St. Paul's Teaching on the Church

«We Are the Temple of God in the World»

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VATICAN CITY, OCT. 15, 2008 ( Here is a translation of the address Benedict XVI delivered during today’s general audience in St. Peter’s Square.

The Holy Father continued today the cycle of catecheses dedicated to the figure and thought of St. Paul.

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Dear brothers and sisters:

In last Wednesday’s catechesis, I spoke of Paul’s relationship with the pre-Easter Jesus in his earthly life. The question was: «What did Paul know of the life of Jesus, his words, his passion?»

Today, I would like to speak of the teaching of St. Paul on the Church. We should begin by noting that this word — «iglesia» in Spanish, like «église» in French or «chiesa» in Italian — is taken from the Greek «ekklēsía.» It comes from the Old Testament and means the assembly of the people of Israel, gathered by God, and particularly the model assembly at the foot of Sinai.

Now this word alludes to the new community of believers in Christ who know themselves to be the assembly of God, the new gathering of all peoples by God and before him. The term «ekklēsía» only appears in the writings of Paul, who is the first author of a Christian writing. This happens in the «incipit» of the first Letter to the Thessalonians, where Paul addresses himself textually to «the Church of the Thessalonians» (cf. later as well the [address to the] «Church of the Laodiceans in Colossians 4:16).

In other letters he speaks of the Church of God that is at Corinth (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:2 and 2 Corinthians 1:1), that is at Galatia (Galatians 1:2, etc). — particular Churches, therefore — but he recounts also having persecuted «the Church of God,» not one particular local community, but the «Church of God.» Thus we see that this word «Church» has a multifaceted meaning: It indicates on one hand the assemblies of God in particular places (a city, a country, a house), but it also means all of the Church taken together. And thus we see that «the Church of God» is not just the sum of the particular local Churches, but that these are at the same time the actualization of the one Church of God. All together they are the «Church of God,» which precedes each local Church and which is expressed and actualized in them.

It is important to observe that nearly always the word «Church» appears with the added descriptor «of God»: It is not a human association, born from ideas or common interests, but a gathering of God. He has gathered it together and because of this it is one in all of its actualizations. The unity of God creates the unity of the Church in all of the places where it is found. Later, in the Letter to the Ephesians, Paul abundantly elaborates the concept of the unity of the Church, in continuation with the concept of the people of God, Israel, considered by the prophets as the «spouse of God,» called to live a spousal relationship with him. Paul presents the only Church of God as «spouse of Christ» in love, one spirit with Christ himself.

It is known that the young Paul had been an ardent adversary of the new movement constituted by the Church of Christ. He had been its adversary, because he had seen threatened in this new movement the fidelity to the tradition of the people of God, animated by faith in the one God. This fidelity was expressed above all in circumcision, in the observance of the norms of cultural purity, in abstaining from certain foods, in respect for the Sabbath.

The Israelites paid for this fidelity with their blood during the time of the Maccabees, when the Greek regime wanted to force all peoples to take on a sole Greek culture. Many of the Israelites had defended with their blood the vocation proper to Israel. The martyrs had paid with their lives for the identity of their people, expressed through these elements.

After his encounter with the risen Christ, Paul understood that the Christians weren’t traitors; on the contrary, in the new situation, the God of Israel, through Christ, had extended his call to all people, becoming the God of all peoples. In this way, fidelity to the only God was fulfilled; the distinctive signs made up of particular norms and observances were no longer necessary, because all were called, in their differences, to form part of the one people of God in the «Church of God,» in Christ.

One thing was immediately clear to Paul in the new situation: the fundamental and foundational value of Christ and the «word» he proclaimed. Paul knew that not only is one not a Christian by coercion, but that rather in the internal configuration of the new community, the institutionally component was inevitably linked to the «living word,» the proclamation of the living Christ in which God opens himself to all peoples and unites them in the one people of God. It is significant that Luke, in the Acts of the Apostles, uses many times, even because of Paul, the phrase «proclaim the word» (Acts 4:29,31; 8:25; 11:19; 13:46; 14:25; 16:6,32), with the evident intention of showing to the maximum the decisive reach of the «word» of the proclamation.

