"LIKE THE EARLY CHRISTIANS, WE SHOULD LEARN TO SEE AGAIN THE GOSPEL AS... FRESH, ATTRACTIVE."
You have written numerous books on a wide range of topics related to the Catholic Faith and the Scriptures. What is your current focus and what do you intend to achieve?
My focus now is what it has been for decades: to promote biblical literacy for all Catholics and biblical fluency for clergy and teachers. That sounds absurdly ambitious, I know, but it's true. That's not only the purpose of my books, but also the mission of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, which I founded. The Center sponsors a wide variety of programs, many for ordinary Catholics, but many others for scholars. We publish free online Bible studies. We organize conferences. We train catechists in the best methods of leading a Bible study. We have our own publications -- books, a journal, a newsletter. We lead pilgrimages to Rome and the Holy Land. We host one of the best online libraries for biblical studies (SalvationHistory.com). After almost twenty years of writing and ten years of running the Center, I've been encouraged by the successes, but there's still so much work to do. But God will get it done. So even though it's my work, it need not be my worry.
How was it when you first got acquainted with the Catholic Faith? What finally made you decide to embrace it?
I first got acquainted with it as its declared enemy! I was a convinced Protestant, Calvinist in my thinking and evangelical in my style. I thought the Catholic Church was the enemy of true Christianity. I was in love with the Bible, and that was my undoing as a Protestant. In spite of my resistance, my Bible study led me to adopt a sacramental world view. It led me to see the need for objective, earthly authority in God's covenant people. It also led me to the early Church Fathers, who were profound biblical interpreters. What I found in the Fathers was a Church that corresponded perfectly to biblical religion, but looked a lot like the Roman Catholic Church. I wanted to be there, with the Apostles, the Fathers, the martyrs, and the saints.
In The "Lamb's Supper", you described your first encounter with the Holy Eucharist. Could you tell us the experience and what the Early Christians got to do with it?
I had been studying the writings of the Fathers, and there I'd found countless references to "the liturgy," "the Eucharist," "the sacrifice." For those first Christians, the Bible — the book I loved above all — was incomprehensible apart from the event that today's Catholics called "the Mass." Well, I'd had no experience of liturgy. So I persuaded myself to go and see, as a sort of academic exercise.
As the Mass moved on, I began to notice how biblical it was. One line was from Isaiah, another from the Psalms, another from Paul. The experience was overwhelming. Then I saw the priest raise the host, and I felt a prayer surge from my heart in a whisper: "My Lord and my God. That's really You!"
I continued to resist conversion, but resistance was futile from that moment!
How relevant are the Early Christians today? What things do they have in common with us?
Human nature hasn't changed. They speak to the same concerns we have today -- the need for salvation, the desire to be virtuous, the difficulty of overcoming sin. They speak to these issues with a certain freshness. When we read the Fathers, we're hearing the Gospel as it was preached to a pagan world. They also provide us with excellent models for reaching a world that has been re-paganized.
What was the secret of the Early Christians in their rapid evangelization of the ancient world that perhaps we, Christians of today, lack?
I'd say it was the freshness of the Gospel. They heard it, and it was something radically different from what their culture was offering them. For that reason, it was attractive. For us, after a millennium and a half of established and legal Christianity, we've stopped noticing that the Gospel is still fresh, it's still new, it's still radical. It still stands in stark contrast to what the broader culture is giving us. We need to immerse ourselves in prayerful study and studious prayer, so that we see Jesus more clearly. He'll take it from there. If we lack anything, it's that friendship with him, sustained through a regular and disciplined life of prayer.