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Triumphant Failure

November 20, 2008

Triumphant Failure

This is the third article on St. Paul by Cardinal Egan in connection with the "Pauline Year" announced by Pope Benedict XVI last June.

His name was Paul. He was a Jew; and in 51 A.D., a scant 15 years after his conversion on the road to Damascus, he was preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ in a city called Beroea in the North of what is today Greece. The Jewish community had invited him to speak in the synagogue; and numerous converts—both Jewish and pagan—were being made among the poor and among the powerful and well-to-do as well.

The success in Beroea, however, came to a sudden halt when enemies of the new faith arrived from Corinth and threatened to throw the city into turmoil. Thus it was decided that Paul should travel South to Athens, where, by his own admission, he found himself terribly lonely and terribly uncomfortable with all that he saw around him.

The Athens of 51 A.D. was not the Athens of the "Golden Age of Pericles," where giants of philosophy, art, architecture, poetry and commerce had lived, worked and flourished. It had been the native city of Socrates and Plato, and it had become the home of Aristotle and many of the greatest minds of Western civilization. In 146 B.C., however, the proud Greek nation was conquered by Rome; its name was changed to the "Province of Achaia"; and in due course, its capital, Athens, was turned into an outdoor museum where tourists might admire the masterpieces of Phidias and Praxiteles and where a kind of graduate school was operating for the sons of wealthy Romans, among them, Cicero, Mark Anthony, Pompey, Julius Caesar and even Caesar Augustus.

With some difficulty, Paul found lodging in the Jewish quarter of the city and immediately set himself to preaching the Gospel in the central square that was known as the "Agora." It was essentially a marketplace where people gathered to buy and sell and especially to gossip. Paul assembled a small crowd to hear him but unfortunately left his audience quite unimpressed with what he had to say. Indeed, some shouted him down and finally most simply walked away, proclaiming that he was nothing but a "babbler."

All the same, a small group from the audience in the Agora invited him to speak within a few days on a hill West of the Acropolis that was known as the "Areopagus." Paul was delighted with the proposal and rushed back to his lodging to prepare himself as best he might.

It is not altogether clear what the Areopagus was when Paul spoke there. It had once been the site of the senate of the nation and later a tribunal of considerable importance. However, in 51 A.D. it was little more than a meeting place where the wealthy and better educated came together to pretend that they were in charge of a nation that Rome ruled quite effectively on its own.

The address that the "Apostle of the Gentiles" delivered on the Areopagus Hill was brilliant, and its opening paragraph was clearly a gem of the rhetorician's art.

"Men of Athens," he declared, "I see that in every respect you are an extremely religious people. For as I was going about and observing the objects of your worship, I found an altar with this inscription: 'To the Unknown God.' What therefore you worship in ignorance, that I now proclaim to you."

What followed was laced with citations from and references to authors well-known to the Athenians, for example, the philosopher from Crete, Epimenides, and the poet from Cilicia, Aratus; and the points that were made were these:

1. There is but one God, the "Lord of heaven and earth," Who "made the world and all that is in it."

2. This one God is not to be found in "temples built by human hands."

3. For he needs nothing from the handiwork of men, since "it is He Who gives to all men life and breath and all things," words borrowed, it seems, from Plato's "Euthyphro."

4. And from one man this one God has created all men, assigning them "their times and the boundaries of their lands."

5. They are therefore to seek to know this one God, "grope after Him," and find Him. For, in the words of Epimenides, "He is not far away from anyone of us" and, in the words of Aratus, "We are also His children."

6. Hence, all men are to cease imagining that God is made of "gold or silver or stone" or that He is a "graven image" fashioned by an artist or an artisan.

7. Rather, all are to repent of their ignorance and put their faith and their hope in that "Man Whom God has appointed and Whom He has guaranteed by raising Him from the dead."

Paul, of course, was referring to Jesus Christ, about Whom he fully intended to speak at greater length in future addresses.

There were, however, no "future addresses." For the crowd laughed Paul to scorn and with a wave of the hand callously sent him on his way, observing that they may sometime be interested in hearing him again, but that he should not count on it. "Don't call us," they might have said in the jargon of our day. "We'll call you."

Almost 50 years ago, a priest, who was a fellow professor with me in Rome, suggested that we take a trip together to Athens early in the Spring. Thus, we drove my second-hand Fiat 1100 to Brindisi on the Southeastern coast of Italy, put the car and ourselves on a ferry, and sailed to the port of Athens, Piraeus. In Athens we checked into a hotel where we each paid $35 a night and hurried off to the Acropolis so that we might climb a long flight of stone stairs to the adjoining Areopagus Hill.

The place was dusty and overgrown with weeds. At the top of the stairs to the right, there stood a wall of limestone rock; and attached to it was a huge bronze plaque on which was inscribed in Greek the entire address of Paul. My priest friend fell to his knees, bowed his head, and with eyes cast down recited from memory every word of the address in the language in which Paul had delivered it.

In the seminary I had learned all of the major points of theology contained in Paul's address and learned too how important it is for speakers to accommodate themselves to what is familiar to those whom they are addressing, as Paul had masterfully done. Still, all of this suddenly receded into the background. For another lesson took hold of me completely; and it was simply this: When we truly strive to do what is good and holy in any area of life, there can be no failure. There is only success, maybe not immediately, but at least ultimately. For the God Who loves us will always make it so.

Paul had "failed." Nonetheless, as I pondered the millions upon millions who for 20 centuries have been instructed, inspired, and blessed by his extraordinary address and as I watched my priest friend reciting each word of it by heart and from the heart, I realized that Paul' s "failure" was, in fact, an incredible success. Moreover, I further realized that, even if things had not worked out as they did, Paul's earnest attempt to do what was good and holy could never have been anything but a success in the eyes of God, Who always is and always will be in the final arbiter of what is truly and authentically successful.

And all of this I came to understand--and embrace--one day on a hill in Greece, as I heard a Saint speaking to the "Men of Athens" and to me as well.

Edward Cardinal Egan
Archbishop of New York

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