Sunday, April 19, 2009

St. Paul and Baptism

Now that our four year commitment to facilitate Why Catholic is over, I’ve enrolled in a Bible study at our parish. It’s the first parish Bible study in which I’ve been a participant, although I’ve listened to tape sets, viewed and listened to programs on EWTN, done some study on my own, and been in groups where we’ve discussed the Sunday readings. Every Bible study offered by our parish in the last four years has been not only concurrent with Why Catholic, but offered only on the same night that our Why Catholic group met. I do not bilocate, and my wife appreciates my help at home (i.e., I can’t run off to meetings too many nights out of the week).

The study that we’re doing is Fr. Mitch Pacwa’s survey of the sacraments in the Epistles of St. Paul, which was written for the Jubilee Year of St. Paul (June 29, 2008 to June 29, 2009). I picked up my copy back in October, when Fr. Pacwa spoke at the Spiritual Center of Maria Stein.

The first session dealt with the sacrament of Baptism, and the first discussion question really had me thinking: How did St. Paul’s experience of Christ on the road to Damascus, his blindness, and his baptism help him to understand the relationship that exists between Jesus Christ and his Church?

Recall that, before his conversion, Paul was persecuting the Christians. He was on his way to Damascus to arrest the Christians and bring them back to Jerusalem when Jesus appeared to him, saying, “Why do you persecute me?” Christ identified himself with his followers. For the next three days, Paul was blind, until a Christian named Ananias came to him and layed hands upon him. God could have worked on Paul directly, but He chose to work through a believer. That seems to be the primary lesson. The baptized are intimately united to Christ and become the means through which God typically chooses to work in the world.

To supplement the Bible study, I decided to see what EWTN had in their audio archives. I found a series that was recorded by Fr. Pacwa about ten years ago: In the Footsteps of St. Paul. There are thirteen episodes, each about 27 minutes long, and each about 3 MB in size. The audio quality isn’t the greatest, but it is certainly passable.

The EWTN series does not focus exclusively on the sacraments, as the study our group is using does, but I found interesting Fr. Pacwa’s highlighting of 1 Corinthians 1:17, “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.” As important as Paul believes baptism to be, he leaves the work of baptism to others.

The phrase for what Paul is engaged in is kerygma, a Greek word meaning the initial proclamation of the Gospel or missionary preaching. Paul’s job was to attract people to the faith and bring them to a point where they would be ready for a more formal explanation. Kerygma precedes catechesis, and catechesis typically precedes Baptism. I say typically because there are obvious exceptions, such as the thousands who were baptized by the Apostles after Pentecost. However, those were Jews, rather than Gentiles. The Gentile converts would have needed more instruction than a believing Jew. We might see an analogy today in that not all Catholic converts are required to go through the entire Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults and wait until Easter Vigil to be received into the Church, especially where the convert has already studied his way to the point where he is making great sacrifices to enter the Church and is likely to know the doctrines of the Church better than his RCIA instructor.

I’m looking forward to the next five sessions of this six-session Bible study, as we explore the sacraments through the words of St. Paul.

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