Little Lives of the Great Saints – Saint Paul, The Apostle of the Gentiles

detail of a stained glass window of Saint Paul the Apostle, date and artist unknown; parish church of Saint-Pierre et Saint-Paul, Pfaffenhoffen, Bas-Rhin, France; photographed on 20 March 2016 by GFreihalter; swiped from Wikimedia CommonsArticle

Died A.D. 65.

Saint Paul is a towering figure in the early history of the Catholic Church. Every thing about him was remarkable – his miraculous conversion, his boundless zeal, his shining virtues, his manly character, and his heroic death. Though not one of the twelve, he is justly entitled to hold a place among the great Apostles.

He was born of a Jewish family at Tarsus, in Asia Minor, but was educated in the schools of Jerusalem. Mention is first made of him in the New Testament at the stoning of Saint Stephen. The murderers of the proto-martyr, we are told, “laid down their garments at the feet of a young man whose name was Saul.” This was the future Apostle of the Gentiles. He was then, however, such an active, bitter persecutor of the Christians that he ardently wished to see them destroyed with something like the force and rapidity of lightning.

“And Saul,” says the Holy Book, “as yet breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high-priest, and asked of him letters to Damascus, to the synagogues, that if he found any men or women of this way he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.

“And as he went on his journey, it came to pass that he drew nigh to Damascus; and suddenly a light from heaven shone round about him And falling on the ground, he heard a voice saying to him: ‘Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?’

“Who said: ‘Who art Thou, Lord?’ And He: ‘I am Jesus whom thou persecutest. It is hard for thee to kick against the goad.’

“And trembling and astonished, he said: ‘Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?’

“And the Lord said to him: ‘Arise and go into the city, and there it shall be told thee what thou must do.’ Now the men who went in company with him stood amazed, hearing indeed a voice but seeing no man.

“And Saul arose from the ground, and when his eyes were opened, he saw nothing. But they leading him by the hands, brought him to Damascus. And he was there three days without sight, and he did neither eat nor drink.”

The Lord appeared to a good Catholic of Damascus, the disciple Ananias, and told him to go and see the converted persecutor, naming the street and house where he would find Saul. Ananias expressed some fear on hearing the terrible name of Saul mentioned; but he was soon reassured.

“Go thy way,” said Christ, “for this man is to Me a vessel of election, to carry my Name before the Gentiles and kings, and the children of Israel. Lor I will show him how great things he must suffer for my Name’s sake.”

“Ananias went to the house,” continues the sacred narrative,” and laying his hands upon him, said: ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus hath sent me – He that appeared to thee in the way as thou earnest – that thou mayest receive thy sight and be filled with the Holy Ghost.’ And immediately there fell from his eyes scales as it were, and he received his sight; and rising up he was baptized.”

Such was the extraordinary conversion of Saint Paul, an event which the Church celebrates on the 25th of January.

He immediately preached Christ and His holy faith to the synagogues. “And all that heard him,” writes Saint Luke, “were astonished, and said: ‘Is not this he who persecuted in Jerusalem those that call upon this Name: and came here for that intent, that he might carry them bound to the chief priests?'”

But Paul daily increased in grace and power, and confounded the Jews who dwelt at Damascus. Those people finally became so enraged that they determined to kill him, and even placed watches, day and night, at the gates of the city, in order to render his escape impossible. “But the disciples,” says Saint Luke, “taking him in the night, conveyed him away by the wall, letting him down in a basket.”

Saint Paul now went to Jerusalem, where he stayed fifteen days, during which time he enjoyed the conversation of the Prince of the Apostles. He was very active in disputing with the Jews; but such was their hateful obstinacy that they shut their ears to the glowing truths of salvation.

His words fell like flashes of light. The wonderful force and clearness of his discourses, which the Jews tried in vain to answer, aroused their wrath and malignity, and again his life was in danger. Some Catholic friends, however, took him to Caesarea, and thence sent him by sea to Tarsus, his native city. There he remained for over three years, and preached the faith with great success in Cicilia and Syria.

