The ancient Christian writer and theologian Tertullian once asked the Church, “what does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?”
He asked the question as Christianity spread from Israel into the Greek world; and as Greek intellectuals looked for deeper insight into the Christian mystery. Tertullian was asking whether pagan Greek culture—philosophy, poetry, the arts, history and literature—had anything of value for those first missionaries proclaiming the Christian gospel.
Two weeks ago, on a plane landing in Athens, I asked myself Tertullian’s question. I was in Athens to begin a spiritual pilgrimage to Greece and Turkey “in the footsteps of St. Paul.” I was with a group of pilgrims celebrating the 15th anniversary of Spirit Catholic Radio: eight priests from Lincoln and Omaha; three deacons;140 lay Catholics from across Nebraska and beyond. We were led by Steve and Janet Ray, expert pilgrim leaders, and Jim and Karol Carroll of Spirit Catholic Radio. It was a joy and a grace for me to walk as a pilgrim in the footsteps of St. Paul, the great Apostle to the Gentiles, with fellow disciples of Jesus Christ from our state.
By cruise ship on the Aegean Sea, we visited and celebrated Holy Mass in Thessoloniki, Philippi, Istanbul, Pergamon, Ephesus, Patmos, Athens and Corinth. We heard talks at these holy sites, given by Steve Ray, Catholic convert, author and film maker, who leads Catholic pilgrimages all over the world. We heard inspiring homilies by holy priests. We prayed together for all the special prayer intentions we brought with us from home.
Everywhere I traveled, I asked myself “what does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” In Athens itself I learned the answer: Athens has everything to do with Jerusalem. The Gospel can only really be understood in the midst of understanding culture; to understand Christianity as Western Catholics, we need to understand the fundamental history of western civilization.
When St. Paul arrived in Athens, he preached the gospel at the famous Areopagus, a gathering place just beneath the Parthenon. He was able to speak to the Greeks in their own language. He was able to quote Greek poets and philosophers. He appealed to Greeks in their own cultural language because he was schooled in Tarsus, the successor to the school of Athens as the center of learning and education in Asia Minor.
Paul was run out of town after his first visit to Athens. But he was able to plant the Lord’s seeds of conversion in the hearts and minds of the Athenians—the movers and shakers of the ancient world. He would eventually come back to cultivate those seeds that were planted.
Paul was able to use his fluency with the language, culture and customs of the Greek world in order to present the compelling message of Jesus Christ in a way that was attractive and persuasive. To be sure, St. Paul suffered a great deal during his missionary journeys to the Greek world. The Greeks were highly educated and influential. They were also utterly pagan. They worshiped false gods, they were self-indulgent and decadent, and they were infatuated with progress, technology, and the latest new fad.
Paul preached to a world not much different than ours today. But he was not intimidated by the cultural elites and the secular trend setters. He met them on their own turf and challenged them to an entirely new way of looking at the world. In walking in the footsteps of this great apostle, we learned once again that to be a Christian in any age means to suffer for the truth, to go against the grain, to swim upstream and to be willing to lay down your life for Jesus Christ and his Church.
In fact, because Paul preached in Athens, he drew the philosophy, literature, and culture of Greece into service of the Gospel. Paul didn’t only use Greek culture, he helped it to be redeemed in Jesus Christ.Today, the theology of the Church looks to the thought of ancient Greek philosophers, and St. Paul’s courage is the cause. In fact some say that Plato, and Aristotle and Homer were providentially preparing the Greek world for Jesus Christ.
Like St. Paul, we can redeem our culture as well. Like Paul, we can draw it into service of the Gospel. But we must be willing to suffer for faith.
The high point of our pilgrimage was a group of Chaldean Catholic Christians we met in Turkey who were living examples of this truth. They were families living in exile from Mosul, Iraq. They were living next to Immaculate Conception Church in Istanbul, at the Vatican’s embassy to Turkey.
They were women, men and children, along with their newly-ordained parish priest of five months, who all had to flee their homes, their parish, their neighbors and their city, in order to seek refuge from the violently radical Islamic fundamentalist group ISIS. This was perhaps the most powerful moment of the pilgrimage, a moment when we were given a glimpse into what it really means to suffer for one’s faith. We saw the face of persecution and we heard the sound of faith in their voices as they sang the divine liturgy. I was given the privilege to address these heroic Christians. I assured them of our prayers, support and solidarity, imparting my Apostolic Blessing upon them at the end.
What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem? When Athens was evangelized, the foundations for the conversion of the Roman Empire, and the entire western world, were laid. That’s all.