Give me a choice, and I will always go for a movie, play, or TV show that is based on a true story. If I know that a story arises out of real life, I just naturally expect to learn more and to be more inspired and challenged.
It’s no wonder, then, that I found so much information, inspiration, and challenge in The Gospel According to St. Paul by Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, SJ.
As indicated by the subtitle, Meditations on His Life and Letters, the book is based on the true story of St. Paul’s life and ministry. Accordingly, Martini explores passages in the Acts of the Apostles that describe key events in the apostle’s life. But what I found especially inspiring and challenging is that he explains these events by bringing in selections from Paul’s own letters.
I suspect that many of us tend to view these epistles as rather abstract teachings about theology and morality. But as The Gospel According to St. Paul makes clear, Paul’s letters are grounded in his own experiences and offer an inside view of situations that are recounted elsewhere in the New Testament. They are a window into how he thought and felt about issues like his relationship with Jesus, the hardships and demands of his missionary life, and his attempts to promote love, address conflicts, and oppose sin in the early Christian community.
From Saul to Paul. The book opens with three chapters that explore the stages of Paul’s spiritual journey: his conversion, his sufferings, and his progressive transformation in Christ. Acts 26 gives the longest description of the event that set all this in motion: Paul’s dramatic encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus.
Like any good scholar, Cardinal Martini offers some historical background for understanding this passage. But then he goes one step further by showing how we can interact with God’s word on a personal level. This dramatic encounter prompts us to “ask Paul a few questions,” he says. What were you like when the Lord came to you? What did he ask you to leave behind? Where did he lead you? How did you make the transition from one life to another?
To answer these questions, Martini turns to Paul’s own “inside” commentary—namely, key passages in his letters that highlight the impact of his meeting Jesus (Philippians 3:4-8; Galatians 1:15-16; 1 Timothy 1:13-17). What they reveal, he says, is “the difficult story of a person who is profoundly religious, but whose religious approach threatens to lead him to a radical distortion of the image of God.” In Saul, we see “the fundamental perversion of human beings seeking to save themselves and, believing themselves to have reached the pinnacle of perfection, of engaging in the worst kinds of violence.”
Saving Grace. Paul opens his heart on these matters throughout his letters. As Cardinal Martini shows, Paul reveals the motives that led him to persecute the fledgling church and then, after the shock of meeting Jesus and being called to serve him, to redo and rethink everything about himself and his way of life. We can understand more clearly what Paul had to forfeit and count “as a loss” for the sake of Christ (Philippians 3:8). We see how joyfully he did this, and we sense something of his utter amazement that God’s mercy reached even to him, “the foremost” of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15).
Similarly, when exploring various themes that stand out in Paul’s writings, Martini weaves in parts of Paul’s epistles to show the connection between his teaching and his experiences—all of it grounded in and flowing from the grace of his conversion. This guided meditation brings new insights into both the missionary and the message.
I was struck by Martini’s reflections on the “passion of Paul”—his emotional and physical sufferings, especially at the end of his life—in light of Jesus’ Passion and that of saints like Thérèse of Lisieux and Paul of the Cross. In other chapters, I found insightful reflections on subjects like Paul’s love of the church, his proclamation of the cross, his attitude toward “the mystery of evil,” and his calling to be a minister of reconciliation.
Bringing It Home. But The Gospel According to St. Paul aims not only to help us better understand the life and teaching of “the violent man [who] becomes merciful.” Paul’s transformation invites and challenges each of us: “Everything was given to him so that he could be for all peoples a sign of the merciful God, whose initiative always precedes our seeking.”
Throughout the book, Cardinal Martini proposes practical questions to help us meditate on St. Paul’s experience and learn something new for our own spiritual lives. If we do this self-examination “in a spirit of love and mercy,” he promises, “we will discover what in us is the work of God as well as what in us is like Paul’s resistance to God’s work.”
This encouragement to engage with Scripture in a personal way—by asking questions and prayerfully listening for the Spirit’s voice—runs throughout this book. As a careful Scripture scholar, Martini approaches the passages he surveys by giving enough information to answer the question, “What are these verses from Paul saying in their immediate context?” Then, as a pastor, he nudges us to embrace the word of God personally and prayerfully: What strikes you about this passage? What is the Lord saying to you? How will you respond?
Cardinal Martini writes from a lifetime of praying Scripture using the ancient practice of lectio divina. While serving as archbishop of Milan, from 1980 to 2002, he also taught this approach. His School of the Word—the monthly gathering he began in response to a request from some young people—became so popular that it filled Milan’s cathedral to overflowing and was then broadcast by radio to gatherings in other churches.
Now that I have read The Gospel According to St. Paul, I can understand why Cardinal Martini’s presentations attracted such crowds. His book became for me a beautiful meditation on Paul’s story and drew me into a more personal way of reflecting on his letters. As Paul’s experience flowed from the page into my own prayer and life, the same Lord who called and changed him also inspired, challenged, and invited me to respond.
Joseph F. Schmidt, FSC, is a lecturer, spiritual director, and counselor at Sangre de Cristo Center in New Mexico. He is the author of Praying Our Experiences and Everything Is Grace: The Life and Way of Thérèse of Lisieux.