Pastoral Letter 2009 of Bishop Peter Bürcher

Dear Brothers and Sisters.

“We have never seen anything like this!” (Mark 2, 12).

You know that since June 28, 2008, in the entire Catholic Church there have been many lectures, congresses and liturgical celebrations. All this has been to commemorate the birth of St. Paul the Apostle 2000 years ago, and he was the greatest missionary of all times. Pope Benedict XVI established this Pauline year and it will end on June 29th of this year. Therefore we have decided, together with the whole Church to honour the memory of St. Paul and to get to know him better in the Diocese of Reykjavík as well. Then his life and work will bear more fruit in our country. In the Gospel of today are these words which we have just heard: “We have never seen anything like this!” (Mark 2, 12) and they could also be about St. Paul. At first Saul was the ruthless persecutor of the Christians: “I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God” (1Cor 15, 9). Then came his amazing conversion on the road to Damascus. And he received a calling as the apostle of the gentiles.

Who is he then, this Paul? We hear something from him almost every Sunday. Why should Pope Benedict XVI have dedicated this special year to him? This year and its celebrations are based on the conjecture that he was born in the year 8 AD. But that is only a conjecture. However we can say that Paul was the contemporary of Jesus. He was born in Tarsus, the capitol of Cilicia, and his parents were Jews and Pharisees. In the Acts of the Apostles he was said to have been a Roman citizen from his birth. Therefore he carries, in addition to his Jewish name Saul, the Roman name Paul as well.

In his letters Paul says he earned his living as a tentmaker. Usually children had the same profession as their fathers in those times. Therefore this has been supposed to have been the profession of his father too. This was a normal profession of a common man, which could provide for the needs of the family, but nothing more than that. The parents of Paul were Jews who lived far from their native land, but they were among many other Jews who had been driven far away from their land for many reasons, but especially by persecutions. They had however been loyal to their traditions. In his infancy Paul had been circumcised like every other Jewish boy. He was raised in adherence to the law of Moses. But Tarsus was a cosmopolitan city. As soon as Paul walked out of the door of his parents’ house, he breathed in the Hellenic atmosphere and got acquainted with many different cultures. He spoke Hebrew and Aramaic at home but Greek elsewhere. He therefore was raised with an open mind, especially until he became 12 or 13 years old. He then went to Jerusalem exclusively to study the Jewish law, the Torah, with Rabbi Gamaliel the Elder, a renowned Rabbi. From then on, all his interest turned towards the Jewish Law and the Israelite culture.

There is a description or information about Paul that is constantly repeated. It is said he was of a small stature, that he was fat, bow-legged and that his eyebrows had grown together, but yet he was like an angel. But this description is from the late second century. In traditional icons he is depicted as a bearded and a bald man, which is quite consistent with the ideas people had about philosophers in the 3rd century.

In his second letter to the Corinthians Paul mentions that he has difficulties speaking. Therefore some have thought that he stammered. In his letter to the Galatians he said: “You would have torn out your eyes and given them to me!” (15, 4). Therefore some have thought he had poor eyesight. I think we must look at those words in a metaphorical way for we knew he met with great difficulties in his life: he had long waking hours, he fasted and suffered from cold; three times he was shipwrecked and he covered thousands of kilometres by foot. He was stoned and the Jews beat him five times and the Romans three times. He was often imprisoned and all of this shows us that his character must have been unusual. His will was strong and he could easily adjust to the circumstances. It also says much about his character that he persecuted the Christian community prior to the great conversion on the road to Damascus.

He understood that the Christians doubted some of that which the Jews honoured and therefore he persecuted them rigorously. He could, for example, be compared to the Talibans of our time. ... Then came Damascus and the big change. After that he became remarkably steadfast, too much for some people, but he always insisted on charitable behaviour. He likened himself to a father but also to a mother. His psychology is extremely complex and diverse. In his letter to the Romans he explicitly says that one should always receive everyone and make peace with them and also embrace those that have other opinions. This is so-called Irenism, the spirit of hospitality and conciliation, which is entirely consistent with the spirit of the Gospel.

The work of St. Paul is mostly preserved in his letters. The letters of St. Paul were written and usually developed because of the necessity for completing the verbal mission of St. Paul, which he had of course brought to various Christian communities. In the letters there are also answers to some questions and light thrown on the diverse and new conditions. The style is usually direct. In our Bible the letters are in this order: Romans, 1st and 2nd Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1st and 2nd Thessalonians, 1st and 2nd Corinthians, 1st and 2nd Timothy, and Titus and Philemon. From a historical point of view the order is different.

Dear brothers and sisters, finally I would like to repeat what is said in the Gospel: “We have never seen anything like this!” (Mark 2, 12). Here is a comparison that could help all of us in Iceland in these times; we need not only economic reforms. Like Paul we also need the grace of God for our inner conversion. Paul was in a difficult situation regarding the hope of eternal life. At the end of his 2nd letter to the Corinthians he repeats a prayer from the first Christian community in Palestine: Marana tha! – Come, Lord Jesus! We are also permitted to pray like that, Pope Benedict XVI has explained. It might however be rather difficult for modern man to pray for the ending of the world. But we are allowed to pray like that because we are not praying for the end of this world, but for the end of the unjust world. “We want the world to change fundamentally, that justice and peace may reign, for a world without violence, without hunger.” All of that is only possible through the presence of Christ. “Come in your way and renew our modern world,” the Holy Father prayed. “Come also into our hearts. Come and renew our lives! Come into our hearts so that we can also become the light of God, your presence.”

With those words, which are entirely appropriate in our country at this moment, I end my letter to you. I hope that we can get to know St. Paul a little bit more so that it will be easier for us to accept his message, which explains the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This we want to do in this country, each of us individually and in common in these difficult, yet hopeful times, which are now at hand. With heartfelt greetings. Amen

+ Peter Bürcher, Bishop