A love worth imitating

By the pope’s proclamation, this is now a “Year of St. Paul,” during which Catholics are supposed to dwell upon the example of St. Paul and imitate him. But what is it about St. Paul that we should imitate, and why does it matter if we do?

In a sense it was St. Paul himself who first proclaimed a “year of St. Paul”--perhaps more accurately a “time” or a “generation” of St. Paul--because, remarkably, he repeatedly instructed Christians to imitate him.

“I urge you, be imitators of me” (1 Cor 4: 16), he says, or again, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ’’c (1 Cor 11:1). On another occasion he says, “I praise you because you recall my example in everything” (1 Cor 11:2). He even goes so far as to say that the mission of St. Timothy as bishop is to remind Christians of himself: “For this reason I am sending you Timothy, who is my beloved and faithful son in the Lord: he will remind you of my ways in Christ Jesus,” (1 Cor 4:17).

Thus one of the most noteworthy traits of St. Paul is that he proposed himself to be imitated, because he himself was an imitator--of Christ.

It follows that we should ask, if we ourselves wish to imitate St. Paul, whether we are worthy of being imitated by anyone. Could we, like St. Paul, zealously propose ourselves as an example of a Christian for others to follow? Minimally, is there at least some group of persons (family, colleagues, friends) in some respect (apostolic action, prayerfulness, sacrificial giving), to which we could say, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ”?

You will say, rightly, that you fail and that everyone sins, and perhaps you’ll even quote the verse, “the just man falls seven times each day.” But let’s take a step back and think about this in relation to other things.

Suppose someone you know loves golf. He watches the game on television, goes to the driving range, takes lessons, reads magazines about improving his swing and so on. Now, such a person would eagerly share his love of the game with others, and when he did he wouldn’t hesitate to say, “Do what I do. Follow my example.” He wouldn’t necessarily be saying to imitate his golf swing, which perhaps isn’t a model of perfection, but he would be saying to imitate his love for the game. He’d be aware of his own shortcomings, but he’d also be aware of his lively enthusiasm for the game. “Hardly anyone loves golf as much as I do,” he might even think.

The same point could be made about anything else that people really love, not simply sports or hobbies. A father might naturally say to his son who is about to get married, “Son, love your wife just as I’ve loved your Mom. Follow the example I’ve set for you.”

But now apply the point to Christ. Do you love him as much as you love golf? Or as much as you love your wife? Do you love him as much as you love your job, or the things you buy from the wages you earn with your job? If you really do, then your love will be as evident as your love for other things, and in that way you could easily recommend to others that they imitate you.

But this is precisely what is so striking about St. Paul: he really loved Christ. As Pope Benedict pointed out in his homily that inaugurated the Pauline year, due to a personal encounter with Christ, St. Paul changed from being a persecutor of the Church to its greatest apostle.

“Dear brothers and sisters,” the pope then added, “as in early times, today too Christ needs apostles ready to sacrifice themselves. He needs witnesses and martyrs like St. Paul. Paul, a former violent persecutor of Christians, when he fell to the ground dazzled by the divine light on the road to Damascus, did not hesitate to change sides to the Crucified One and followed him without second thoughts. He lived and worked for Christ, for him he suffered and died. How timely his example is today!”

St. Paul’s love--like all true love--was concrete, effective, evident and sacrificial. It was sacrificial at its core, because it came from a deep recognition of the self-giving character of God’s love, shown in the passion and cross of Christ. “I have been crucified with Christ,” St. Paul declares, exultantly, “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. And the life which I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God, who has loved me, and who has given himself up for me” (Gal 2:20).

There is a direct relationship between lack of love of Christ among professed Christians, and the disturbing lawlessness and secularization of Europe and, increasingly, the United States. “The Church’s action is credible and effective only to the extent to which those who belong to her are prepared to pay in person for their fidelity to Christ in every circumstance,” the pope reminds us. “When this readiness is lacking, the crucial argument of truth on which the Church herself depends is also absent.”

Michael Pakaluk is a professor of philosophy at the Institute for the Psychological Sciences in Arlington, Va.