Becoming Men and Women of Encouragement, Catholic Online Year of Faith Homily Series, April 23, 2013

Fr. Roger J. Landry
Catholic Online Homily Series for the Year of Faith
April 23, 2013


St. Barnabas is one of the most important figures in the history of the early Church and among the least appreciated.

Early in the Acts of the Apostles, St. Luke tells us that his real name was Joseph, but the apostles nicknamed him Barnabas, which means “son of encouragement.”

It could have been because he had sold a field he owned and laid the proceeds at the apostles’ feet, an obvious sign of his total commitment to Christ and total trust in the apostles Christ had chosen to lead the early Church. Such a gesture, common among the first disciples, would have certainly inspired the other members of the burgeoning Church.

But the nickname was an excellent summary of his entire personality, for he was someone who gave others courage, who believed in them, who filled them to respond to God with enthusiasm.

We see this especially in his interaction with St. Paul. Without Barnabas’ intervention, Paul likely would have remained, lived and died a tent-maker in Tarsus. Instead, because of Barnabas’ interventions, Paul was able to become the greatest missionary in the history of the Church.

It was Barnabas who was the catalyst for bringing Paul out of obscurity, making him his collaborator, vouching for him with the leaders and members of the Church who didn’t trust him because of his murderous past, and launching him on the trajectory that led to his founding so many Churches across the ancient world.

As we saw in last week’s readings and reflections, after his conversion, Paul immediately began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, announcing that he was the Messiah and Son of God.

As he began to annihilate the Damascene Jews in debates, several of the vanquished conspired to have him assassinated, watching out for him at the city gates to murder him. Paul and the other disciples heard about the plot, however, and lowered him outside the city walls in a basket to escape.

So Paul went to Jerusalem where he tried to join the disciples, live the Christian life and help wherever he could. St. Luke tells us, however, that sadly “they were all afraid of him, not believing that he was a disciple.” The disciples didn’t want to have anything to do with him.

They were all terrified of him because of the way he used to terrorize their community, presiding over the stoning of St. Stephen, ripping the believers out of their homes and bringing them before the religious courts, and even getting an order to go to Damascus and bring back the Christians in chains. They likely thought that his celebrated conversion was a ruse just so that Paul could infiltrate the Christians, get to know them and where they live, and finish the job of wiping them out that he had previously worked so hard to achieve

The members of the Church in Jerusalem, apostles and disciples, didn’t believe yet in the power of God’s amazing grace that could save a sinner like Paul.

They didn’t believe that God could convert a murderer of Christians into a maker of Christians.

They didn’t believe that God could change someone who used to rip Christians from their homes to one who would help form Christian homes.

They couldn’t see how someone who had presided over the stoning of St. Stephen would eventually become someone who himself would be stoned because of his building his life on the stone rejected by the builders who had become the cornerstone of his life.

That’s the first time Barnabas, the son of encouragement, intervened. It’s not hard to imagine how abandoned Paul must have felt after the Jerusalem Church’s rejection: the vast majority of his own people likely looked on him as a traitor, some of his former teammates in the extirpation of Christians were now coming after him, and the Christians, whom he had hoped to fill with joy at the news of his conversion, wanted no part of him.

Seeing the situation of Paul the Pariah, Barnabas acted, for Paul and for the Church. He wasn’t going to let what the Lord had done on the road to Damascus go to waste. So he went to find Paul and then, St. Luke tells us, “took him by the hand and brought him to the apostles, declaring to them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who spoke to him, and how at Damascus he had preached boldly in the name of Jesus.”

Barnabas told Paul’s conversion story to the other members of the Church of Jerusalem — which shows that obviously he had heard it step-by-step from Paul before. He also passed on how Paul after his conversion was doing more to spread the faith than many of those who were timidly hovering in Jerusalem.

Because of Barnabas’ action, encouragement, and personal recommendation, the Church of Jerusalem welcomed him. From that moment, Paul started to do in Jerusalem the same things he had done in Damascus, and “speak out boldly in the name of the Lord.”

