Continuing our journey among the protagonists who were the first to spread Christianity, today let us turn our attention to some of St Paul’s other collaborators. We must recognize that the Apostle is an eloquent example of a man open to collaboration: he did not want to do everything in the Church on his own but availed himself of many and very different colleagues.
We cannot reflect on all these precious assistants because they were numerous. It suffices to recall among the others, Epaphras (cf. Col 1: 7; 4: 12; Phlm 23); Epaphroditus (cf. Phil 2: 25; 4: 18), Tychicus (cf. Acts 20: 4; Eph 6: 21; Col 4: 7; II Tm 4: 12; Ti 3: 12), Urbanus (cf. Rm 16: 9), Gaius and Aristarchus (cf. Acts 19: 29; 20: 4; 27: 2; Col 4: 10). And women such as Phoebe, (Rom 16: 1), Tryphaena and Tryphosa (cf. Rom 16: 12), Persis, the mother of Rufus, whom Paul called “his mother and mine” (cf. Rom 16: 12-13), not to mention married couples such as Prisca and Aquila (cf. Rom 16: 3; I Cor 16: 19; II Tm 4: 19).
Among this great array of St Paul’s male and female collaborators, let us focus today on three of these people who played a particularly significant role in the initial evangelization: Barnabas, Silas, and Apollos.
Barnabas means “son of encouragement” (Acts 4: 36) or “son of consolation”. He was a Levite Jew, a native of Cyprus, and this was his nickname. Having settled in Jerusalem, he was one of the first to embrace Christianity after the Lord’s Resurrection. With immense generosity, he sold a field which belonged to him, and gave the money to the Apostles for the Church’s needs (Acts 4: 37).
It was he who vouched for the sincerity of Saul’s conversion before the Jerusalem community that still feared its former persecutor (cf. Acts 9: 27).
Sent to Antioch in Syria, he went to meet Paul in Tarsus, where he had withdrawn, and spent a whole year with him there, dedicated to the evangelization of that important city in whose Church Barnabas was known as a prophet and teacher (cf. Acts 13: 1).
At the time of the first conversions of the Gentiles, therefore, Barnabas realized that Saul’s hour had come. As Paul had retired to his native town of Tarsus, he went there to look for him. Thus, at that important moment, Barnabas, as it were, restored Paul to the Church; in this sense he gave back to her the Apostle to the Gentiles.
The Church of Antioch sent Barnabas on a mission with Paul, which became known as the Apostle’s first missionary journey. In fact, it was Barnabas’ missionary voyage since it was he who was really in charge of it and Paul had joined him as a collaborator, visiting the regions of Cyprus and Central and Southern Anatolia in present-day Turkey, with the cities of Attalia, Perga, Antioch of Pisidia, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe (cf. Acts 13-14).
Together with Paul, he then went to the so-called Council of Jerusalem where after a profound examination of the question, the Apostles with the Elders decided to discontinue the practice of circumcision so that it was no longer a feature of the Christian identity (cf. Acts 15: 1-35). It was only in this way that, in the end, they officially made possible the Church of the Gentiles, a Church without circumcision; we are children of Abraham simply through faith in Christ.
The two, Paul and Barnabas, disagreed at the beginning of the second missionary journey because Barnabas was determined to take with them as a companion John called Mark, whereas Paul was against it, since the young man had deserted them during their previous journey (cf. Acts 13: 13; 15: 36-40).
Hence there are also disputes, disagreements and controversies among saints. And I find this very comforting, because we see that the saints have not “fallen from Heaven”. They are people like us, who also have complicated problems.
Holiness does not consist in never having erred or sinned. Holiness increases the capacity for conversion, for repentance, for willingness to start again and, especially, for reconciliation and forgiveness.
So it was that Paul, who had been somewhat harsh and bitter with regard to Mark, in the end found himself with him once again. In St Paul’s last Letters, to Philemon and in his Second Letter to Timothy, Mark actually appears as one of his “fellow workers”.
Consequently, it is not the fact that we have never erred but our capacity for reconciliation and forgiveness which makes us saints. And we can all learn this way of holiness. In any case, Barnabas, together with John Mark, returned to Cyprus (Acts 15: 39) in about the year 49. From that moment we lose track of him. Tertullian attributes to him the Letter to the Hebrews. This is not improbable. Since he belonged to the tribe of Levi, Barnabas may have been interested in the topic of the priesthood; and the Letter to the Hebrews interprets Jesus’ priesthood for us in an extraordinary way.
One of the greatest desires we have is to be remembered, to be able to rest in a sense of accomplishments and receive recognition. True holiness delivers us from this inclination. For we are not called by the Lord to receive honors or even to see the great work of our lives to fruition. We give generously of what the Lord has given us, not because we will necessarily get something in return, but becasue in doing so we give praise to God and imitate the love by which he saved us.
Any memorial we seek for ourselves in this world passes away. What endures are faith, hope and love.
This spiritual truth should not only challenge us, but encourage us, for it means that everything is not simply dependent upon us. We are part of a greater purpose than our own ego, and a greater power than our own will moves us, shapes us and directs us toward our ultimate destiny.
On this feast of Barnabas, let us give praise to God for the life and destiny he has given us in Jesus Christ.
Looking ahead on the calendar a couple of days, you can read my entry for St. Anthony of Padua (June 13) from The Loyola Kids’ Book of Saints here.