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Paul on the Areopagus: A master class in evangelization

The canny evangelist, moving through the culture of his time, assimilates what he can and resists what he must.

"St. Paul Preaching at Athens" (1515) by Raphael [WikiArt.org]

The account of St. Paul’s address on the Areopagus in Athens, found in the seventeenth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, is a sort of master class in the evangelization of the culture, and anyone engaged today in that essential task should read it with care. The context for Paul’s speech is his mission to Greece, which commenced when he crossed over from Asia Minor to the mainland of Europe. As the great Catholic historian Christopher Dawson indicated, this transition of an itinerant Jewish preacher from one side of the Aegean to the other would have excited the interest of no conventional historian or commentator of the time, but constituted, nevertheless, one of the most decisive events in history, for it signaled the introduction of Christianity to Europe and, through Europe, to the rest of the world. A first lesson for us: the evangelist never rests, for the call of the Lord is to announce the Good News to the ends of earth.

After spending time in the northern reaches of the territory—Macedonia, Philippi, Thessalonica—Paul made his way eventually to Athens. It should be noted that though his preaching in the north met with some success, it also stirred up fierce opposition. He was arrested and imprisoned in Philippi and chased aggressively out of Thessalonica by an angry mob. From the very beginning, Christian proclamation has been opposed and Christian preachers have found themselves in danger. Those who venture into the field today should not be surprised that they meet with some pretty rough plowing. But I want to place special emphasis on the fact that Paul went to Athens, arguably the most important cultural center of the ancient Roman world. It is by a sure instinct that Christians—from Paul and Augustine to Thomas Aquinas, John Henry Newman, and John Paul II—have made their way to centers of thought, communication, and the arts. If Jesus’ great commission is to be honored, culture must be evangelized.

Upon arriving in the great city, Paul made a beeline—as was his wont—to the synagogue, for his Good News is that God, in Christ Jesus, had fulfilled all of the promises he made to Israel. He knew that Jews were in the best position to understand what he was talking about. We find here another crucial lesson for present-day evangelizers: we must not forget the unbreakable connection between Jesus and the Jews. When we speak of Jesus in abstraction from Torah, temple, prophecy, and covenant, he devolves rather rapidly into a mildly inspiring teacher of timeless truths. But when we announce him as the climax of the story of Israel, our listeners’ hearts catch on fire.

Next, we are told that Paul went out “in the marketplace and spoke with those who happened to be there.” Sons and daughters of Israel might be those best disposed to accept Paul’s message, but the Gospel is meant for everyone. Thus, his evangelization was extravagant, indiscriminate, offered on the streets and from the rooftops, to anyone willing to listen. Ours should have a like character. I know that even the prospect of it is pretty daunting, but I’ve always been a fan of street preaching—just getting up on a corner or on a soapbox and announcing Jesus. Will you be roundly mocked? Sure. But so was Paul. And in demonstration of the full extent and range of his outreach, we are told that Paul dialogued with some of the “Stoics and Epicureans”—which is to say, with the leading philosophical voices of that time and place. The evangelist must be, as Paul himself said, “all things to all people,” capable of speaking to the most ordinary and the most sophisticated.

When he arrives at the Areopagus—a rocky outcropping just below the Parthenon—Paul delivered himself of a justly celebrated speech. In accord with the old rhetorical device of captatio benevolentiae (capturing the good will of one’s audience), Paul compliments the Athenians on their spirituality: “I see how extremely religious you are in every way.” There is more here, of course, than mere courtesy, for Paul is in fact appealing to what the Fathers of the Church would later call logoi spermatikoi (seeds of the Word)—that is to say, hints, echoes, and indications of the Logos that is fully disclosed in Christ. “For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’” In a word, he elected to build upon a religious foundation already in place in the society he was addressing, assimilating into his distinctively Christian proclamation what he could. My mentor Francis Cardinal George often remarked that one cannot really evangelize a culture that one doesn’t love.