He debated both Jews and Greeks. Once again, however, the Jewish leaders plotted to kill him for persuading people to Christianity — just as the Sanhedrin had done to Jesus and Saul himself had tried done to Stephen and other members of the early Church.

So the disciples took him down to Caesarea by the Sea and sent him home to Tarsus. Fearing for Paul’s life, the Church in Jerusalem decided to rush him down to Caesarea and send him home to Tarsus. It’s possible that Paul was rashly looking for a quick martyrdom in expiation for all the lives he had taken previously, but the Church, especially Barnabas, didn’t want the one chosen by the Lord to preach the Gospel to the Gentiles to have his mission as a Christian evangelist cut short prematurely. It’s probable that Barnabas accompanied Paul down to the sea to send Paul home and he likely encouraged him to get ready for what would come later.

Later came rather soon. After the Church in Jerusalem had heard of how many converts were entering the Church in Antioch, they sent Barnabas to encourage them “to remain faithful to the Lord in firmness of heart” and guide them into a deeper grasp of the Gospel.

St. Luke tells us today that his preaching and exhortation only served to make more converts. They all regarded him as a “good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith.” Barnabas did not have the time to guide them all and needed other expert help. Rather than assuming the arduous task of training others to be teachers or going back to Jerusalem to find help, he traveled to Tarsus to find Paul and bring him back to Antioch. Barnabas knew Paul was ready. And so he asked him to leave his tent-making behind and come with him to make temples of the Holy Spirit. Paul agreed.

And they headed to Antioch where “for a whole year they met with the Church and taught a large number of people,” forming them in the love of the Lord in such a way that it the disciples for the first time were called “little Christs,” or “Christians.”

It was after that year’s worth of hard work tilling the soil of souls in Syria that the Holy Spirit spoke while the Church was worshipping the Lord and fasting and said, “Set apart from me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” And that’s when the two of them began the first of the great missionary journeys in Church history, implanting the Gospel across Asia Minor. The rest is, in a sense, history.

Little did Barnabas know that when he put his own reputation on the line for Paul before the Apostles in Jerusalem, when he went to Tarsus to ask for help, what the Holy Spirit would later do. All he did was encourage and invite. The Lord did the rest.

A similar thing happened with Andrew. After he met the Messiah, he ran to his brother Simon explaining that he had found the Messiah and brought his brother to meet Jesus. And when Jesus met Simon, he told him that he would change his name to the Aramaic word for Rock (Peter in English), and build his Church on him. All Andrew made was the introduction. God did the rest.

This brings us one of the central realities that we must ponder and live during this Year of Faith: are we men and women of similar encouragement, enthusiastically trying to inspire others to grow in faith, to come more deeply into their friendship with Christ, inviting them and facilitating for them to use the gifts God has given them to share in the work of spreading the faith?

The Church today needs many more Barnabases, men and women who aren’t afraid to encourage to share their work, to stick up for others when others don’t think they’re capable or qualified, to invite them to collaborate in the joyful duty of passing on the Good News to others. This is one of the most important things in the New Evangelization that is supposed to flow from the Year of Faith.

Just as in ancient Antioch, so today, there aren’t enough laborers in the Lord’s vineyard to attend to the ripe fruit on the vine. There are so many sheep in the Lord’s fold who need good shepherds to care for them, not to mention so many sheep who have wandered from the fold who need those acting in the person of the Good Shepherd to leave the 99 behind and go out in search for them.

It’s something that Pope Francis can’t do all by himself. It’s something that the bishops united with him can’t do by themselves. It’s something that all the priests of the world can’t do together. It’s something that all the missionaries, religious, and consecrated people can’t do. It’s something for which even all the catechists together with clergy and religious can’t do.

It’s something for which we’re all needed. Today Barnabas, that “good man filled with the Holy Spirit and with faith,” on behalf of God comes to us as he did to Saul in Tarsus to encourage us to get involved.

Let’s open ourselves to respond as Paul and Barnabas did, so that through us, as God did through them, others may hear the echo of the Good Shepherd’s voice and feel the warmth of his sacrificial love, guiding them to the verdant pastures where, as Jesus tells us in the Gospel, he seeks to give us eternal repose.