“I, Paul, a prisoner for the sake of Christ….
When St. Paul wrote this epistle, so many years ago, he probably had no idea what an impact it would have. Naturally, he hoped it would console Christians, young in their faith, who were dismayed and frightened at Paul’s arrest, imprisonment, and anticipated martyrdom. But did he have even an inkling that it would be treasured, read and re-read by generations and right up to the present day? Did he have any idea that his words from prison would have a more lasting impact on the Church than any of his oral preaching?
Short of a secret revelation from on high, probably not.
But what a letter! Full of praise for the mercy of God, Paul reassured his readers that God was his strength and solace in captivity. He spoke of how ardently he longed to be with the Lord. Still, ever humble, he asked for his disciples’ prayers, that he might not falter before finishing his race. And he reminded them that persecution and martyrdom is a blessed share in the sufferings of Christ, the head of his mystical body. As you probably know, Paul was eventually beheaded by his captors. Reading his letter while meditating on what he was facing inspires modern Christians to face their own sufferings with courage as surely as it helped Paul’s contemporaries in times long past.
But there’s more.
Perhaps you would like to re-read this Pauline epistle for yourself, now that I’ve whetted your appetite. So, you may wonder which one is it? Ephesians? Colossians?
Well, you won’t find this one in the Bible. This letter of St. Paul didn’t make it into the canon of scripture.
Apocryphal? Oh no, St. Paul wrote it all right.
From a prison in Vietnam.
St. Paul Le Bao Tinh. By the time this St. Paul was born in 1793, Christianity had already been around in Vietnam for 200 years, due to the activity of Portuguese, French and Spanish missionaries. As in other Asian countries, brutal persecutions against Christians waxed and waned depending on the political climate. Paul grew up in one of the relatively peaceful interludes. He entered the seminary,but seems to have left after a while to pursue the life of a hermit.
In 1841, new persecution broke out. Paul was arrested and spent seven years in a Hanoi prison before he was granted amnesty. He returned to the seminary, finished his studies, and was ordained. He ministered in the hill country of Laos for several years, but was arrested once more, and summarily executed, in 1855. His letter, written to the seminarians of Ke-Vihn, appears in the Church’s liturgy for the feast of the Vietnamese martyrs, November 24th. It is found in the Office of Readings of the Liturgy of the Hours. Here is a small excerpt:
“In the midst of these torments, which usually bend and break others, by the grace of God I am full of joy and happiness, because I am not alone, but Christ is with me. He, my teacher, sustains the whole weight of the cross, burdening me but with a little and ultimate part: He himself does battle for me, not just as a spectator of my struggles; He the victor and perfecter of every battle. On his head is the splendid crown of victory, in which the members of his body also share.”
The 117 martyrs remembered on this day actually died over a period spanning more than a century. St. Paul Le Bao Tihn’s death came about in the middle of this era. But his prison letter represents well the faith and courage of these men and women.
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