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Saint Paul, the saint who made Christianity a religion

In that letter that can be considered the birth certificate of the largest Brazilian metropolis, the Jesuit priest José de Anchieta (1534-1597) wrote on January 25, 1554: “We celebrated the first mass in the very poor and narrow house, on the day of the conversion of the Apostle Saint Paul and, therefore, we dedicate our house to him”.

This is how the base of those religious missionaries on the Piratininga plateau was named after the saint. Over time, the name would be lent to the village — São Paulo dos Campos de Piratinga — until it became the name of the city.

Almost by chance, you could say. If it were another day, another saint would be the one honored, after all, the practice of Catholicism at the time was to always resort to the saint of the day at the time of nomenclatures.

A happy accident, scholars of Christianity would say. Because if the city that celebrates its 468th anniversary this Tuesday (25) has become one of the most important in the world, this Roman citizen named Paul who lived 2,000 years ago can also be called a protagonist.

Had it not been for Paul, a prolific writer of his time, entrepreneur of several missionary journeys, insightful in conflict resolution, and skilled in organizing and systematizing knowledge, Christianity would not have become a religion — at least not such an important religion, especially for the Western.

“He was, without a doubt, the first great theologian of Christianity”, says the religious Darlei Zanon, philosopher and theologian, adviser of the Società San Paolo, in Rome. “And even today he can be considered one of the greatest theologians in the history of Christianity, because the foundations [which he founded] are still studied.”

“More than a theologian, I would say that he was a great pastoralist, because he gave concrete answers to pastoral questions, of society, of those first Christian communities. Thus, I see him as a practical theologian, a pastor, since his letters tried to give answers to the problems of morality, liturgy, fraternal correction, leadership…”, he lists.

Born in Tarsus, in present-day Turkey, around the year 5, he was called Saul. A Roman citizen, he became an official in charge of persecuting Christians in those times when, shortly after Jesus’ death, the first followers of his teachings had to go underground.

According to biblical accounts in the Acts of the Apostles, it was on one of these missions that he lived a decisive mystical experience. According to the text, later corroborated by tradition, the officer was leaving Jerusalem on his way to Damascus, where he was to fetch prisoners to be interrogated and, most likely, executed.

His journey, then, would have been interrupted by a blinding light, followed by a divine voice. “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” he would have heard. “Who are you, Lord?” was his astonished reply. “I am Jesus, whom thou persecutest.”

From this experience, Paulo decided to change sides. He went from persecuting Christians to becoming one of them. “This narrative is a kind of rite of passage, the change from persecutor to persecuted”, analyzes hagiographies scholar Thiago Maerki, a researcher at the Federal University of São Paulo (Unifesp) and an associate of the Hagiography Society, in the United States.

And, in life-changing symbolism, he adopted a new name. Saul then became Paul.

More than a follower of Christianity, he became a protagonist of evangelization. He founded communities, with which he had frequent contact through letters, and systematized the teachings of Jesus in order to consolidate, in addition to a doctrine, a religion.

“Were it not for Paul, perhaps today we would not know Jesus. At least not Christianity as we have today”, says Maerki. “Paul’s writings and all the reverberation afterward were in fact a kind of root of Christianity.”

A theology from experience

Vice-director of the Lay Center in Rome and a doctor from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, Vaticanist Filipe Domingues pays attention to the point that Paul’s theology “starts from an experience. “It is important to emphasize this, because before trying to understand what is the Christian faith or to rationalize about it, the followers of Christ, especially the first ones, started from an experience of faith. In the case of Paulo, it was the conversion that made him the biggest announcer”, he comments.

“In this sense, it is not simply a rational, political, or methodical process. He had a radical experience, he made an interpretation and, from there, he began to announce”, adds the Vaticanist.

The importance is such that the Catholic Church, whose most frequent custom is to celebrate the day of death of a saint as a festive date, reserved two anniversaries for Paul: while June 29 marks his martyrdom, January 25 recalls the episode of your conversion.

Both dates, by the way, were invented a posteriori, as there are no precise records that attest to the exact occurrence of these episodes. According to Maerki’s research, the feast of Paul’s conversion began to take place in the region of Gaul, today France, in the 6th century. In Rome, it only began to appear 500 years later.

The fact is that even not having lived with the living Jesus, Paul ended up assuming an important role in the group of the first Christians — many of whom, like Peter, had lived together and accompanied the master in life. Not for nothing, he calls himself an apostle — and is recognized as such —, using here a term more commonly reserved for the 12 first followers, the “chosen” by Jesus at the beginning of his mission, who lived with him.

There is an initial split in these early years of what would become Christianity. And the arm wrestling, won by Paulo, makes it clear that he had argumentative power over the other thinkers of this still embryonic church.

“He opened the Church to those who were not Jews. And that was Paul’s great achievement,” recalls Domingues. It was a pertinent question at the time. Since Jesus was a Jew and had preached his gospel to the Jews, the first followers were all previously Jews—converts to Christianity. This modus operandi made some people think, including Peter — considered the first pope — that to become a Christian it was first necessary to be a Jew.

“Paulo had a different understanding. He understood that it was necessary to open up to everyone”, emphasizes Domingues. “He interpreted that if Jesus had come to save all, the gospel should not be preached before only to the Jews.”

