Saint Paul's Apostolic Zeal: Cardinal Newman's Perspective
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Saint Paul's Apostolic Zeal: Cardinal Newman's Perspective

Saint Paul's Apostolic Zeal: Cardinal Newman's Perspective

Father Hermann Geissler FSO FAITH MAGAZINE November - December 2014

Pope Francis is calling for the Church “to embark upon a new chapter of evangelisation”. Father Hermann Geissler of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith believes that Cardinal John Henry Newman’s four sermons on the apostolic zeal of St Paul can help all Catholics rediscover their missionary vocation.

Nobody can truly be an apostle unless he has first been seized by the grace of God and thereby undergone a profound conversion. In an Anglican sermon, “St Paul’s Conversion viewed in reference to his Office”, Newman argues Saul’s conversion constitutes the beginning of St Paul’s ministry.

Saul was perhaps the leading persecutor of the Christians but at the gates of Damascus he was “struck down by a miracle, and converted to the faith he persecuted”.1 Above all, Paul’s conversion is a demonstration of God’s triumphant power: “To show His power, He put forth His hand into the very midst of the persecutors of His Son, and seized upon the most strenuous among them.”2 It is the grace of conversion that makes Paul the model Apostle whose appeal is undimmed by the passage of time. Paul experiences the extremes of sin and God’s mercy, which so captivates him as to make him the spiritual father of the Gentiles: “In the history of his sin and its most gracious forgiveness, he exemplifies far more than his brother Apostles his own Gospel; that we are all guilty before God, and can be saved only by His free bounty.”3 All apostles are called, like Paul, to testify to God’s mercy, first with their lives but also with their words.

Paul’s past life made him a particularly apt instrument for God’s designs for the gentile nations. While the spreading of the Gospel is primarily the work of God’s grace, not of men, God nevertheless almost always uses human co-operation to realise his plans. Paul is, one might say, predestined for his mission to the pagans – not only because of his learning and his spiritual gifts, but because of the path of faith he followed and his conversion experience. This path had taught him not to be discouraged by the gravity of one’s sins, to find the sparks of faith that are hidden in the hearts of men, to identify with those experiencing temptations, to carry humbly God’s revelation and to use wisely his own experiences in bringing others to conversion. Thus Paul becomes a “comforter, help and guide of his brethren” because he “know[s] in some good measure the hearts of men”.4

It is consoling to realise that God can use all our life experiences, both good and bad, to spread the Gospel. Newman does not imply that to become an apostle or a saint one must first sin. Paul was not a better Christian on account of his sins, but they “rendered him more fitted for a particular purpose in God’s providence, more fitted, when converted, to reclaim others”.5

Knowledge of Human Nature

Profound union with Christ, the fruit of an authentic conversion, leads St Paul to say: “It is no longer I, but Christ living in me. The life that I am now living, subject to the limitation of human nature, I am living in faith, faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20).

A select few saints become so filled with God’s life that they seem to lose themselves entirely and appear to no longer possess a human nature. In his sermon “St Paul’s Characteristic Gift”, Newman shows St Paul is numbered among another group “in whom the supernatural combines with nature, instead of superseding it, invigorating it, elevating it, ennobling it; and who are not the less men, because they are saints”.6 Newman argues that the characteristic that sets the Apostle apart is that the fullness of the divine gifts do not destroy his humanity but rather elevate and perfect it.

For this reason, Paul understands man with all his strengths, weaknesses and temptations: “Human nature, the common nature of the whole race of Adam, spoke in him, acted in him, with an energetical presence, with a sort of bodily fullness, always under the sovereign command of divine grace, but losing none of its real freedom and power because of its subordination. And the consequence is that, having the nature of man so strong within him, he is able to enter into human nature, and to sympathise with it, with a gift peculiarly his own.”7

Even if before his conversion the Apostle conducted his life with rigour, now, finding himself among the despised pagans, he speaks as if he were one of them, experiencing solidarity with those like himself, with all of Adam’s descendents. He is conscious of his wounded nature with all its emotions and inclinations towards sin that are typical of man living in a fallen world. In this sense, Paul, following in the Lord’s footsteps, carries the sins of all men and feels himself in full communion with them. He knows human nature intimately because he sees “in that nature of his which grace had sanctified, what it was in its tendencies and results when deprived of grace”.8 A faithful missionary is always on the way of conversion and renewal in Christ. Such a missionary is able to enter into the differing circumstances of people’s lives, their emotions, to understand their struggles and to share their joys and worries.