At the same time, Paul doesn’t simply affirm the society he was addressing. Standing just below the Parthenon—the most impressive temple in the ancient world, which housed a massive sculpture of the goddess Athena—Paul announced, “The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands.” That must have gotten their attention! There were indeed seeds of the word in the Athenian culture, but there were idolatrous practices and errant theologies as well. The canny evangelist, moving through the culture of his time, assimilates what he can and resists what he must. The dichotomy, so often invoked today, between being “open” to the culture or a “warrior” against it is simplistic and gets us precisely nowhere.

One might think that, in the wake of his magnificent address, Paul brought in boatloads of converts, but in fact the payoff was pretty slim: “When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, ‘We will hear you again about this.’” A handful of people who were willing to give Paul the benefit of the doubt—and yet, they were the seeds of European Christianity, and hence of a Christianity that would spread throughout the world. A final lesson for evangelists: in accord with Mother Teresa’s principle, don’t worry about being successful; worry about being faithful. Announce the Gospel, don’t count converts, and leave the increase up to God.


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About Bishop Robert Barron 163 Articles
Bishop Robert Barron is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries. He is the creator of the award winning documentary series, "Catholicism" and "Catholicism:The New Evangelization." Learn more at www.WordonFire.org.

10 Comments

  1. “A final lesson for evangelists: in accord with Mother Teresa’s principle, don’t worry about being successful; worry about being faithful. Announce the Gospel, don’t count converts, and leave the increase up to God”

    It Is true that the Christian message/ Proclamation never grows old, but it is fair to say that the majority of none Christians in the West, know what Christian moral standards are. Given the present situation within the Church Yes! we need to “worry about being faithful” So how do we proclaim/project/Announce The Gospel (Christian teachings) to a justifiable cynical world, as today our Christian Image is so badly tarnished, it could be said we need to evangelize ourselves.

    Many convey/understand the Christian message in the saying “love the sinner and hate the sin” but this saying does not emanate from Christian teaching, rather it creates a contradiction to the teachings of Jesus Christ, as in

    “But I tell you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who mistreat you and persecute you”

    This reality can only be lived in humility “Learn from me I am meek and lowly of heart”
    So how do we proceed, without insulting/denigrating others, primarily a clear understanding has to be conveyed that we are all children of our Creator, to be manifest in loving respect for the other, in that they are also a child of God…“He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone at her”… So we must demonstrate our belief in our actions, and this can only be done in humility, if it is to bear fruit. As humility is the fruit of the Holy Spirit working within our ‘own’ hearts and when it is manifest on the worldly plain, it should reflect our own self-awareness of our fallen nature before God’s inviolate Word (Will), as in… “not one iota”…

    When this reality is ‘honestly’ understood/devoured within the heart, we will accept ourselves and then each other in wholeheartedness, while we are each led along the path/Way of spiritual enlightenment, the ongoing transformation of the human heart, a moist heart, a gentle tearful one, one of compassion, where it is not possible to judge another individual harshly, for to do so would be to judge/condemn one’s self.

    Rather in our humility we would want for all our brothers and sisters no matter what their state of being, that which we have been given ourselves, His known gift of Divine Mercy, (which can only be known/accepted in a humble/vulnerable/sincere heart before Him), because is that not what Christianity is all about. God is patient with all of us (70×7) we must be patient also while encouraging others.

    Many today say only divine intervention will bring about change within the Church, but fail to see that in the present moment Our Lord Himself has already given the Church the means to bring about a fundamental shift of culture, within herself.

    As the true Divine Mercy Image, one of Broken Man, given by Our Lord Himself to His Church is a missionary call, as it creates the means for all of God’s children to show their ‘repentance’/vulnerability/humility to each other before Him, while acknowledging the ongoing transforming action of the Holy Spirit working within us, a disarming action in its honesty, that embrace all in its simplicity, as we encounter our brothers and sisters, who stand and seek ‘direction’ at the crossroads (Difficulties) of life.

