A Knock at the Door

The Papal audience hall was filled to capacity. It was Wednesday, July 2nd. I had come to Rome with my priest secretary, Msgr. Gregory Mustaciuolo, to participate in meetings on Thursday and Friday having to do with two Vatican committees on which I serve. We arrived on Tuesday so as to be able to attend the regular Wednesday audience, an experience that never fails to deepen my faith and inspire hope.

The Holy Father took the occasion to deliver an unusually long address in which he explained that throughout the coming year, the so-called “Pauline Year,” the theme of his audience talks would be the life and teachings of St. Paul, “a figure in our history,” he said, “who was totally dedicated to Christ and His Church.”

While listening to the Holy Father, I decided to follow his example by making the Apostle of the Gentiles the focus of my Catholic New York articles over the next 12 months. However, I further decided that the first of these articles would not be about the earliest years of Paul’s life but rather about an event that occurred toward the end of it. For I wanted to persuade my readers right from the start that the Apostle’s story was not all “Sturm und Drang,” censures and controversies, struggles and heroics. I was anxious to present him in what I considered a more fair and accurate light, making it clear that the zealous “athlete of Christ” who “fought the good fight” was also a kind and compassionate follower of the “meek and humble” Savior. To be sure that I had all the facts of the event I wished to narrate clearly in mind, on Saturday morning Msgr. Mustaciuolo and I made our way to the place where the tale I wanted to tell actually unfolded more than 1,900 years ago.

Uless you know the Eternal City very well indeed, you will not easily find the Church of San Paolo alla Regola, the site of my story. It is an unpretentious edifice, much in need of repair, and located in a distressed neighborhood of Rome that is hardly ever visited by tourists. It stands two blocks away from where the ancient Ponte Sisto (“Bridge of Sixtus”) crosses the Tiber; and the words, “alla Regola,” in its title are meant to indicate that the church is situated in the area of Rome where sand from the Tiber is deposited when the river overflows its banks. (“Regola” comes from the word for “sand” in a dialect that is still spoken in a surprising number of Roman households.)

My first visit to San Paolo alla Regola was made over 50 years ago. I was with a group of seminarians on one of the “Roman walks” that we were required to take to churches, museums and such three afternoons a week.

Upon entering the building, we were greeted by an elderly priest of the Third Order of St. Francis who identified himself as the pastor, and proved to be a most warm and cordial pastor at that. We began to walk about the church while our “prefect” read a description of it from a classic guidebook authored by an Anglican clergyman who became a Catholic toward the end of the 1800’s, Augustus J.B. Hare.

The pastor interrupted the reading and beckoned us toward a set of doors to the right of the sanctuary. He stood there with drama in his eyes and, when he had gained the attention of us all, knocked on one of the doors. In due course, he whispered, “Come in,” trying to give the impression that the voice had come from within. He opened the door in a gingerly fashion and led us down a flight of stairs into a vast room in which there was nothing to be seen apart from a large mosaic on the back wall depicting St. Paul chained to a soldier and two marble plaques over the doors inscribed with citations from the Second Epistle to Timothy (2:9) and the Acts of the Apostles (28:20).

“In an apartment beneath this room,” the pastor announced, “the Apostle lived for three years during his first imprisonment in Rome. Because he was a Roman citizen and the charges against him were not at all convincing, he escaped being put into prison. Still, he was not free to leave his residence unless chained to two Praetorian guards. His situation was identified in Roman law as Ôcustodia libera,’ which was a form of what we might call Ôhouse arrest.’

“One afternoon,” our narrator continued, “there came a knock at Paul’s door. The visitor was a Roman slave in a state of physical and emotional exhaustion. His name was Onesimus; and when the guards left the room at Paul’s request, the slave confessed that he had stolen valuable items from his master, a certain Philemon who resided in Colossae, and that he had fled in panic when his crime was found out. Now all that remained for him, he sobbed, was branding on the forehead with the letter ÔF’ for Ôfugitive’ and hard labor in horrific tin mines where he would certainly die in a matter of weeks.

“Paul listened attentively to what the slave had to say,” the pastor went on, “and after mulling over several courses of action, sat down and wrote a powerful letter in favor of Onesimus to Philemon, whom he had brought into the Christian faith some years earlier in Colossae.

“Never was there a more wonderful letter,” the white-haired Franciscan proclaimed with a good deal of emotion in his voice. “Read it over and over. It is only 25 verses long. Still, if you meditate on it and come to love it, it will work wonders in your spiritual life. Never, when someone comes knocking at your door for help, will you fail to open up and lend a willing hand.