Saint Paul next proceeded to Antioch to assist Saint Barnabas in the work of evangelizing that historic city. After a year thus spent, he went to Jerusalem, bearing alms to the faithful of that distressed and famine-stricken portion of the Church. He returned to Antioch, however, on fulfilling his mission.

It seems to have been about this time that Saint Paul was favored with that sublime ecstasy in which he was carried up to the third heaven, and saw and heard divine mysteries which man could not utter, and to which, many years after, he referred in one of his public discourses.

By the command of the Holy Ghost, Saint Paul and Saint Barnabas were especially set apart for the office of preaching, and were now sent forth with full authority to spread the Faith over all nations.

Though the other Apostles lived by the Gospel, Saint Paul chose not to make use of that liberty. He earned his bread by making tents. But if he was not ignorant of what it was to have plenty, he also possessed that lofty Christian spirit which knew how to live in want and hunger.

To follow the steps of this illustrious preacher and founder of churches in his many missions and long and countless journeys would, indeed, be impossible in our short sketch. We can merely glance at his glorious labors.

Taking with him Saint Barnabas, in the year 44, he left Antioch, and after a short sea voyage arrived in the famous island of Cyprus, which he traversed, spreading the truths of the Gospel on all sides, and making many converts. Among these was Sergius Paulus, the Roman proconsul.

Paulus was a wise and prudent man; but he had been led astray by the magical arts of a Jewish impostor named Barjesus, the Sorcerer. The proconsul desired to hear Saint Paul speak. Barjesus opposed the preaching of the Apostle. But the Saint smote the wretch with blindness; and the sight of the miracle so impressed Sergius Paulus that he was converted and received the Sacrament of Baptism

The next scene of the Saint’s zeal was Asia Minor. He cured a man who was lame from his birth, in the city of Lystra; and, on witnessing this wonder, the dull heathen multitude hurried to offer him and Barnabas sacrifices, as if they were divine beings. The Apostles, of course expressed their abhorrence at such a thoughtless action. But the same giddy mob soon after stoned Saint Paul, and he was dragged out of the city as dead. Friendly hands however, cared for him, and he soon recovered. The two returned to Antioch after an absence of three years; and during the four years that followed, Saint Paul preached the faith over Syria and Judea.

In the year 51 we find him again at Antioch whence he went to Jerusalem, and assisted at the first General Council held by the Apostles in that city. The twelve were present. It was on this solemn occasion that Saint Paul recounted to the assembled Fathers the progress which the Gospel had made by his preaching among the Gentiles.

He soon gave another mission in Asia Minor, sowing the good seed from city to city as he passed along. One night, while at Troas, he had a vision in which a Macedonian seemed to stand before him earnestly beseeching the holy Apostle to visit his country and enlighten its people in the truths of the Catholic religion. Saint Paul regarded this as a pressing invitation, and, accompanied by Saint Luke and others, he boarded a vessel and passed into Europe.

The first place blessed with his labors was Philippi, a famous city and Roman colony. Here he confirmed his teachings with miracles, and founded a church eminent in the early annals of Christianity. He next visited Thessalonica, the capital of Macedon. The divine seed of the Gospel fell on good ground, and many Thessalonians became model Catholics, especially dear to their great spiritual father.

We glance again at the ever-active Apostle of the Gentiles, and we see him traversing the streets of a city equally renowned in history and literature. Athens had not so far degenerated in the arts and sciences but that it still counted among its people many wise and learned men. The Athenians, however, were very superstitious; and so careful that no deity should want due honor from them that they had an altar inscribed, “To the unknown God.”

Saint Paul refers to this in the discourse which he made in the great court of the Areopagus. “Men of Athens,” he said, “I perceive that in all things you are too superstitious. For passing by and seeing your idols, I found an altar also on which was written: To the unknown God. What, therefore, you worship without knowing it, that I preach to you.”

