Archbishop Mark Coleridge suggests St Paul, “among the most influential figures in the whole of human history”, is important for us as we “grapple with the great questions” of our time.
The Archbishop of Brisbane, a Scripture scholar, made the comment in the first episode of a new podcast series broadcast by the Archdiocese on July 15.
It was the first episode of a seven-part series The Birth of the Church: Why the loser won.
Archbishop Coleridge said St Paul, apart from the fact he was a leading Christian, had “an extraordinary intellect, an amazing mind”.
“One of the great experiences of my life has been really coming to know St Paul beyond all the stereotypes and misperceptions,” he said.
“But when you come to know him more, you see how extraordinarily powerful and creative his mind was.
“He was grappling with a lot of these big questions of the faith for the first time.
“He had the huge resource of his own Jewish scriptures and his knowledge of them, but he was grappling with all kinds of new questions in new and imaginative ways.
“And this is important for us in our own time, because again we have the huge resource of our scriptures and our tradition but we have to grapple with the great questions that we haven’t encountered before in a new way and use that great resource in very bold and imaginative ways.
“And Paul has an extraordinary capacity to do just that.”
Archbishop Coleridge said “The Birth of the Church” was an apt title for the podcast series because he was not just talking about St Paul.
“I am talking about him and what a fascinating character he is, endlessly fascinating, but if we examine the figure and the story of St Paul in fact we’re taken into the equally fascinating story of the birth of the Church,” he said.
“In other words, it’s an explanation of our DNA as the Church.
“All of us in some way have St Paul in our DNA.
“We mightn’t know it but you can’t be a Christian without having St Paul in your DNA.
“And so, in that sense the question I’m asking is ‘Who do you think you are?’ and another way of asking the same question from a different angle is ‘Well, who do you think St Paul?’, and a lot of people get him wrong, it seems to me.
“He’s much misunderstood for all kinds of reasons that we will look at through these podcasts.”
The Archbishop said St Paul was “certainly one of the most influential, indeed fateful, figures in the whole of human history”.
“For that reason alone he’s fascinating, so we are looking at one of the most decisive figures in the whole run of human history because he emerges at a time that really was a change of era in a way that he himself couldn’t have understood but, looking back, we can see it more clearly,” he said.
“And he was raised up, we say in faith, by God precisely to minister, to act, in that change of era in a way that would change the world forever …”
Archbishop Coleridge said that in the beginnings of the Church, “in that process of moving from rural Palestine out into the urban world of the Mediterranean, there is no question that Paul is the key figure”.
“He’s not the only figure, by any means, but he is the key figure in that crucial transition from a movement in rural Palestine to communities settled, residential, in the great urban centres of the Mediterranean, which is why we have Paul’s letters to Ephesus, to Rome, to Corinth and so on,” he said.
“These were the great cities of the Mediterranean world.
“So a rural phenomenon becomes an urban phenomenon, a Palestinian phenomenon becomes something that, as it were, enters the whole world via the Mediterranean.
“(If Paul) is the founder of anything, I guess, it’s the founder of European Christianity and when you think of the influence of European Christianity on the subsequent history of the world you see why he has to be judged among the most influential figures in the whole of human history.
“Because when Paul crosses from what we know as Turkey – what was called in the time of Paul, Asia Minor – when he crosses from there, from Troy … and crosses the Dardanelles, a very thin strip of water, and enters Europe – leaves behind Asia Minor and enters Europe, Greece, as we would call it – this is one of the great threshold moments in the Christian story because at that point when he sets foot on European soil, he goes to Philippi first of all, when he does that you see really the birth of European Christianity.
“It’s a bit more complex than that because we have the unusual case of Rome – Paul was not the founder of the Church in Rome; that’s certain … and Rome of course was nothing if not influential in later European Christian history.
“But if we bracket Rome in that sense we can still say that once Paul sets foot upon European soil and begins his mission there, the great spread of Christianity throughout Europe begins.
“And, again, given the influence of European Christianity upon the history of the world and upon our lives – we’re all the product of it – it’s hard to over-estimate the importance of the figure of St Paul.”
Archbishop Coleridge said what St Paul did was give to Christianity it’s “institutional profile”.
“He is the key figure in the move from these wandering preachers in rural Palestine to communities, and, for Paul, his mission was all about establishing communities – small communities,” he said.
“And his one credential in the end in the face of much criticism … were the communities that he called the Body of Christ.”
The Archbishop said that, in the story of Paul, there were many gaps and he would try to “fill in the gaps as best we can working with the Letters (of St Paul) and the Acts of the Apostles” in subsequent episodes of the podcast series.
“In the end it is the story of the birth of Christianity; … it is about Paul but it is about the birth of the Church,” he said.
“And that story, if properly told and heard, I think can be an extraordinarily rich and powerful resource for us who are asking questions now, in this change of era, about what it means to be the Church and how do we become in the future the Church that is the Church that Jesus wants to be.”
A new episode of the podcast series will be released on the Archdiocese of Brisbane website.
Reproduced with permission from The Catholic Leader, the news website of the Catholic Archdiocese of Brisbane.