“Paul,” the pastor observed, “put himself in real peril when he chose to help Onesimus. The guards might have been eavesdropping. They might also have thought it their duty to report the slave’s confession to their superiors. The Apostle, however, did not allow any of this to impede him from coming to the aid of another in need. Rather, he composed a brief but brilliant plea to Philemon to forgive Onesimus totally and gave it to a friend to deliver to Colossae with all possible speed. This is the Paul that one might easily miss in perusing his Epistles and reading his adventures in the Acts of the Apostles, a compassionate, loving human being who felt the fear and hurt of a slave and, counting not the cost, risked his life and freedom to help him.

“Young men,” our Son of St. Francis concluded in a solemn tone, “never forget your visit to San Paolo alla Regola; and when you are priests, never hesitate to open your door to those who are in pain and necessity. Be like PaulÑcaring, courageous and concerned for even Ôthe least of the brethren.’ “

The Epistle to Philemon, which the pastor praised so highly, is a triumph of Christian charity and a masterpiece of diplomacy, literary style and even humor. It opens with a salutation to Philemon and his family from “Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus.” This is followed by a fine example of what the Greek and Roman rhetoricians called “captatio benevolentiae,” which in simplest terms is a strategy to win the sympathy of someone to whom a petition is being addressed by extolling his or her character or noble works. Clearly this is what Paul had in mind when he wrote to Philemon in these words: “I give thanks to my God for you. I know the faith that you have in the Lord Jesus, as I know that the hearts of God’s people are refreshed by you, my dear brother.”

The Apostle then addresses his central concern. He observes that he should probably order Philemon to do what he will be asking of him, given his plight as a prisoner, his advanced years and his having taught Philemon the precious truths of the Gospel. Nonetheless, he would prefer to lodge an appeal rather than issue an order. (A diplomat is clearly at work here.) He has with him, he states, the slave, Onesimus, whom he would like to keep for himself but whom he has decided to send back to Philemon so that the master might graciously embrace his slave and generously forgive and forget his misbehavior. (More diplomacy!) Realizing, however, that he may be getting a bit heavy-han ded, the Apostle at this point introduces a note of humor. In Greek, he reminds Philemon, Onesimus means “useless.” Should Philemon do as Paul asks, the slave will certainly not have been useless, the Apostle insists. For he will have provided both his master in Colossae and his advocate in Rome with opportunities for Christlike kindness. And what could be more “useful” than that?

The appeal having been made, the Apostle immediately raises the ante. When Onesimus returns to Colossae, he tells Philemon, he is to be considered “no longer as a slaveÉbut as a beloved brother.” For after their conversation, the Apostle reveals, he instructed and baptized Onesimus and thus became his “father in the Lord.” Finally, to leave Philemon completely disarmed, the Apostle concludes his request with an offer he knows full well Philemon will not take up. If Onesimus has caused Philemon any financial loss, the Apostle announces, he will be happy to make good what is owed. “Charge it to me,” he writes, “and I will pay for it.” The epistle ends with the Apostle assuring Philemon that he has no doubt that his plea will be honored, while promising prayers that his friend in Colossae will ever be filled with “the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.”

The Roman sun was bright and hot as Msgr. Mustaciuolo and I emerged from the Church of San Paolo alla Regola. The pastor, another delightful priest of the Third Order of St. Francis, had shown us around and, just as his predecessor had done a half century before, knocked on the door of the room above St. Paul’s residence and feigned hearing a voice inviting him to enter. “We have been doing this for a long, long time,” he remarked with a smile, “and I don’t think we are ever likely to stop.”

Outside, monsignor and I walked across the cobblestone street and sat down on the porch of a coffee bar directly opposite the church. Together we read a short account of the story of Paul and Onesimus in a little pamphlet that I had purchased in the vestibule of the church. In it we learned that, according to St. Ignatius of Antioch, Onesimus, after several years as a “freedman” in the home of Philemon, became the Bishop of Ephesus and ultimately a martyr for the faith.

I put the pamphlet in my pocket and sent a “letter” to St. Paul and St. Onesimus as well in the form of a prayer. I begged them to ask the Lord to richly bless the faithful of the Archdiocese throughout the Pauline Year and, when the time comes, to receive each of us into eternal life “as beloved brothersÉand sisters.” It was a request that I was sure both would thoroughly understand and carefully consider.

Edward Cardinal Egan
Archbishop of New York