Among those whom the Saint converted was Dionysius, one of the judges of the Areopagus. “Thus was formed,” says the venerable Father Thebaud, S. J., “the first Christian congregation at Athens.”

Saint Paul now proceeded to Corinth, where he lodged in the house of a tent-maker named Aquilia. It was from this city that he wrote his two “Epistles” to the Thessalonians in the year 52. These are his first writings.

After a stay of eighteen months at Corinth, the Apostle set out for Jerusalem, where he kept the festival of the Passover. He then passed on to Antioch and traveled again through Asia Minor, everywhere encouraging the faithful and watering his young plants.

He remained nearly three years in the city of Ephesus, preaching both in public places and private houses, and performing great miracles, even by handkerchiefs and other articles that had touched his person. For some months he addressed himself chiefly to the Jews; but it was in vain that he thundered in their obstinate ears. Seven sons of Sceva, a Jewish high- priest, foolishly attempted to cast out devils in the holy name of “Jesus, whom Paul preaches,” though they were not Christians. “But the wicked spirit,” writes Saint Luke, “answering said to them: ‘Jesus I know, and Saint Paul I know; but who are you?’ And the man in whom the wicked spirit was, leaping upon them and mastering them, prevailed against them so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded.”

After another journey to Macedon, we find Saint Paul again in Jerusalem in the year 58. This was the fifth visit which he paid to the church of that city. He was in Jerusalem, however, but seven days when certain Jews who had opposed him in some distant mission came into the city to celebrate a religious festival: and seeing the great Christian preacher in the Temple, they stirred up the anger of the people, and even laid violent hands upon him, crying out:

“Men of Israel, help! This is the man that teaches all men everywhere against the people, and the Law, and this place; and, moreover, he has brought in Gentiles into the Temple, and has violated this holy place.”

This wild, lying harangue had the desired effect. The wrath of the Jews was aroused. In a moment the whole city was in an uproar. The fanatical people ran together, and taking Saint Paul, they threw him out of the Temple, and were about to kill him when Claudius Lysias, the commander of the Roman garrison, interfered.

The Apostle now obtained permission to speak, and, addressing the angry multitudes, he told the story of his miraculous conversion to the Faith. But no sooner had he finished than the Jews yelled out: “Away with such a one from the earth! It is not fit that he should live.”

Claudius Lysias was no doubt irritated, and, wishing to learn from him the true state of the matter, he ordered that Saint Paul should be tied to a pillar and scourged. But while the executioner was binding his hands, the Apostle asked the centurion that stood by: “Is it lawful for you to scourge a man that is a Roman and uncondemned?” On hearing that Saint Paul was a Roman citizen, the commander was afraid and had him at once unloosed. He was then lead to the castle of Antonia.

As the Roman commander was anxious to know the real nature of the charges brought against the Apostle of the Gentiles, he next day called the Jewish priests together in council; “and bringing forth Saint Paul he set him before them.”

“I have conversed,” said the Saint, looking at his bitter enemies, “with all good conscience before God, until this present hour.” On hearing this, the high-priest, Ananias, with brutal malignity, commanded those that stood near him to strike the illustrious speaker on the mouth.

“God,” answered Paul, with the spirit and noble boldness of a man defending the sacred cause of truth – “God shall strike thee, thou whited wall. For sittest thou to judge me according to the law, and contrary to the law commandest me to be struck?”

This meeting ended in nothing but disputes among the Jewish priests themselves: and fearing that the Apostle would be torn in pieces during the war of words, the Roman commander prudently sent a party of soldiers, who led him from the council-hall into the castle. Jesus Christ to show that He is nearest His servants when they are in affliction, graciously appeared to Saint Paul the second night after this adventure, and encouraged him with the assurance that the Apostle would have the honor of giving testimony to Him in imperial Rome itself.

Hearing that certain Jews had banded together for the purpose of murdering Saint Paul, the Roman commander of Jerusalem sent him under a strong guard to Felix, the governor of the province, who resided at Caesarea. His wrathful accusers followed the Apostle: but he defended himself before Felix. This wicked governor, however, kept him for two years in prison.

