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“We have some wonderful memories,” I said as Brother Art lay on his deathbed. “Yes, some wonderful memories,” he replied, almost as if singing.
Brother Art and I had lived together in community for a number of years and had shared our ups and downs. It was time now to savor the past, for it had been grace, and it brought comfort as life was draining from him. And of course I prayed with him as he looked to his imminent future with the Lord.
St. Paul did something similar as he sat chained in prison in the shadow of the Roman sword that would one day behead him. He savored his memories and shared them with his closest friends and associates, especially Timothy, whom he called his beloved child (2 Timothy 1:2). But he did more than that. He looked to the future —his own with Christ and that of the church he was leaving on earth.
Jailed for Christ. We have two sources that offer information about Paul’s last years. The Acts of the Apostles tells us that after his two years in prison in Caesarea, upon appealing to the emperor, he was taken to Rome for trial. Luke, who may have been with him on the sea voyage, gives many graphic details, especially about the shipwreck that nearly wiped out the crew as well as Paul. But once Paul got to Rome, where he was kept under house arrest, Luke ends his story. He gives us no details about what happened between that time and Paul’s martyrdom.
To fill in the picture, we turn to the other source, the letters to Timothy and Titus. Although some scholars think these three “pastoral epistles” were written later by a disciple of Paul, there is good reason to believe that Paul himself is their author. What he says in 2 Timothy suggests that he was released from his confinement in Rome and went on to pursue some missionary work. He had intended on going to Spain (Romans 15:24), and the first letter of Clement, written in Rome around AD 95, says he got there. Paul may have evangelized Crete as well at this time, leaving Titus in charge. After that, it seems, Paul was arrested again. And so he wrote 2 Timothy when he was a prisoner in Rome, presumably for the second time, and in a much graver situation than the one described in Acts.
Whatever the details, we know that Paul’s last days were spent in prison. Jails were his part-time home, as he had spent nearly half his ministry in them. Was this the Lord’s way of making sure Paul had time to rest, reflect, and intercede? At least he was able to communicate with his collaborators—face-to-face with those who risked visiting him, and through letters to those in the mission fields, like Timothy and Titus.
Meditating on a Marathon. Looking back, Paul praised the Lord for the work accomplished. In his last words to Timothy, we can detect a note of satisfaction that his life has been well spent: “I have competed well; I have finished the race” (2 Timothy 4:7). And indeed, throughout Asia Minor, Macedonia, and Achaia (regions of present-day Turkey and Greece), there were thriving churches: Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, Ephesus, Galatia, Troas, Philippi, Thessalonica, Beroea, Corinth, Crete, and probably Cyprus, as well as satellite communities birthed from those centers.
“Not I but the grace of God with me,” Paul would say (1 Corinthians 15:10). And he would remember the price he often paid for those victories—lashings, beatings, shipwrecks:
“…on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my own race, dangers from Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers at sea, dangers among false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many sleepless nights, through hunger and thirst, through frequent fastings, through cold and exposure. And apart from these things, there is the daily pressure upon me of my anxiety for all the churches.” (2 Corinthians 11:26-28)
For the apostle, these sufferings were not regrets but badges of glory: “I bear the marks of Jesus on my body” (Galatians 6:17). They were also marks he lifted up with Jesus as intercession for his churches: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church” (Colossians 1:24).
But might Paul also have some regrets? “Yes,” we might imagine him saying, “I think I was a little harsh on Barnabas and Mark, not letting the kid come on our second trip, since he chickened out in the middle of our first one” (Acts 15:36-40). “I’ve forgiven him, of course, and now count him as a mature collaborator” (2 Timothy 4:11).
“And maybe when I spoke to Peter ‘to his face’ I could have been a little softer” (Galatians 2:11). “And was it necessary to go so far in condemning the Jews bent on circumcising the Gentiles, when I wrote, ‘Would that those who are upsetting you might also castrate themselves!’” (Galatians 5:12). “But I know the Lord’s mercy covers all my excesses—it was, after all, for him that I got carried away” (2 Corinthians 5:13).
