St. Paul’s conversion came from concern for finding ‘true religion’

SENECA — Many Upstate Catholics made the most of an opportunity to learn more about the apostle Paul at his namesake church, St. Paul the Apostle, late last month.

Peter Judge, Ph.D., gave the three-hour talk to a crowd of approximately 70 people.

Judge is an associate professor and chair of the Department of Religion and Philosophy at Winthrop University. He was invited to speak at the Seneca church, which was one of the eight designated pilgrimage sites in the Diocese of Charleston for this Pauline year.

The Year of St. Paul, proclaimed last June by Pope Benedict XVI,  marks the 2,000th anniversary of the apostle’s birth. The celebration concludes on June 29 of this year.

Judge mixed his presentation on the life, letters and legacy of Paul with some subtle humor. He deftly delivered the message that, after Jesus, Paul is considered by many to be the most important figure in the New Testament.

And yet, Judge said, Paul’s letters were simply that, letters he had written over the course of his life. They were sent to communities he visited and people he met during his journeys through the Mediterranean region.

Paul wasn’t necessarily writing about the life of Jesus as spelled out in the four Gospels, Judge said, but instead the Christian message of “the good news of salvation, the good news of life in Jesus.”

Judge, who earned his masters and doctorate degrees from the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium, said it is also highly likely that Paul did not write all of the 13 letters found in the New Testament that are attributed to him.

According to Judge, Paul certainly did not write his letters with the idea that they would somehow be preserved for future generations simply because he, like others during that time, thought that Jesus was going to return soon.

“I don’t think that Paul, by any stretch of the imagination, thought that people in 2009 would be getting together on a Saturday morning to study what he wrote,” Judge said.

 “I don’t think he ever imagined that people 2,000 years later would be celebrating his birth and reading his writings.”

It is because of Paul that Christians have the message of Jesus, Judge said. In fact, “some have said that Paul was the founder of Christianity.”

Judge said there are three points to keep in mind about Paul.

First, he is referred to as an apostle, “because he is so well known as one who was sent to spread the message of Jesus.”

Second, Paul encountered the risen Jesus, but he probably never met Jesus face-to-face.

And finally, Paul was a devout Jew before his conversion experience.

“He saw this Christianity as an upstart sect and a threat to true religion,” Judge said. Paul was totally devoted to Judaism, and he persecuted followers of Jesus as a threat to the one God.

Judge asked: “Who in their right mind would follow someone who had been put to death not by some mob but by the authorities? Jesus was crucified for legitimate reasons, in Paul’s eyes,” Judge said.

“Now, put this in modern terms. If you had heard that some ‘criminal’ had been put to death by legitimate authorities, and someone came up to you and said that person was the true savior, would you believe that person?

“Paul wasn’t converting from something that was bad to something that’s good, but out of concern for what is true religion,” he said.

Judge said people today face those same questions. “What does it mean to be faithful to God?” he asked.

Pope Benedict authorized the grant-ing of a plenary, or full indulgence in order to highlight the Pauline year.

An indulgence is a remission of the temporal punishment a person is due for sins that have been forgiven. It is only achieved by receiving the sacrament of confession and the Eucharist and praying for the pope’s intentions.

The eight churches designated by Msgr. Martin T. Laughlin, administrator of the Diocese of Charleston, where people may fulfill the indulgence include: the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Charleston; Precious Blood of Christ on Pawleys Island; St. Anthony in Florence; St. Francis by the Sea on Hilton Head Island; St. Paul the Apostle Mission in Seneca; St. Paul the Apostle in Spartanburg; St. Peter in Beaufort; and St. Peter in Columbia

The churches are marking the Pauline year in a variety of ways. Precious Blood of Christ is offering classes throughout the year on the life and letters of St. Paul; St. Peter in Beaufort has suggested readings, reflections and prayers posted on its Web site,; and St. Peter in Columbia is offering Bible study of St. Paul during the year.

Jane Myers, director of faith formation at St. Paul the Apostle in Seneca, said their small Christian communities are reading and studying Paul’s letters this year.

Catholics in South Carolina may go to any of the churches and participate with devotion in a liturgy or other public event dedicated to St. Paul, or to any sacred place on the opening and closing days of the jubilee year, and on other days in places designated by the local bishop.

Those who cannot make a journey due to physical illness or serious impediments, and have the sincere intention of fulfilling the other conditions as soon as possible, can obtain a plenary indulgence by joining spiritually in a jubilee celebration in honor of St. Paul and offering their prayers and suffering for Christian unity.

The indulgence also will be given to pilgrims who go to Rome, to Catholics who participate in local events connected to the jubilee year, and to those who may be too ill or otherwise prevented from physical participation.