In 1993 during my last year of studies at the Lateran, I was struck by the course on New Testament exegesis, particularly the writings of St. Paul. Prof. Romano Penna, an internationally acclaimed expert on Paul, fascinated us with this man who untiringly proclaimed the Gospel.
One student stood out above the rest: Giuseppe Pulcinelli, who became Prof. Penna’s successor.
The friendship that the Lord gave me in these years with Msgr. Pulcinelli has led me to read many of his theological writings and to admire evermore Paul whose name is found on 13 of 27 books in the New Testament.
Fr. Salvatore, our founder, has also had a particular interest in Paul for his apostolic fervor. If we Apostles are not “Paulists” we can’t be “infected” with Paul’s zeal.
What is the core of Paul’s thought that shaped his entire life of faith? What is the essence of Paul’s Gospel? “The just man will live by faith” (Hab 2:4; Rm 1:17). The believer is free from sin and death because God has freely justified him. God is “He who justifies the unrighteous” (Rm 4:5).
This is good news. The Law and its prescriptions are no longer the way of salvation. “For the Christian, liberty-liberation precedes any sort of obligation… God’s salvific justification through grace justifies the sinner who believes, pardons the unrighteous who entrusts himself to Christ… This is the foundation for the Christian life, particularly ethics” (Giuseppe Pulcinelli). “Christ has freed us for freedom” (Gal 5:1).
Christian freedom is service, not license or egocentrism. Paul continues, “You brothers are called to freedom. Yet this freedom is not a pretext to live according to the flesh. Rather put yourselves at the service of one another through love. The whole Law finds its fulfillment in one precept: love your neighbor as yourself” (Gal 5:13-14).
One is free to love, free to submit to all those the Lord puts on our path, free to give life constantly, free to go out of ourselves. It is not always easy to accept this “call to freedom.”
Paul first received this liberty-liberation on the road to Damascus. His hear was opened to this gift, ready to accept Christ. However as an observant Jew and a Pharisee “When the Lord called him, the detachment he must accomplish is not to leave his work or family but something more intimate and sacred: he must leave his image of God and a relationship based on observing the Mosaic Law. There is nothing more painful than having to give up that in which one has placed all his certainty, his supreme value that he was ready to defend even with violence” (Giuseppe Pulcinelli).
Now open to Christ and free, Paul is ready to put his life in danger so that all may know this freedom in love:
“Five times I received forty lashes minus one from the Jews, three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a day and a night at sea. Innumerable trips, dangers from pagans, dangers in the city, dangers in the desert, dangers on the sea, dangers from false brothers; work and toil, countless vigils, hunger and thirst, frequent fasts, cold and nakedness, and besides all this, my daily struggle: worry for all the churches” (2 Cor 11:24-28).
What freedom to love!
This year I turned fifty. I took some time to reflect on what God has done in my life. How many graces! It’s impossible to remember or even count them. Spiritual graces like daily conversation with Him and the sacraments, acts of love from others, and the chance to show love to others thanks to Him.
How many wonderful people the Lord has put on my path! Only this month the Lord brought me back in touch with two dear friends from my childhood and adolescence.
It’s a taste of paradise! If already on earth we are happy to see our friends again, what will it be like when we come together again in heaven? Faith opens our eyes and makes us more sensitive to God’s saving work, His gifts, His love for us, His goodness, His infinite mercy.
Freed and free because of his faith in Christ, Paul is overwhelmed by the unmerited goodness of God. From this awareness comes his desire like an unquenchable fire within that moves him to mission and to preach the Gospel. Before a saint like Paul, a prayer rises in my heart, “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief!” (Mk 9:24).
I want to live by faith. I want to be free.
If I notice that my faith is not strong, I can keep asking the Lord, “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief!”
With the Lord’s help, I can also seek to exercise my freedom to love someone that I find difficult to love and put them first.