O Felix Roma
More than a half century ago, when I was a seminarian at the Pontifical North American College in Rome, I was always moved by the words carved on the side of the roof of that institution, where there is an observation deck from which a spectacular overview of Rome can even now be had. Those words, still there, are in Latin from the Divine Office, the Liturgy of the Hours for the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul, specifically from the hymn "Decora lux", and their translation says, "O happy Rome, rejoice because this day thy walls they once did sign with princely blood who now their glory share with thee. What city's vesture glows with crimson deep as thine and what beauty else on earth that may therefore compare with thee!"
Last week, when celebrating First Vespers for the Solemnity of the two Apostles, Saints Peter and Paul, who founded the Catholic Church in Rome, the Successor of Saint Peter, Pope Benedict XVI, at the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls where Paul's earthly remains are entombed, decreed a year of celebration in Saint Paul's honor to commemorate the anniversary of his martyrdom in the year 67 in Rome.
A very large part of the words inspired by God, the Holy Spirit, in the New Testament came from the mind, pen, and tongue of Saint Paul, who was obviously a very special and great instrument used by God and His providence. He was without a doubt one of the most zealous Catholic missionaries who ever lived. His adventures in the ancient world of the early New Testament and his prolific output of words in spreading the Gospel of Jesus, along with his amazing conversion story, are deserving always of serious consideration, reflection, and meditation.
Almost all the authentic information we have about Saint Paul comes from the New Testament, that is, from the Acts of the Apostles written by Saint Luke and from Saint Paul's own Epistles. There are fourteen Epistles in the New Testament attributed to Saint Paul, at least by their titles: to the Romans, First and Second to the Corinthians, to the Galatians, to the Ephesians, to the Philippians, to the Colossians, First and Second to the Thessalonians, First and Second to Timothy, to Titus, to Philemon, and to the Hebrews. The arrangement of the order of the Pauline Epistles in Sacred Scripture is not chronological, but they were situated by the hierarchy of the Catholic Church in that order in the Holy Bible because of other considerations, such as their importance, their length, their inherent dignity, etc.
Saint Paul's Epistles are cited, as already being well known, in the writings of the earliest Church Fathers, starting at the end of the first and the beginning of the second century of the Christian era, being mentioned and quoted, for example, by Saint Clement of Rome, Saint Ignatius of Antioch, Saint Polycarp of Smyrna, and Saint Justin the Martyr. The influence of his writings has always had an enormous impact on the Universal Church, being a significant portion of the Deposit of Faith entrusted to her safe keeping.
There are some allusions in olden literature other than the New Testament to Saint Paul's life, but these are largely spurious, scanty and false. These include some lying and libelous Jewish rabbinic writings, which, like the slanderous references to Jesus Himself in the Talmud, are easily seen as defamatory inventions, whose malevolent purpose is not difficult to discern and which do not deserve any attention nor discussion (Matthew 28:11-15). They also include apocryphal stories of Paul's martyrdom, his activities, other alleged letters to and from him, etc. No respectable historian or scholar takes any of those allusions seriously.
Saint Paul at one time introduced himself to a mob of Jews who were rioting against him in Jerusalem, by saying, "I am a Jew and I was born in Tarsus of Cilicia" (Acts of the Apostles 22:3). It was recorded that he was a "young man" when he was present at the stoning of Saint Stephen (Acts 7:58), and he himself said he was an "old man" when he wrote his Epistle to Philemon (verse 9), which we know was about the year 63. The best guess then is that he was born somewhere between the years 1 and 5, when our Lord would have been about three to eight years old, living as an unknown but divine Child in Nazareth. Saint Paul was always proud of his Hebrew ancestry (2 Corinthians 11:22) and his descent from the small but interesting tribe of Benjamin (Romans 11:1; Philippians 3:5; Psalm 68:28), whose members were considered vehement and warlike people. That tribe gave Israel its first king, named Saul, (1 Samuel 10:1-24).
It was after that king that Saint Paul was named (in Hebrew "Sha'ul") at his circumcision arranged by his evidently devout Jewish parents (Philippians 3:6) eight days after his birth. Tarsus was the principal city of Roman Cilicia, a part of the Asia Minor mainland and a cosmopolitan metropolis. Somehow from his birth there, Saint Paul was not only a practicing Jewish Pharisee (Acts 23:6; Philippians 3:5), but also a Roman citizen (Acts 22:25-30), a highly prized status in the time of the Roman Empire. It may have been his Roman citizenship which caused him to also possess the Roman, Latinized name of Paul, which he used more extensively in his later life. From his writings it is clear that he had a reasonably good working knowledge of both the Aramaic and Greek culture and language (Acts 17:28; 1 Corinthians 15:33; Titus 1:12). He learned, most likely from his father, the craft of tent-making (Acts 18:3), which skill he used to support himself in food and lodging (1 Corinthians 4:12; 1 Thessalonians 2:9; 2 Thessalonians 3:8), especially in his later Christian missionary labors and travels.
As an adolescent, he was sent to Jerusalem for his religious studies, which he undertook at the feet of the great Pharisee teacher, Gamaliel, (Acts of the Apostles 22:3). His education seems to have made him an enthusiast and even a fanatic for the Jewish religion, although Gamaliel himself appears, on the contrary, to have been a man of some moderation in that regard (Acts 5:34-39). The only other thing we know about Saint Paul's family is that he had a married sister, whose son was in Jerusalem in the year 58 and who did his uncle an important and genuine act of service (Acts 23:16-23).
During this Pauline year, Pope Benedict XVI said, "Meetings for study will be promoted and there will be special publications on Pauline texts to promote the immense richness of the teaching contained in them, a true patrimony of humanity redeemed by Christ."