Newman explains Paul’s modus operandi: “He was a true lover of souls. He loved poor human nature with a passionate love, and the literature of the Greeks was only its expression; and he hung over it tenderly and mournfully, wishing for its regeneration and salvation.”9 God’s salvific plan embraces the Greeks and all humanity. Though “the heathen are in darkness, and in sin, and under the power of the Evil One, he will not allow that they are beyond the eye of Divine Mercy.”10 The Apostle never rejects anything authentically human. With his generous heart he is convinced God wants everyone to be saved.

Love for His People

Newman also speaks of Paul’s love for Israel. If the Apostle felt bound to the whole of the human race, “what did he feel for his own nation! Oh what a special mixture, bitter and sweet, of generous pride (if I may so speak), but of piercing, overwhelming anguish, did the thought of the race of Israel inflict upon him!”11

“To fulfil his designs God does not need heroes but hearts full of love”

Even after his conversion, Paul will not gainsay God’s choice: Israel is God’s Chosen People. This is particularly evident in the Letter to the Romans, in which he writes: “They are Israelites; it was they who were adopted as children … and out of them … came Christ who is above all, God, blessed forever. Amen” (Rom 9:4-5). With what gratitude does Paul look to Israel: “the highest of nations and the lowest, his own dear people, whose glories were before his imagination and in his affection from his childhood”.12

Yet this pride is accompanied by sadness (cf Rom 9:2). It is precisely this people – a people that has waited centuries for the promised Messiah, that has prepared the way and announced his coming – that has rejected him. Paul could well understand Israel’s obstinacy because he himself had shared the same thoughts and feelings about Jesus. Moved by compassion, Paul, like Moses before him, interceded for his people. He wished “that I myself might be accursed and cut off from Christ” (Rom 9:3).

Despite everything, Paul never loses hope. Though most Jews have rejected Christ, Paul is consoled to think that their obstinacy has become a blessing for the pagans, and he hopes in the prophecy of their future recovery. Similarly, every true apostle experiences the same feelings for his own family and people: gratitude for the good received, sincere readiness to intercede for those who don’t know or have forgotten the Lord, and an unbreakable confidence in God’s mercy.

Sympathy for the Faithful

In his sermon “St Paul’s Gift of Sympathy”,13 Newman describes the Apostle’s love for Christians and stresses that Paul is so full of love for others that “in the tenor of his daily thoughts, he almost loses sight of his gifts and privileges, his station and dignity, except he is called by duty to remember them, and he is to himself merely a frail man speaking to frail men, and he is tender towards the weak from a sense of his own weakness”.14 Paul knows that not only do others need God’s mercy, but above all others he himself has need of it. Admitting his own weakness, he says: “But we hold this treasure in pots of earthenware, so that the immensity of the power is God’s and not our own” (2 Cor 4:7). Precisely this awareness links him all the more intimately with his spiritual children, and he speaks of his weakness constantly (cf 2 Cor 7:5; 1 Cor 2:3ff; 2 Cor 12:7; 2 Cor 1:8).

Why does Paul speak so openly of his weakness and internal struggles? Newman explains: “A man who thus divests himself of his own greatness, and puts himself on the level of his brethren, and throws himself upon the sympathies of human nature, and speaks with such simplicity and such spontaneous outpouring of heart, is forthwith in a condition both to conceive great love of them, and to inspire great love towards himself.”15 Being an apostle should not be confused with worldly heroism or a perfectionist attitude. To fulfil his designs God does not need heroes but hearts full of love: hearts seized by the fire of his love and, thus purified and transformed, made capable of drawing others into intimacy and leading them lovingly to Christ.

Time and again, Newman stresses that the grace in Paul’s heart does not repress his human nature; rather this nature is sanctified and ennobled. Though he loses what is sinful, Paul retains everything authentically human. He lives in communion with his beloved Lord but at the same time is sensitive to the feelings of those around him. Newman sees this as the essence of Paul’s humanity. “Wonderful to say, he who had rest and peace in the love of Christ, was not satisfied without the love of man; he whose supreme reward was the approbation of God, looked out for the approval of his brethren. He who depended solely on the Creator, yet made himself dependent on the creature. Though he had that which was Infinite, he would not dispense with the finite.

“He loved his brethren, not only ‘for Jesus’ sake’, to use his own expression, but for their own sake also. He lived in them; he felt with them and for them; he was anxious about them; he gave them help, and in turn he looked for comfort from them. His mind was like some instrument of music, harp or viol, the strings of which vibrate, though untouched, by the notes which other instruments give forth, and he was ever, according to his own precept, ‘rejoicing with them that rejoice, and weeping with them that wept’; and thus he was the least magisterial of all teachers, and the gentlest and most amiable of all rulers.”16

The link between Paul and his companions is particularly strong. He rejoices “that Stephanus and Fortunatus and Achaicus have arrived” (1 Cor 16:17) and writes: “I had no relief from anxiety, not finding my brother Titus” (2 Cor 2:13). He says that Epaphroditus has been “seriously ill and nearly died; but God took pity on him, and not only on him but also on me, to spare me one grief on top of another” (Phil 2:27). He laments: “All the others in Asia have deserted me” (2 Tim 1:15).