As his vision prevailed, Christianity was able to spread.

Prolific writer

From regions in the Middle East to important points in Europe at the time, each trip represented Christian evangelization and the settlement of communities of what would become the Catholic Church.

In order not to lose contact with so many peoples, Paulo wrote letters. Many letters. They were documents in which he consolidated what he understood about Christianity, through moral guidelines, interpretative memories of the messages left by Jesus, and recommendations on how leaders should behave.

But it wasn’t easy to write back then. “It was a slow process and very expensive, very costly”, comments Zanon. It was written on papyri or parchments and, according to research, Paul preferred parchments, prepared from leather.

To write, Paul used a sharp instrument called a calamus. The letters were crossed out and filled in ink. “It was a very slow process. Even so, he wrote a lot. We don’t know how many letters. Fourteen are in the Bible, with some scholars considering that nine are his and another five from Pauline communities”, says Zanon. “But the letters themselves contain references to others we don’t have today, so he certainly wrote a lot more. He wrote a lot.”

“As it was an expensive process, it had to be done carefully. He couldn’t make mistakes or rewrite, so as not to waste material. He wrote with the letters very close, very close together, occupying as much space as possible on the parchment”, he details.

These missives were written during his travels and, especially, during the years he was imprisoned – precisely for practicing Christianity. “He spent part of the period in house arrest and had the freedom to write. He wrote to animate the communities he founded”, says Zanon.

The religious remembers another characteristic of Paul’s letters. “He knew Aramaic and Hebrew, but he wrote the letters in Greek, which must have slowed down the process even more,” he points out.

The choice of language already denoted an aspiration to increasingly universalize Christianity. “Greek was the predominant culture at the time and that’s how he spread what was from the culture located at that time where we call today the Holy Land. He brought it to the Greek, western culture. That was a great opening. That’s why the Church Catholic wouldn’t exist today if it weren’t for Paul’s work”, says Vaticanist Domingues.

Zanon recalls that “the great novelty” of Paul was the “inculturation of the gospel”. “He did a ‘translation’ of the message, adapting the key concepts to the Greco-Roman language and mentality”, he analyzes. “He knew how to give theoretical categories, and adapt the message to other cultures, to the needs and concrete problems of the communities. He brought images of war, sport, the city, things that Jesus did not use in his parables, which were based on agropastoral symbols. .”

“São Paulo made the transition to the wider, universal world. It laid the foundations for Christianity to become universal”, he says.

Zanon believes that if Paul had lived in contemporary times, he would have become “a great writer, perhaps a journalist”. “He wrote a lot, knew a lot about the world’s problems. Today, he would try to give answers to current problems, expose difficulties and problems, denounce injustices”, he compares.

Death by decapitation

All this work, of course, began to bother the Romans, who saw in Christianity a group of hooligans who, by proclaiming Jesus as a king, could jeopardize the political hegemony of the system.

There are controversies about how many times and for how long Paul was imprisoned, but most likely he was once in present-day Turkey and twice, towards the end of his life, in the region of the city of Rome.

It is certain that he participated in person in a meeting that took place between the first Christian leaders, sometime between the years 48 and 50, in Jerusalem – in what is known as the first council in the history of the Church.

And it is believed that he went to evangelize in the region of Rome from the year 60. There he would have been arrested again and, finally, probably in the year 67, sentenced to death.

“The exact day of his death is not known [the Church ended up, by convention, adopting the 29th of June]. What we have came by tradition: he would have died during the persecutions of Nero [Roman Emperor who ruled from 54 to 68] . He was decapitated with a sword on the outskirts of Rome”, says Zanon.

It was a capital punishment considered milder, reserved for Roman citizens. “His death would have been more dignified than that of other Christians. Non-Romans like Peter were crucified. Beheading was less painful, and Paul had Roman citizenship,” he explains.

At the place where he is believed to have been killed, a church was later erected, today the Basilica of São Paulo Fora dos Muros.

Protector of many causes

Interestingly, despite lending its name to the city since its foundation, São Paulo only started to be recognized as the patron of the São Paulo capital in 2008, when Cardinal Archbishop D. Odilo Scherer presented a formal request to the then Pope Benedict 16.

But the saint is traditionally cited as the protector of many things and many causes. Zanon stresses that he is also the official patron of Rome and London, as well as being considered the protector of writers, printers, and publishers — “for an obvious reason since he was perhaps one of the greatest writers in the history of mankind”, he points out.

“He is also the patron of evangelizers and missionaries,” he adds. “And, unofficially, we can also say that he is the patron of immigrants and travelers because he has spent so much of his life traveling. He is the saint of universality, has known many cultures, and has a universal heart.”

The religious also recalls that Paulo is used “against sea storms and shipwrecks” and in cases of “snake bite”, also according to popular devotion. “And patron saint of converts,” he says.

“In today’s world, he can help us a lot because he was someone who was always open to the different. We need tolerance, openness to dialogue, acceptance of differences in search of a common denominator”, comments Zanon.

With an eye on contemporary problems, the religious still updates Paulo as “a model against fake news”. “Because Paulo, in his letters, was the defender of the truth. He spent his whole life writing to communities seeking to fight manipulation, criticizing people who tried to manipulate people for their own benefit. In this sense, he was fighting fake news, what we now call fake news”, he believes.

Source: BBC

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