    Please consider continuing via the link and comprehend that the True Divine Mercy Image is one of Broken Man: While it also calls the elite (Bishops) within the Church, to give account of themselves before the faithful, for the on-going breaking of the Second Commandment

    “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain”

    Please consider continuing the Theme of the true Divine Mercy Image/Message one of Broken Man; via the link

    http://www.catholicethos.net/errors-amoris-laetitia/#comment-230

    kevin your brother
    In Christ

    • Sorry Kevin. Sounds real nice but, laying aside the much needed conversion of wayward Bishops, most what we need is courage not meekness. If you thumb through the evangelisation of such greats as St. Vincent Ferrer, you notice God’s backing up him his sanctity and humility with miracles. Also there was nothing meek about St. Vincent’s message. I think unfortunately, the love message has diluted the strength of delivering God’s message. We are doing people a favour pointing out reality. Sure, sensitivity is required to know who you are addressing, but in a world of confusion, clarity and strength will inspire where accepting everyone just as you find them cant possibly because truth be told, many people are not on the way of Life.

      • Hi! Loui a further reflection on your comment “We are doing people a favour pointing out reality”

        From my post which introduced the misconception of this saying in relation to the teachings of Jesus Christ “love the sinner and hate the sin”

        To assist our understanding of the perils of judging others, we could stand beside Jesus in the temple as he looks upon the Tax Collector and the Pharisee and attempt with His eyes/heart to see the reality of this situation. The Pharisee has the authority of the Law and sees himself as a reflection of that law, he sees this because he makes sacrifice in almsgiving and regular fasting, a sign of penance, but it was not ‘true repentance’, rather for many it was an outward would sign of their own goodness, to be seen by men with their tassels symbols of goodness etc.

        We can discern that it was not sincere repentance because if it were, he would not have been able to condemn the Tax Collector, as in doing so he would condemn himself,. Our judgements in this type of situation would be a reflection of one’s own heart/soul. With all the stress which they placed on externals, they missed the living heart of their religion, it was too much tradition and conformity to rules.

        Jesus befriended sinners, we are all sinners. “It is fair to say that the majority of none Christians in the West know what Christian moral standards are” So we need to be careful that we do not become the judge (Hater) in our interrelationships with others, rather we are to be a healing influence that leads others to His Mercy and Love.
        Is it not ‘sufficient’ that others should know that we are Christians, ‘true’ disciples, (as manifest in Mother Teresa) self-proclaimed renouncers of sin, while carrying your/our own cross in ‘humility’ before them, for without doubt

        “In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.”

        Please consider continuing the Theme of the Tax Collector via the link
        http://www.catholicethos.net/catholic-teaching-assault-amoris-laetitia/#comment-192

        kevin your brother
        In Christ

  2. “A final lesson for evangelists: in accord with Mother Teresa’s principle, don’t worry about being successful; worry about being faithful. Announce the Gospel, don’t count converts, and leave the increase up to God.”

    A fair amount of gloss here since Mother Teresa seemed, I say seemed, to go further.

    From the website of Mother Teresa of Calcutta Center’s “views on conversion”/Statement of Fr. Brian Kolodiejchuk, MC, Postulator of the Cause of Canonization of Blessed Mother Teresa (2015):

    “When I asked her whether she converted, she answered, ‘Yes, I convert. I convert you to be a better Hindu, or a better Muslim, or a better Protestant, or a better Catholic, or a better Parsee, or a better Sikh, or a better Buddhist. And after you have found God, it is for you to do what God wants you to do.’ She wanted people to come closer to God (however they understood Him) and believed that in this way they would also come closer to each other, love one another, and ultimately create a world that is better for everyone to live in.”

    “The Constitutions of the Missionaries of Charity state: ‘We shall not impose our Catholic Faith on anyone, but have profound respect for all religions, for it is never lawful for anyone to force others to embrace the Catholic Faith against their conscience’ This reflects the intention of Mother Teresa herself, and the Missionaries of Charity follow in her footsteps.”

