The success and effectiveness of the missionary activity of the early Church were the results of the unique contribution of Paul. A man especially chosen by God to proclaim the Gospel to the nations.
The apostle Paul was born in the city of Tarsus (present-day Turkey) in about the year 10 AD. His Jewish name was Saul and he came from a family of strict observance of the Law (see Phil 3: 5-6). Even though he was Jewish, he was also a Roman citizen, a status that conferred on him many legal privileges that Paul used to his advantage in his ministry.
As a young man, he was trained in the Hebrew Scriptures and traditions at the school of Gamaliel in Jerusalem. This excellent training and his exposure to the Greco-Roman culture shaped him and made him the ideal missionary of the Gospel, the one who would translate the thought of early Jewish Christianity for a “Gentile” world.
Because of his zeal for the purity of the Jewish traditions, Saul became an active persecutor of the Church (Gal 1: 13-14) until the day when on his way to the city of Damascus to continue his persecution of Christians, he met the Risen Lord (Acts 9: 1-19).
His encounter with Christ happened, most probably, around the year 33 AD, when Saul was about 24 years old. This was the turning point of his life. Saul, the zealous persecutor of the first Christians, changed his name to Paul (which means ‘small’) and became an even more zealous missionary of the Gospel throughout the Roman Empire. From that moment onward, Paul realized that he had been chosen in a special way to be an apostle and that his specific mission was the calling to conversion and faith of the Gentiles.
Paul soon distinguished himself in the missionary ministry both because of his theological reflection on the universality of the gift of salvation and his pastoral approach to mission. In his letters, Paul realized that the plan of salvation of God was not directed only towards the people of Israel, but that God wanted all the peoples of the world to experience salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.
It was not easy for the early Church to grasp the pastoral significance of this plan, but Paul played an important role in the opening of the early Church to welcome peoples of every race, language and way of life into the community of believers. He spent the whole of himself in proclaiming the Gospel to many parts of the Roman Empire.
In the Acts of the Apostles, we get a fairly comprehensive picture of Paul’s missionary activity. In a special way, his three missionary journeys, accomplished between the years 45 and 58 AD, are the concrete expression of his desire to reach out to all peoples and to lead them to faith in Christ.
As he moved from one city to another, Paul took time also to write various letters to the newly formed Churches that were in need of his encouragement, support and advice. The creative and courageous missionary work of Paul was one of the main factors contributing to the spreading of the Christian faith in the Roman Empire.
The special call that he received to be the apostle of the Gentiles gave him the strength to endure all kinds of difficulties and problems: in some passages of his letters, he mentions the many hardships he had to endure in order to carry out his mission (2 Cor 11: 23-33).
At crucial moments of this mission, the Lord himself appears to him in order to assure him of his presence and support. Guided by the Spirit, Paul carries out his mission in an attitude of service to the Lord who had called him to the ministry.
The missionary ministry of Paul is also characterized by the fact that he associated other people with his evangelizing mission. In his journeys, he was always accompanied by other missionaries and seldom embarked on a demanding apostolate by himself.
At the age of about 57, in Rome, he suffered martyrdom by being beheaded. Paul stands out in the New Testament as a great apostle and missionary, an outstanding example of a total and unconditional response to God’s calling. (S.F.)