By Father Ed Dougherty, M.M.
Each May, The Christophers gather to bestow awards on books, film, and television programs that affirm the highest values of the human spirit. This year marks the 70th anniversary of our Christopher Awards, and readers will be heartened to know that once again we have found amazing projects worthy of celebration.
One example is the film “Paul, Apostle of Christ,” which is set in the 1st Century A.D., during the time of Nero’s persecution of the Christians of Rome. Paul the Apostle sits in prison at the film’s outset, awaiting execution. Luke the Evangelist, played by Jim Caviezel, enters Rome secretly to meet with Paul and help him write an account of his experiences and insights for the benefit of Christian communities in other lands.
Luke has friends among high-ranking Romans who convince the prefect of the prison, Mauritius Gallus, to allow him to visit Paul. Mauritius is a dutiful soldier and loyal to Rome, yet he is also intellectually curious and engages in conversation with both Luke and Paul. Mauritius’ daughter and only child is very ill. Although Luke is a talented physician, Mauritius refuses to ask the evangelist to treat her for fear of offending the Roman gods by bringing a Christian into his home.
Meanwhile, Roman soldiers are arresting, torturing, and executing other Christians as part of Nero’s plot to offer them up as scapegoats for a fire that burned down two thirds of the city. Luke stays with a secretive Christian community in the city and finds himself disheartened along with the others over the rampant persecution of those who believe in Christ.
The struggle to keep the faith amid such turmoil is palpable in this film, which offers an unflinching glimpse of the challenges and rewards of following Christ under the most trying circumstances. When a young man named Cassius tries to convince others to respond to the persecution with violence, Luke intervenes, declaring, “Let peace be with you. For we live in the world but we do not wage war as the world does.... Love is the only way.” Cassius later defies Luke and joins others in breaking into the prison to free Paul. However, Paul refuses to go with him, instead chastising him for bringing violence against government officials, saying, “Christ has already triumphed over every enemy by the cross, and you say you come in his name, but it is clear you do not know him.”
This picture of the peace and radical love brought into the world by the early Christians transports us back to a time when small communities lived so committed to the teachings of Jesus Christ that their lives became the seeds planted in the fertile soil of a world awaiting a better way.
At the outset of the film, Paul stares upward through the bars of his basement cell as if looking to the heavens and questions, “Is that all?” It is unclear whether this is a moment of despair or a mere question from a servant sensing he has come to the end of his mission. Yet the rest of the film demonstrates that God’s answer is always that there is so much more than we could possibly imagine. And we see that answer play out in all that happens in the short time before Paul is executed, in how much he is still called upon to do, and in how much he accomplishes through his love, humility, and willingness to share the wisdom of Christ.
For free copies of the Christopher News Note FINDING CHRIST IN COMMUNITY, write: The Christophers, 5 Hanover Square, New York, NY 10004; or e-mail: email@example.com
Father Ed Dougherty, M.M., is a member of The Christophers’ board of directors.