Memorial of St. Barnabas

“He was a good man, filled with the holy Spirit and faith.”  Acts 11:24

So much is known of St. Barnabas from the Sacred Scripture, yet we so seldom speak of this great apostle.  He is an important figure in the early Church and certainly has a great deal to say to us on this the eve of Pentecost and on the day of ordination here in the Diocese of Lake Charles. 

St. Barnabas was a Jew from Cyprus.  Our first reading tells us of how the Apostles in Jerusalem, having learned of mass conversions, sent Barnabas to Antioch to learn more.  “When [Barnabas] arrived,” we are told, “and saw the grace of God, he rejoiced and encouraged them all to remain faithful to the Lord in firmness of heart, for he was a good man, filled with the holy Spirit and faith” (Acts 11:23-24).  Barnabas then sought out Paul and remained his close ally and associate, introducing Paul to the other apostles, preparing the way to support the pillars of the Church, and continuing with Paul on his first missionary journey.

As an aside, one of the more amusing episodes of the New Testament involves Barnabas on this first mission.  When he and Paul went to Lystra and the crowds saw Paul work a miracle, making a lame man jump and walk about, the people then acclaimed the two apostles as “gods.”  That they called Paul “Hermes” and Barnabas “Zeus” perhaps tells us something about their personalities.  Paul evidently did the talking as “the chief speaker.”  It is implied that Barnabas remained mostly silent, at least in the account of Acts.  Thus, the crowd probably presumed that Barnabas was the greater “god.”  The priest of the Temple of Zeus “brought oxen and garlands to the gates, for he together with the people intended to offer sacrifice” (Acts 14:11-13)).  Only Barnabas and Paul tearing their garments and shouting a loud protest stopped the folly.  However, it got everyone’s attention, so that Paul could proclaim the “good news” of the one and only living God (Acts 14:14-15). 

St. Barnabas teaches us something about the early pastoral practice of the Church.  It is a style of preaching the truth that became enshrined in the writings of the early Christian Fathers and later in the classic manuals of pastoral practice, such as the Regula Pastoralis (Pastoral Care) of St. Gregory the Great.  From the outset, we are told that Barnabas “was a good man, filled with the holy Spirit and faith” (Acts 11:24).  God’s Spirit works with the mind and heart that are open to Him.  This “attitude of Christ” is innocent and guileless.  In all honesty it tears its garments, when it learns that the people to whom it is preaching are placing their faith in the preacher rather than God who has inspired the preaching.  The “good man, filled with the holy Spirit and faith” sees himself as the instrument, not the message, as the servant, not the master.

Are the times in which we live any better or worse than those in which Barnabas and Paul lived?  Such speculation is purely academic, for if we read history and we know the vicissitudes of human behavior, then we know that the Church always lives in trying times.  Barnabas and Paul had their successes.  They also had their failures.  They encountered the division between Jews and Greeks.  They maneuvered around factions and jealous sympathizers with one cause or another.  Persecution began.  Recall that Antioch to which the Apostles sent Barnabas was the same Antioch in which Stephen, the first martyr, had preached.  Barnabas and Paul came to realize that the work belonged to God, not to them, so they were not discouraged and persevered. 

I am reminded of the stirring words of St. Paul describing the hardships of his pastoral ministry.  He writes of  “… frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my own race, dangers from Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers at sea, dangers among false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many sleepless nights, through hunger and thirst, through frequent fastings, through cold and exposure” (II Corinthians 11:26-27).  Now, I have been a bishop for a few years now and a priest for thirty-six, and I have never heard a priest describe his hardships as being anything quite like Paul’s.  However, even though I have never heard a priest chronicle his trials in any similar way, I have heard many reach the same conclusion as Paul.  “Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong” (II Corinthians 12:10).  To glory in one’s weakness, to find strength in failure, to continue in discouragement—this is possible only with a “good man, filled with the holy Spirit and faith.”

The priest must be a Pentecost man.  He knows and loves the Church.  He is a believer.  He is a churchman.  The Spirit has descended upon him and made him speak languages he never thought he knew.  He leaves the upper room, where he has devoted himself to prayer and intimacy with God, and faces a world filled with antipathy for the message that he will preach.  Yet, he preaches it because he knows the message does not belong to him.  It belongs to a higher truth than himself.  As a matter of fact, he is not the truth.  He is the servant of the truth, the mouthpiece for the proclamation.  The truth is what he speaks.  It is his message. 

I like to quote, at this point, the old Latin saying:  implebatque actu quidquid sermone docebat (“He fulfilled in his actions what he taught in his words”—from the epitaph of St. Gregory the Great).  Barnabas understood all these things, as did Paul and every priest who is a “good man, filled with the holy Spirit and faith.”  They understood the instructions Jesus gave to the Apostles.  “As you go, make this proclamation:  ‘The Kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 10:7).  Everything else flows from that—the curing of the sick, the raising of the dead, the cleansing of lepers, and the exorcism of demons.  You have no gold or silver, but you give freely what you have been given.  Stop them from making you a “god,” and tell them the truth.  This is what the Spirit moves you—and all of us—to do.  It is only the “good man,” divested of himself, humbly acknowledging his faults and knowing where his true strength lies, who can do this.       

On June 6, 1975, I visited my spiritual director for the last time before ordination to the priesthood.  He offered me advice that I wrote down but took on added significance only with the passage of years.  He counseled me to commit myself to mental prayer every day, to make my prayer intensely personal, to prepare myself for ordination in such a way that that day would be an event “to look back on,” to talk to Jesus about everything, and to look upon ordination as opportunity for permanent commitment and repeat the words of the Gospel, “Lord, save me lest I perish” (cf. Matthew 8:25)—and then repeat the Holy Name over and over again.  No doubt it was this that sustained Paul in his shipwrecks and Barnabas when in horror he realized the people wanted to make him a “god.”  And, I know, this forgetfulness of self and total dependence on the Lord can sustain you in every moment of a holy priestly life.  For a “good man, filled with the holy Spirit and faith” comes to know such moments of grace.