Festus soon succeeded Felix in the government of Judea; and again Saint Paul was impeached by his fiendish enemies. The Apostle made a manly and Christian defence. “Neither against the law of the Jews,” he answered his accusers, “nor against the Temple, nor against Caesar, have I offended in anything.”

But Festus, wishing to favor the Jews, said: “Will you go up to Jerusalem, and there be judged of these things before me?”

“I stand at Caesar’s judgment-seat,” replied Saint Paul, “where I ought to be judged. To the Jews I have done no injury, as you very well know. If I have injured them or have done anything worthy of death, I refuse not to die. But if there be none of these things whereof they accuse me, no man may deliver me to them. I appeal to Caesar.”

This was final. His appeal was recognized by the governor, as it was a right granted by the laws to Roman citizens. Some days after King Agrippa came to visit Festus, who told him of Saint Paul. The King was very desirous to see such a famous personage. The hall of audience accordingly was prepared, and the Apostle brought forth. He preached before the king, and at the end of his touching discourse said: “Believest thou the prophets, O King Agrippa? I know that thou believest.”

“In a little,” answered Agrippa, “thou persuadest me to become a Christian.” He was almost converted. How many, unhappily, in our own day are like Agrippa!

As Saint Paul had appealed to Caesar, Festus sent him on board of a vessel bound for Italy. He was accompanied by his dear companion, Saint Luke, and several others. This memorable voyage was marked by storms and adventures. The ship was wrecked on the island of Malta, but all, numbering two hundred and seventy-six persons, reached the shore in safety. “See what it is,” exclaims Saint John Chrysostom, “to live in the company of a saint – though a prisoner – and to have him for a protector in all dangers!”

The inhabitants of Malta treated the shipwrecked strangers with courteous hospitality, and kindled large fires to enable them to dry their water-soaked clothes, and to warm their chilled bodies. While Saint Paul, however, was actively engaged in throwing a bundle of sticks on the fire, a viper, maddened by the heat, slipped out of the wood, and fastened its deadly fangs in his hand.

“Undoubtedly this man is a murderer,” whispered the people of Malta to one another, “who, though he has escaped the sea, yet vengeance does not suffer him to live.”

But the Saint shook the reptile into the flames, and received no injury. They imagined, however, that after the poison would begin to operate, he would swell up and suddenly die. “But expecting long,” says Saint Luke, “and seeing that no harm came to him, they said that he was a god.”

The Apostles arrived at Rome in the year 61. No accusers appeared against him, and after two years he was set at liberty. He then left the imperial city, returning to the East. There he undertook new voyages, again preached the faith over many nations, and suffered chains, prisons, conflicts, torments, and continual dangers of death.

About the year 64 he returned to Rome. He soon fell under the anger of the barbarous Nero, and was cast into the Mamertine prison. Here, in company with the Prince of the Apostles, he was closely confined from October to the following June; and when both passed out of its gloomy walls together, they were on the road to execution and to everlasting glory and happiness. Saint Paul was beheaded on the spot where stands the beautiful church now dedicated to him, on the 29th of June in the year 65.

“In this church,” writes Dr. Neligan, “are three springs of water which miraculously gushed forth from the earth where the head of the Apostle touched it. In an angle is the column to which the Apostle was bound when he was beheaded. Near it is the altar of the Saint, ornamented with columns of black porphyry. As the Apostle was led to the place where he was martyred he converted three of the soldiers of the escort, who were martyred three days afterwards. As his head was cut off, instead of his blood flowing from the body a stream of milk issued from it, which covered the ground. The head made three bounds, and three fountains sprang up where it touched the earth, each still preserving a different temperature.”

MLA Citation

  • John O’Kane Murray, M.A., M.D. “Saint Paul, The Apostle of the Gentiles”. Little Lives of the Great Saints, 1879. CatholicSaints.Info. 23 September 2018. Web. 17 November 2018. <>