The Dispatch: More from CWR...

A Prayer at the Tomb of St. Paul

As I head home, I want to reflect on the sojourn I made to the tomb of St. Paul, an encounter that moved me even more than I thought it would.

Auxiliary Bishop Robert E. Barron of Los Angeles and bishops from California, Hawaii and Nevada concelebrate Mass in the crypt of St. Peter's Basilica during their "ad limina" visits to the Vatican Jan. 27, 2020. (CNS photo/Stefano Dal Pozzolo)

I write these words on the airplane taking me home from my first visit as a bishop ad limina apostolorum (to the threshold of the apostles). This is the pilgrimage, required by canon law of every bishop, to pray at the tombs of St. Peter and St. Paul and to meet personally with the successor of Peter. In an earlier column, I wrote of the extraordinary visit to the tomb of Peter and an even more extraordinary conversation with the Galilean fisherman’s successor, Pope Francis. As I head home, I want to reflect on the sojourn I made with my fellow bishops of Region 11 to the tomb of St. Paul, an encounter that moved me even more than I thought it would.

Paul’s sarcophagus is situated in the heart of the magnificent Basilica of St. Paul’s Outside the Walls, so called because it stands on a site beyond the city limits of ancient Rome. Tradition dictates that it was on or near this spot that Saul of Tarsus, transformed by Christ’s grace into the Apostle Paul, was beheaded for the crime of declaring the Lordship of Jesus. The decapitation by sword, by the way—a far easier manner of execution than crucifixion, being devoured by animals, or burned alive—was a privilege accorded to Paul on account of his Roman citizenship. After Mass in the upper church, all of us bishops were ushered down to a lower section, called the confessio, and there we knelt in the very presence of the resting place of the great Apostle to the Gentiles. As I prayed on that spot, wearing the full liturgical regalia of a successor of the Apostles, I admit that I felt utterly, utterly inadequate. Who was I to be in any sense a “successor” of Paul?

But then I commenced to muse on the fact that Paul himself often felt unworthy of the task that had been entrusted to him. In a most telling and revealing text, Paul confesses that he was indeed an Apostle, since he had seen the Risen Lord, but that he did not deserve the title because he had persecuted the Church so violently. Elsewhere he admits that his speech and appearance are unimpressive and thus wonders why the Lord chose him precisely for a ministry of proclamation. In still another passage, Paul tells us that God had given him a “thorn in the flesh . . . to keep him from being proud.” Three times, he said, he begged the Lord to take it away. What was it? Nobody really knows. Could it have been a speech impediment, a chronic illness, a psychological debility, a spiritual weakness? In any case, Paul reports how the Lord responded to his prayer: “My grace is sufficient for you, for in weakness, power reaches perfection.” Therefore, Paul concludes, “I willingly boast of my weakness that the power of Christ might rest upon me.”

And what stands, of course, at the very heart of Paul’s teaching is the idea of the primacy of grace, God’s free gift. When he was a young man, filled, as he put it, with zeal for the tradition of his fathers, Saul/Paul thought that the rigorous fulfillment of the law of Israel would make him pleasing to God. And so he, by his own admission, outdid all of his contemporaries in the achievement of righteousness. But upon meeting the risen Jesus and reflecting on the meaning of the Lord’s death and Resurrection, Paul realized that self-striving in the attempt to win the affection of a wrathful God is to get the spiritual life more or less backward. Rather, God in Christ goes to the very limits of godforsakenness in order to find those who wander far from him. By this incomparable and unexpected grace, we are saved, set right, “justified,” to use Paul’s favorite term for this state of affairs. To accept this grace in grateful faith is the beginning of a properly ordered spiritual life. The twentieth-century theologian Paul Tillich summed this up as follows: “accepting the fact that you’ve been accepted, even though you’re unacceptable!”

Now, once this move has taken place, we can turn everything in us over to the power of Christ so as to “increase our justification,” as the Council of Trent puts it. Paul didn’t abandon his zeal; rather, he gave it, transfigured by grace, to Christ—and it carried him to the ends of the world. He didn’t let go of his gifts of mind and heart; he offered them, transfigured by grace, to the Lord—and they continue to enliven the Church to this day. Moreover, he learned even to give his weakness and inadequacy to Jesus, once they had been caught up in grace, and the Lord has used them throughout the Christian centuries.

All of which brings me back to the moment when I knelt before the sarcophagus of Paul, feeling completely unworthy of the vestments I was wearing and the title of successor to the Apostles that I was bearing. Weaknesses? I’ve got plenty of them. Thorns in the flesh? You bet. Feelings of inadequacy? Of course. What came to me in that prayer at the confessio of Paul was the deep conviction that the spiritual life is not a matter of impressing God with my accomplishments. It is a matter, first and foremost, of accepting the fact that I’ve been accepted—and then giving to Christ all that is in me, both the strengths and the weaknesses, so that he might do with them as he pleases.


If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.


About Bishop Robert Barron 184 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.

5 Comments

  1. “After Mass in the upper church, all of us bishops were ushered down to a lower section, called the confessio, and there we knelt in the very presence of the resting place of the great Apostle to the Gentiles. As I prayed on that spot, wearing the full liturgical regalia of a successor of the Apostles, I admit that I felt utterly, utterly inadequate. Who was I to be in any sense a “successor” of Paul?”

    Reading that quote, the following verse came to mind:

    “Alone with none but thee my Lord, I journey on my way. What need I fear when thou art near, O King of night and day?
    More safe am I within thy hand than if a host did round me stand.”

    St. Columba

  2. This is what I am now going to call the Theology of Self-Deprecation. This is not Christian. Regardless of how you feel about it personally, Your Excellency, you’re a successor of the Apostles. That means you have definite responsibilities to the maintenance of orthodox among the sheep. You care more about what the world thinks than the salvation of your own people.

    The World does not want to be saved. Your people want to be saved.

    YOU NEED TO TURN YOUR ATTENTION TO THE CHURCH, SIR. YOUR OWN HOUSE IS ON FIRE.

    • Alexander, my goodness, what a harsh reaction to what I read as a very honest, God-honoring and Christ-glorifying article.

  3. Thank you, Bishop Barron! This article has inspired me to accept the thorn in my side and to accept the fact that I am unacceptable. Then, perhaps, I will be able to “surrender”. Surrender is something I have studied, pondered and read about for quite some time. I cry when taking the Eucharist because I feel inadequate. Your words have given me food for thought that I may overcome my spiritual problems and perhaps be able to “surrender all I have both strength and weaknesses” to our Lord. Thank you, Bishop Barron, thank you!

  4. Bishop Barron
    do not be deterred by the hostile responses you receive, you are “blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” You humility before Paul’s tomb is exemplary. You take the time to travel and find the truth for all of us who cannot travel to those great places where
    we find a deeper understanding of what happened in our Salvation History

    You keep up the good work we need your discoveries about the One who laid down His life for us ALL
    ODONOVAN

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

All comments posted at Catholic World Report are moderated. While vigorous debate is welcome and encouraged, please note that in the interest of maintaining a civilized and helpful level of discussion, comments containing obscene language or personal attacks—or those that are deemed by the editors to be needlessly combative or inflammatory—will not be published. Thank you.


*