(Crisis Magazine) Shortly before he died in Oxford in 1988, the Jesuit retreat master and raconteur, Bernard Bassett, in good spirits after a double leg amputation, told me that the great lights of his theological formation had been Ignatius Loyola and John Henry Newman, but if he “had to do it all over,” he’d only read Paul. “Everything is there.” There is a temptation to think that God gave us the Apostle to the Gentiles in order to have second readings at Sunday Mass, usually unrelated to the first reading and the Gospel. But everything truly is there. Paul was one of the most important figures in human history, and a great character to boot. That is, a character in the happiest sense of the word. “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain” (1 Cor 15:10).
In Caesarea, he confounds Antonius Felix, the Roman governor of Judaea and Samaria, and a little later he does the same to the successor of Felix, Procius Festus. The best court scene is Paul before Marcus Annaeus Novatus, who had taken the name of his adoptive father Junius Gallio, the rhetorician and friend of his father Seneca Sr. whose son Seneca, Jr. was the noble Stoic. Nero forced Seneca’s suicide, but before that, in Achaia where Gallio was proconsul, Paul was bit of a Rumpole of the Bailey, in how he played the jury like a piano to the frustration of the judge. The point is this: Paul, both innocent and shrewd, was willing to suffer and did so regularly, as he was not loathe to recount at length, and he was also ready to die, but as death comes but once, he wanted it to be at the right moment.
There is in Paul a model for Catholics at the start of the Third Millennium which began with fireworks and Ferris wheels but is now entering a sinister stage. Like Paul, it is not possible to be a Christian without living for Christ by suffering for him, nor is it possible to be a Christian without willing to die for him when he wants. The Christian veneer of American culture has cracked and underneath is the inverse of the blithe Christianity that took shape in the various enthusiasms of the nineteenth century and ended when voters were under the impression that they finally had a Catholic president.
This new period is not “Post-Christian” because nothing comes after Christ. We can, however, call it “Post-Comfortable Christian...” (continued)