    I have recently quoted on CWR the “unless the Father draw him” phrase in a very Grace dependent view on conversions…however, I would NOT compare St Paul’s approach/proclamation to that of Mother Teresa (and the Jesuits and Jesuit spiritual directors).

    With regards to “imposing” our Faith some would say the recitation of ANY Catholic prayers at a MC soup kitchen before everyone gets their meal would be “imposing” our Catholic Faith (though clearly not some hypothesized “coerced” or “forced” conversion to Catholicism.)

    Should “ecumenical” prayers such as those recited by Bergoglio and previous modern pontiffs be recited or no prayers at all at MC soup kitchens letting simply “good deeds” speak for themselves? Why not let “a better world for everyone to live in” speak for itself if that is indeed what is “ultimately” intended?

    BTW I once brought up this famous quote (in a slightly different form, the “help” them to be a “better” form) of Mother Teresa to a now retired (conservative) Jesuit. He did not go into detail but simply replied, said, “Well, she was a saint not a theologian.”

    • There was and is a big problem in India and Mother Teresa would have known all about it: no proselytism otherwise visas of foreign missionaries will not be renewed. I dont know the Church’s ORTHODOX answer to this situation but I do know Fr. Hardon spoke about Pope John Paul II’s concerns. He was given the task of helping the sisters catechetically.

  3. As usual I enjoy Bishop Barron’s insightful accounts. Few seem to note The Apostle of the Gentiles always first visited a local synagogue true to his commission to Christ and the Promise made to the Jews. Although I’m not convinced of the brilliance of his Areopagus sermon. It was certainly couched intellectually to appeal to intellectuals. For sophisticated Athenian thinkers it may have seemed condescending. Resurrection then did not ring true. The significant lesson Paul learned was to never again design his admonitions to meet the sensitivities of his audience. Paul immediately left for Corinth and swore he would therein preach only Jesus Christ and him Crucified. That theme became the Signature of his life and in words both written and preached. As today our priestly lives and preaching must convey return to the Cross.

    • Dear Fr. Morello, my understanding is the Egyptians believed in resurrection, not in a Christian sense certainly, and not for the lower classes. Prior to Augustus, the Greek Ptolemies had ruled Egypt from Alexandria for about 300 years, with Greece having much commerce with Egypt. So this may have been a more complicated subject for Paul’s learned listeners than one might think.

      • T.M. Another significant context of Matter as the principle of identity for Man [Form ‘imprints’ what we are in Matter] is the uniqueness of flesh and blood resurrection from the dead, which apparently is not found anywhere in history. For example belief mythology in reincarnation assumes a similar person with different identity, a logical impossibility. Whereas flesh and blood [soul and divinity] of Christ clearly establishes the truth of Resurrection with it the triumph over death and to wit the penalty of sin. Christ went thru great pains to assure the Apostles it was himself, in his physical reality not an apparition, apparitions already historically known [Avery Dulles SJ for a time lapsed into apostasy presuming a more superfictional than real resurrection then reverted to become a foremost advocate of true resurrection of Christ]. This makes Christ’s resurrection a most unique historical event moreso than the resurrection of Lazarus or that of Dorcas by Peter. The reason is in the human nature of the risen Christ all the faithful are participant.

  4. Yes that’s interesting T M Doran. Reincarnation was widespread from ancient Persia and Zoroastrian beliefs to Egyptian religious concepts, and of course Gk philosophy. Plato held to reincarnation your level of rebirth depending on your integrity and justice of life. Aristotle held to a matter form potency and act process somewhat akin to physics. He held that when the body corrupts the principle of individual identity is lost, although he wasn’t clear regarding an immortal soul because of that. For the Gk mind a real resurrection from the dead involving the physical body as Paul taught at the Areopagus, would seem something reserved to the gods [the Gk gods were often reborn to a higher dignity]. Perhaps reason as you suggest why they scoffed. What it does tell us is once the gentile Greeks placed faith in Christ the resurrection of the body, for Aristotelians man an inseparable unity body and soul assumed an essential principle to resurrection from the dead. The Apostles Creed affirms that in the resurrection of the body.

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