“The times of ignorance God overlooked but now he commands all men everywhere to repent…” (St. Paul’s address to the Areopagus in Athens, Act 17:30.)
I just recently returned from a pilgrimage of the footsteps of St. Paul to Greece and Turkey. I went with my wonderful Archbishop, Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kansas, as well as the Midwestern region of the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre. While journeying the ancient mission routes of St. Paul and companions, this eleven-day pilgrimage proffered many interesting sights and experiences. I don’t have the space to recount them all here, but encountering the ancient Roman provincial cities where Paul preached and proclaimed the Gospel left me speechless at times. There was one experience, however, that exceeded the others, and because it was so amazing I must recount it for you.
On the last day of the pilgrimage, we celebrated Mass on Mars hill, the famed meeting place of the Athenian governing council known as the Areopagus. Our tour guide knew of a perfect place on the craggy hilltop to celebrate Mass. The ancient Greeks had carved some steps and a flat spot out of the rocky face to use as a meeting space. Our guide told us that these carved steps predated the time of St. Paul. As this was the only spot on Mars Hill that had level ground with what was clearly intended to be used as a platform, an exciting question sparked my mind: could this be the very spot where St. Paul addressed the Areopagus some 2000 years prior? Although there is no way of knowing, I was nevertheless sure of his powerful presence there. Msgr. Brier asked me to offer the reading for the Mass. I also had time afterward to offer a brief catechesis on Paul’s address. Msgr. chose the passage from Acts where St. Paul confronts the leading men of Athens with his Gospel message. Here, this bold saint offers us a five-point blueprint for evangelizing the culture:
“Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols.” (Act 17:16.)
Point 1: Boldness in proclaiming the truth of Jesus Christ in the face of obvious error. The idolatry of the Athenians motivated Paul to be so bold as to proclaim the Gospel any place where he thought he would have a hearing—the synagogue, the market place, the pagan temples, engaging groups of people as diverse as observant Jews to Greek philosophers. The error and confusion he found in them only motivated him all the more to engage the culture. He was not put off by their selfish pride and false pretenses of intellectual superiority. He engaged in actions but also in word! He was not concerned for his own personal well-being.
”Now all the Athenians and foreigners who lived there spent their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.” (Act 17: 21.)
Point 2: Knowing your audience and crafting your approach in order to engage it.
By pointing out this detail about the Athenians, St. Luke, the author of Acts, reveals his own keen awareness to detail. This audience, unlike others, occupied themselves with novel ideas. So, on the one hand, they would show interest in Paul’s proclamation due to their own natural curiosity. On the other, St. Paul’s challenge would lie in whether they would be able to recognize the Gospel as not merely a novel idea, but a call to a relationship with a person: Jesus Christ, the God-Man; the resurrected Savior of the world. Rather than shrink from the challenge, Paul allowed himself to be led to the Areopagus, the governing council of the city, in order to offer them the invitation to salvation.
“So Paul, standing in the middle of the Areopagus, said: ‘Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along, and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To an unknown god.” (Acts 17: 22-23.)
Point 3: Affirm what is true in the culture. In spite of their ridiculous idolatry, St. Paul recognized that the citizens in Athens were seeking ultimate truth, which explains their altar to the ‘unknown god.’ In affirming this truth, he displays a clever tactic when engaging others who don’t believe the truth in its fullness: establish what the common strand is between belief and unbelief. There is no system that is completely devoid of truth. By affirming that which is true in their own heart-felt beliefs, St. Paul increased his chances of winning over his audience.
“What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” (Acts 17: 23.)
Point 4: Show your audience that what they seek can only be found in full in Jesus Christ. Because He is Wisdom Incarnate, Christ is the fullness of revelation of all truths…now made flesh! Thus, anything that is true points to Christ in as much as it is true. Our relationship with Him flows from our relationship with the truth. Once He is announced, there can be only one truthful response: follow Him and obey Him! Anything less is a failure to adhere fully to the truth.
“The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all men everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all men by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17: 30-31.)
Point 5: Apart from Christ, all belief systems will erode in the end, and all peoples will be judged with righteousness. Therefore, the condemned no longer have an excuse. After hearing the Gospel, the response that God expects from us is to repent. Now, we need to be careful and not become the judge ourselves, for He is the judge and not us. Further, we need to be patient with our audience. It is true that only Dionysius the Areopagite and Damaris converted at the time of Paul, but Athens is Christian today. The pagan temples are in ruins and stand only as a reminder of the past. Thus, it is not our role to tell our audience that they stand condemned. It is our role to explain to them that their systems are incomplete without Christ, and because of this, can’t deliver what they promise. In the end, all falsehood leads and ends in ruin.
One final element of this story: while I was speaking, a small crowd of tourists gathered behind me, perhaps out of curiosity sake, after all, we had just finished Mass and there were about 35 persons out of my group still seated and listening. But I noticed they stayed and listened for a few minutes, long enough to make out that I was talking about St. Paul and his preaching. The experience became surreal to me. Here I was standing, for sure on the same hill as St. Paul when he addressed the Areopagus 2000 years ago, perhaps the same spot. Some of his audience was interested in what he had to say, as was some of my audience, and others listened only out of curiosity, as some did to me, while others scoffed and walked away, as most of the onlookers did while I spoke. I half expected some of them to pick up rocks to stone me (except there weren’t any! Lucky me!) or attack me with their fists chanting ‘Great is Aremis! Great is Artemis!’ (O.K. So that happened to Paul in Ephesus and not Athens…see Acts 19:28-29.) Anyway, it was a strange and wonderful experience that I shared with St. Paul! St. Paul, pray for us and the New Evangelization!