BIBLE MAN. Father Mitch Pacwa delivers a talk during the televised Eternal Word Television Network's 2008 family celebration Oct. 2 at the Colorado Convention Center in Denver. 2008 James Baca, Denver Catholic Register

St. Paul: A Bible Study Guide for Catholics

By Father Mitch Pacwa, S.J.

Our Sunday Visitor, 2008

96 pages, $8.95

To order: (800) 348-2440

Paul on the Sacraments


My first Communion missal contained illustrated summaries of the Gospels for each Sunday, back in the days when there was an "epistle," rather than a "first reading" and "second reading." As a kid, I liked the Gospels because Jesus was doing something, but not the epistles, because they talked a lot, usually in big words I didn't understand.

Even today, when the readings rotate over a three-year cycle, the first reading and Gospel usually fit together, while the second — because it's usually St. Paul, not necessarily linked to the other texts — seems the odd man out.

Yet the bulk of the New Testament comes from St. Paul, and, in this Jubilee Year of Paul, it's time to get to know him better.

St. Paul does that by explaining Paul through the prism of the sacraments. Examining the sacraments from the perspective of what Paul wrote about them, Father Pacwa's book helps Catholics to link the Bible with key elements of their spiritual lives.

Why the sacraments as a unifying theme? Because "Catholics cherish the gift that Christ conveys to his people through these mysteries," Father Pacwa writes. "The sacraments are not merely precepts of a Church that some might argue are irrelevant distractions at best or construed fabrication at worst. Rather, they are biblically founded means that convey Christ's efficacious grace upon his Church, signifying the spiritual realities they represent through signs and actions. It is none other than St. Paul of Tarsus himself who most prominently extols the sacraments in the New Testament after the resurrection of Christ. ...His message about the sacraments is not limited to one letter or one small aspect of his teaching. Rather the sacraments, and the teaching about the Church itself, belong to the very essence of his teaching."

The book can be used alone or can be profitably employed by parish Bible study groups. In six to seven sessions of 45 to 60 minutes, Catholics acquire a basic overview of Paul's key ideas about the sacraments, along with practical applications for their lives.

Each session includes material to read in advance, an explanation of key texts connected with a given sacrament, additional passages to explore, discussion questions, and a practical application.

Readers learn, for example, what Paul meant when he called marriage a "mystery," how his teaching might have been influenced by his expectation of an imminent Second Coming, and how marriage symbolizes Christ's union with his Church. Practically, readers are asked to explain how marriage is an important ecclesial vocation. Sidebars refer to additional texts showing what St. Paul thought about the Parousia (Second Coming) and explaining the "Pauline Privilege."

While arranging Paul's theology around the sacraments makes practical sense, the author leaves the impression that the sacraments as Catholics know them today were how Paul knew them — and that's just not true. The absence of attention to the historical evolution of the sacraments puts Father Pacwa in a bind, because as he acknowledges, "St. Paul does not mention" the sacrament of the sick, and the distinction of confirmation and penance from baptism was not necessarily as bright as Father Pacwa leaves the impression. This historical amnesia is a curious oversight because the Jesuit priest indicates elsewhere how Tradition evolved (e.g., celibacy). One more chapter explaining how the sacraments continued to develop would have corrected this imbalance.

Notwithstanding this lacuna, the book is a good primer in Pauline sacramental thought. If Catholics take at least that much away — a better understanding of Paul during this Holy Year — the book will have met an important need.

John M. Grondelski writes
from Bern, Switzerland.