VATICAN CITY, JULY 3, 2008 (Zenit.org).- St. Paul was not only a zealous preacher of Christianity but also a man open to dialogue with those who do not know Christ, affirmed the president of the pontifical council dedicated to Christian unity.
Cardinal Walter Kasper spoke with L’Osservatore Romano last week about the apostle to the Gentiles on the occasion of the newly inaugurated Pauline Jubilee Year.
He started with a biographical sketch of St. Paul, noting that he was in prison many times, beaten and in danger of death. Five times he suffered 39 lashes, was scourged three times, stoned once, shipwrecked, endured hunger and thirst, cold and nakedness, slander, persecution and finally decapitation by the sword.
How did he endure all this, the cardinal asked. He affirmed that the answer was given by Paul, himself: “By the grace of God I am what I am.” And “I can do all things in him who strengthens me.”
“[Here] we touch upon the central point of [Paul’s] life and faith,” Cardinal Kasper affirmed. “He attributed nothing to his own merit; but believed that everything was owed to God and his grace. God was the power and strength of his life.”
The Vatican official proposed that Paul’s message is, in fact, “the message of grace.”
“We have courage and dignity, salvation and holiness only from God and his grace,” he explained. “We cannot save ourselves through good works. Salvation is given to us because of our faith. This grace is offered to each one of us. With God’s grace, a new beginning is always possible.”
Cardinal Kasper reflected on the key event in Paul’s life, his conversion on the road to Damascus.
“That experience made such an impression on him that he forgot all his past, projecting himself with determination towards the future,” he said. “For Paul, the Gospel was not an abstract doctrine but a person: Jesus Christ.
“God is not far away. […] He is God for us, close to us and with us. He humbled himself and lowered himself in Jesus Christ. If God has resurrected Jesus Christ from the dead, he will also resurrect us. Hence, in every suffering and every sorrow, in all of life’s adversities, hope will shine for us even beyond death.”
Such a message, the cardinal added, is “joyful but also exacting.”
He explained: “We must always be oriented to Jesus Christ, to his example, life and word. We must always be converted again, allow ourselves to be taken by him and to follow him. Jesus Christ is the fulcrum of the Christian faith; he is its identity and characteristic.
“Faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God distinguishes us from the Muslims. We must not hide our faith, but witness to it courageously as Paul did. This is realized not only with words, but above all through a convincing life of faith, through affability, availability, benevolence, goodness and active charity.”
Rooted in Turkey
Cardinal Kasper focused on another of Paul’s characteristics: his dedication to dialogue.
“Paul was an ardent witness of Christ and, at the same time, a man of dialogue,” the cardinal said, citing an affirmation from the Turkish bishops in their pastoral letter for the Pauline year.
And he noted Paul’s familiarity with the Jewish and Greco-Roman cultures, that he spoke Aramaic and Greek. On referring to other religions in the Areopagus of Athens, Paul quoted their own poets, saying God “is not far from any one of us. For ‘in him we live and move and have our being.'”
In this connection, Cardinal Kasper recalled that “Vatican Council II made this exhortation its own and stated that the Catholic Church ‘does not reject anything that is true and holy’ in other religions. The Council spoke of respect for Muslims, appealing for collaboration with them when it comes to protecting and promoting social justice, moral values, peace and liberty for all men.”
To dialogue “does not mean to leave one’s own faith aside, or to make a flexible adaptation,” he clarified. “It is about giving reasons for the faith with all due amiability and patience. To explain what, how and why we believe. To be witnesses of the faith in an active way.”
The Vatican official noted that St. Paul is a teacher in this type of dialogue. “Thanks to him, the Church has become universal,” he noted.
And mentioning Paul’s roots in Turkey, the cardinal observed: “Christians in Turkey are a small flock that does not always have an easy life, but they form part of a great universal community of believers. The whole Church has one of its roots in Tarsus and Turkey. That is why the universal Church can never forget the Christians in Turkey.”