Newman is profoundly touched by the compassion and pain expressed in these words. “He, in a word, who is the special preacher of Divine Grace, is also the special friend and intimate of human nature. He who reveals to us the mystery of God’s Sovereign Decrees, manifests at the same time the tenderest interest in the souls of individuals.”17 The true Christian is big-hearted, has a universal point of view and prays for everyone. At the same time, however, he turns with love to those around him because he recognises the dignity of the individual and the unique vocation of each person. His concern is the eternal salvation of every single person.

This love towards all is at the root of the Apostle’s indignation when he discovers within the Christian community feelings of envy, jealousy and rivalry. He considers these attitudes shameful and unworthy, “not only as injurious to his Saviour, but as an offence against that common nature which gives us, one and all, a right to the title of men”. To the community in Corinth whose loyalties are divided between Apollo, Peter and himself, he asks “has Christ been split up?” (1 Cor 1:13). Among those reborn through grace “there is no room for distinction between Greek and Jew. … There is only Christ: he is everything and he is in everything” (Col 3:11). The believer possessed of an apostolic heart therein nurtures the same aspirations as Jesus and repeats with him his prayer that all may be one.

The Good Fight and Trust in God

Newman’s notes for a sermon titled “On St Paul the Type of the Church as Missionarising”18 have survived. This homily stresses that Paul was above all a sower of the Word. He “sowed in all places”, and he was a champion, not merely as David against Goliath but, rather, “against the world”.19 This activity, begun by Paul, will be continued in the Church throughout the world – not just in the sowing of the Word, but also in the struggle of, and fight for, the faith.

Paul is the model par excellence. He struggled in faith against the Jewish Zealots. It is enough to think of the 40 men who “held a secret meeting at which they made a vow not to eat or drink until they had killed Paul” (Acts 23:12). He had to fight against the pagan fanatics as well. This can be seen in the revolt of the silversmiths in Ephesus (cf Acts 19:21). He had to confront the indifferent, for example Festus the governor who declared him mad (cf Acts 26:24), or with the Greek philosophers who ridiculed him, but of whom some wished to hear him speak again of the resurrection (cf Acts 17:32).

Newman applied these examples to his own day: the Church in England in the 19th century had to fight with faith against evangelical zealots and face the indifference of politicians. The former called Rome the antichrist, the latter were only interested in political expediency. Most certainly this is also true of our own day: the hostility and indifference of today’s culture make it difficult for many to receive the Good News and to bear witness to it.

“The believer of apostolic heart repeats with Jesus his prayer that all may be one”

But Newman is no pessimist. On the contrary, he is full of faith, because in faith he sees the greatness and the unity of the Church of ages: “This awful unity of the Church is our consolation.” This shows that “the Church comes from God” and “nothing comes strange and new to her”.20 This leads him to conclude that the vocation of every generation of Christians is “to sow and to fight, and to leave the rest to God”.21

In his Pauline sermons, it is striking that Newman never describes a missionary strategy, nor does he emphasise the Apostle’s extraordinary feats. Newman delineates the heart, the interior profile, of a true apostle and prizes the interior movements of the heart over external activity. These become a kind of spring welling over into Paul’s thoughts, words and deeds, and they are as relevant today as ever.

Fr Hermann Geissler FSO is a priest of the spiritual family The Work. He is also the director of the International Centre of Newman Friends in Rome. 



1John Henry Newman, St Paul’s Conversion viewed in reference to his Office, in: id., Parochial and Plain Sermons, vol. II, Christian Classics INC. Westminster, Md. 1966, p. 96.

2Ibid., p. 97.

3Ibid., p. 98.

4Ibid., p. 101.

5Ibid., p. 102.

Newman, St Paul’s Characteristic Gift, p. 96-97.

7Ibid, p. 96.

8Ibid. p. 97.

9Ibid, p. 98.



12Ibid. p. 99-100.

13John Henry Newman, St Paul’s Gift of Symptathy. In: id., Sermons Preached on Various Occasions, Longmans, Green & Co., New York 1908, pp.?.


15Ibid., p. 112-113.

16Ibid., p. 114.

17Ibid., p. 116.

18John Henry Newman, On St Paul the Type of the Church as Missionarising, in: id., Sermon Notes, Longmans, Green, and Co, London 1913, pp. 62-64.

19Ibid., p. 62.

20Ibid., p. 64.


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