read in the First Epistle to the Corinthians, 2, 1 and following. The proclamation of Jesus bears witness in itself to its truth. It is not a matter of us demonstrating that Jesus is alive. It is Jesus Himself who by showing Himself, doing, demonstrates that He lives. Otherwise, we increase the doubt, ours and that of others. It is Jesus who, acting, and hence showing Himself, demonstrates that He lives. The demonstration of the truth of Christianity is the acting and showing Himself of Jesus in the present.
Schlier puts this in a beautiful expression: “The kerygma and the gifts, the kerygma and miracles form a single whole”. And Paul puts it more simply than the great exegete: “Now when I came to you, brothers, I did not come with any brilliance of oratory or wise argument to announce to you the testimony of God [the witness that God has given]. I was resolved that the only knowledge I would have while I was with you was knowledge of Jesus, and of him as the crucified Christ. I came among you in weakness [how fine this is!], in fear and great trembling and what I spoke and proclaimed was not meant to convince by philosophical argument [it was not he to want to prove that Jesus was real], but to demonstrate the convincing power of the Spirit [i.e. the fact that the risen Jesus shows Himself], so that your faith should depend not on human wisdom but on the power of God”. (1Cor 2, 1-5)
Faith can only be based on the power of God, that is on the acting of Jesus, on Jesus manifesting Himself. One does not vanquish the fear of death (cf. Heb 2, 15) with wise argument, with our talk. Fear of death is vanquished when Jesus, acting in the present, makes Himself known as alive. Jesus demonstrates Himself real, alive, when He shows himself. When He shows His doing, when He shows His power. “With a proof entirely His”, writes Schlier, which is experienced “as a tangible reality”.
St Paul visiting St Peter in prison, Filippino Lippi, Brancacci Chapel, Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence
Let me end with the words of Giovanni Battista Montini in his notes on the Epistles of St Paul, written in Rome between 1929 and 1933 when he was a young priest: “No one more than he [Paul] has felt human inadequacy and recognized and exalted the free action, sufficient by itself, necessary for us, of the grace of God the Savior”. How fine that is! Free: “You did not choose me, no, I chose you” (Jn 15, 16). Sufficient by itself: “My grace is enough” (2Cor 12, 9). Necessary for us, “Without me you can do nothing” (Jn 15, 5).
And Montini adds a phrase, moving when one thinks of the humiliations received: “He [Paul] felt the discomfort of his ‘contemptibilis’ [contemptible] presence”.
“Praesentia corporis infirma [he writes in the Second Epistle to the Corinthians, 10, 10] / He makes no impression / et sermo contemptibilis / and his powers of speaking are negligible”.
“He felt the discomfort of his contemptibilis presence. He endured bleak depressions of the spirit.”
An expression of this frail humanity of Paul’s comes in the Second Epistle to the Corinthians, 2, 12: “ When I came to Troas for the sake of the gospel of Christ and a small door was opened for me there in the Lord [hence he could proclaim the gospel of Christ], I had no relief from anxiety, not finding my brother Titus there, and I said goodbye to them and went on to Macedonia”. Paul did not have the strength to proclaim the gospel, if he did not have the comfort of the Lord’s grace shining in the face of a dear one. Dear, simply for this reflection of grace.
And then he continues (2Cor 7, 5 and following): “Even after we had come to Macedonia, there was no rest for this body of ours [our weak humanity]. Far from it; we were beset by hardship on all sides, there were quarrels all around us and misgivings within us”.
How true! “The Church lives,” says Lumen Gentium, “between the persecutions of the world and the consolations of God”. St Augustine, in the passage of the De civitate Dei from which the phrase comes, wrote that the persecutions of the world come primarily from within the Church. Not least because the persecutions of the world are primarily our poor sins that wound the heart of those who are loved by Jesus and love Jesus.
Paul continues: “But God, who encourages all those who are distressed, encouraged us through the arrival of Titus; and not simply by his arrival only, but also by means of the encouragement that you had given him”. When Titus arrives, Paul, who had not had the strength to proclaim the gospel in Troas, is solaced not least because Titus speaks of the affection that the people of Corinth have for him.
“In addition to all this to encourage us, we were made all the more joyful by Titus’ joy” (2Cor 7, 13). Because it is not enough to remember the affection of people far away, if the person who speaks of it is not himself happy, happy in the present.
When I go to pray at Paul’s tomb in the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls in Rome, on my knees, I always repeat a hymn: “Pressi malorum pondere, te, Paule, adimus supplices / Oppressed by the weight of so many ills [first and foremost our poor sins] we come to you, Paul, in prayer / ... quos insecutor oderas defensor inde amplecteris / ... those whom you hated when you were persecutor, and embrace now as defender”. In this embrace, in this being loved by Jesus, also through the friends of Jesus, we can repeat: “Friendship is a virtue, but being loved is not a virtue, it is happiness”.