The air was a bit humid and the sky bright and blue as I gazed over the city of Athens from the place I was standing on Mar’s Hill. Two thousand years before my arrival there, a much more significant individual than myself had stood upon that same hill, preaching the Gospel to the pagan philosophers of his day, enkindling the fire of the Faith that would spread across the western world over the following centuries.
In May of this year, I had the incredible opportunity of traveling to Greece with a group from the college at which I teach. The purpose of the trip was to follow the route of St. Paul’s second missionary journey. We spent ten days traveling about the country by bus, visiting such places as Philippi and Thessaloniki and Corinth and Athens. In addition to these, we were able to see some of the famous sites from antiquity.
On the final day of the trip, as we drove back to our hotel in the evening, the tour leaders asked me if I, as a history instructor, would mind spending a few minutes talking about what I found to be the most interesting or valuable part of the trip. I’d already been reflecting on that very question for the past several days, and so after a brief struggle with the microphone system—historians seem to be notorious for their technological difficulties—I gladly shared a few of the thoughts I’d been gathering throughout the course our journey.
“I’ve never doubted that St. Paul visited Greece to preach the Gospel,” I said, looking out over the two-dozen or so exhausted faces in front of me. “But being here in this place, walking where he walked, standing where he stood, seeing what he saw—it all made it so much more tangible for me. For the rest of my life, whenever I read an account of his missionary work, I will be able to vividly envision St. Paul in these places.”
Our trip wasn’t exclusively meant to be a pilgrimage, as the twice-a-day buffets reminded me, but in many ways it did serve as a source of spiritual nourishment. In particular, it drove home for me the fact that St. Paul was a flesh-and-blood man like the rest of us. It reminded me that he was an actual, physical person who had his own trials and faced his own struggles and overcame his own weaknesses, by the grace of God. It reminded me that he was an ordinary man who became one of the greatest saints of the Church by responding to God’s call and following God’s will for his life.
The trip also highlighted for me the extreme sinfulness of the Greek world in which St. Paul preached. Especially in the city of Corinth, which we were able to visit, sexual immorality of every conceivable kind was not only tolerated but even raised to the level of pagan religious practice. This was the world into which St. Paul came to preach the Gospel and win converts for the one, true Faith.
I learned several lessons from my short time in Greece, but the one I wish to share here is this: St. Paul was a real man, like the rest of us. He breathed, he ate, he walked, and he slept, just like we do. Also like us, he lived in extremely corrupt times, yet through the grace of God he was able to become a great saint. With that same grace, each and every one of us can become a great saint too.