Eyes on the Prize. Paul had run so as to win. And win he did. As he writes his letter, he has crossed the finish line and is trying to catch his breath before proceeding to the heavenly judgment stand to receive his reward.
But in the meantime, Paul is waiting. The circumstances of his confinement are not the best, but neither are they the worst. He is probably not in the Mamertine prison, a dungeon deep in the bowels of Rome, topped by a room where the guards stayed. As a Roman citizen, he is most likely under house arrest. That means he is chained to a Roman soldier (which, oddly, would be just as confining for the soldier as for the prisoner —the two would even have to go to the toilet together!).
While under house arrest, Paul is able to receive visitors, though they have become rare; now that he is accused of a capital crime, to be known as one of his associates is to risk execution by the sword. He is able to dictate letters, as he seems to have done through Luke or a scribe. Thus, he can send Timothy a letter that sounds like his last will and testament. “For I am already being poured out like a libation, and the time of my departure is at hand,” he writes. Paul sees himself like a ship weighing anchor and loosing the ropes that tie him to shore (2 Timothy 4:6).
And Paul looks to his future: “From now on, the crown of righteousness awaits me, which the Lord, the just judge, will award to me on that day.” That day will be the day of the final judgment, the day of Christ’s coming, but it is also the day of Paul’s death, which he senses is imminent. As for the crown, Paul encourages Timothy —and us along with him—that Christ will offer it “not only to me, but to all who have longed for his appearance” (2 Timothy 4:8).
“Take Care of Them!” Paul’s description of his situation and his loneliness (“Luke is the only one with me,” 4:11) is what touches us most as we read 2 Timothy. Still, the bulk of the letter is not concerned with Paul. It is concerned with what he is leaving behind: the care of the churches and the content of the faith.
Already in 2 Corinthians, written years before, the apostle had climaxed the list of his physical sufferings with “the daily pressure upon me of my anxiety for all the churches” (11:28). This concern weighs on him now. What is going to happen to the vast array of churches he has founded? If they have had so many problems when he was there to watch over them, what will happen when he is gone?
Reflecting on this, I remember my father’s last moments. As he lay dying, surrounded by his family, he looked at his oldest son, my brother, and said, “Take care of them.” Basically, that is what Paul is saying to Timothy about his family of churches.
And what does this instruction mean in practice? Above all, caring for the churches means preserving the deposit, that is, the faith that brought them to life in the first place, and the understanding of that faith—the pure, unadulterated teaching that flows from it. “O Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to you,” Paul exclaims, for it is a precious treasure. “Remain faithful to what you have learned and believed” (1 Timothy 6:20; 2 Timothy 3:14).
Despite the emotion with which Paul hands over that treasure, he trusts that Timothy will be faithful. For he knows that the churches belong to Jesus, not to himself. And Jesus has provided a means for the gospel to be passed on by giving Paul successors in Timothy and Titus—and after them, as we know, a whole succession of bishops. This is what we call the apostolic succession—inscribed in our creed when we say “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.” The church will not be the victim of every changing wind. When the wind shifts, there will be trustworthy sailors who will adjust the sails.
One Last Message. In his earlier Letter to the Romans, Paul had written, “What will separate us from the love of Christ? Will anguish, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword?” (Romans 8:35).
Little did Paul realize that the “sword” with which he ended that sentence would be the sword that would end his life in Rome. In yielding his neck to the executioner, Paul preached his final sermon. Its message—this time, delivered by example—continues to resound in our hearts: Nothing, not even the sword, can separate us from the love of Christ!
Fr. George Montague is a Marianist priest and biblical scholar known internationally for his numerous books on Scripture and on the spiritual life. Three of them—Living in the Father’s Embrace, Mary’s Life in the Spirit and Holy Spirit, Make Your Home in Me—are available at wau.org/books