Concretely, this word is made up of the cross and resurrection of Christ, in which the Scriptures have been fulfilled. The paschal mystery, announced in the word, is fulfilled in the sacraments of baptism and Eucharist, and materializes in Christian charity. The evangelizing work of Paul does not have any other goal than to firmly establish the community of the believers in Christ. This idea is within the same etymology of the term «ekklēsía,» which Paul, and with him all of Christianity, prefers to the other term «synagogue,» not only because originally the first is more «lay» — deriving from the Greek praxis of the political assembly and not properly religious — but also because it directly implies the more theological idea of a call «ab extra,» not only a simple meeting. The believers are called by God, who gathers them in a community, his Church.

Along this line, we can also understand the original concept, exclusively Pauline, of the Church as «Body of Christ.» In this respect, it is fitting to keep in mind the two dimension of this concept. One is of a sociological character, according to which the body is formed by its components and wouldn’t exist without them. This interpretation appears in the Letter to the Romans and the First Letter to the Corinthians, where Paul takes up an image that already existed in Roman sociology. He says that a people is like a body with distinct members, each one of which has its function, but all, even the smallest and apparently insignificant, are necessary so the body can live and perform its functions. Opportunely, the Apostle observes that in the Church there are many vocations: prophets, apostles, teachers, simple peoples, all called to live charity each day, all necessary for constructing the living unity of this spiritual organism.

The other interpretation makes reference to the very Body of Christ. Paul sustains that the Church is not just an organism, but rather becomes truly the Body of Christ in the sacrament of the Eucharist, where all receive his Body and truly become his Body. Thus is fulfilled the spousal mystery, that all are one body and one spirit in Christ. Hence the reality goes much beyond the sociological imagination, expressing its true, profound essence, that is, the unity of all the baptized in Christ, considered by the Apostle, «one» in Christ, conformed to the sacrament of his Body.

Saying this, Paul shows he knows well and he brings us to understand that the Church is not his and is not ours: the Church is the body of Christ, it is «Church of God, » «field of God,» construction of God … «temple of God» (1 Corinthians 3:9,16). This last designation is particularly interesting, because it attributes to an interweaving of interpersonal relationships a term that was commonly used to indicate a physical place, considered sacred. The relationship between Church and temple assumes therefore two complementary dimensions: On one hand, the characteristic of separation and
purity, which the sacred building had, is applied to the ecclesial community; on the other hand, the concept of a material space is surpassed, to transfer this value to the reality of a living community of faith. If before, temples were considered places of the presence of God, now it is known and seen that God does not dwell in buildings made of stone, but that the place of the presence of God is in the world of the living community of the believers.

One separate discourse would merit the qualification of «people of God,» which in Paul is applied substantially to the people of the Old Testament and afterward to the pagans, that were «no people» and that have become also the people of God thanks to their insertion in Christ through the word and the sacrament.

And a last sketch: In the Letter to Timothy, Paul qualifies the Church as «house of God» (1 Timothy 3:15); and this is a truly original definition, because it refers to the Church as a community structure in which warm interpersonal relationships of a familial character are lived. The Apostle helps us to understand ever better the mystery of the Church in its distinct dimensions of assembly of God in the world.

This is the greatness of the Church and the greatness of our call: We are the temple of God in the world, the place where God truly dwells, and we are, at the same time, community, family of God, who is love. As family and house of God we should carry out in the world the charity of God and thus be, with the strength that comes from faith, the place and sign of his presence. Let us pray to the Lord so that he grants us to be ever more his Church, his Body, the place of the presence of his charity in this our world and in our history.

[The Pope then greeted the people in several languages. In English, he said:]

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

In our continuing catechesis on Saint Paul, we now consider his teaching on the Church. It was «the Church of God» which Paul persecuted before his conversion, and throughout his Letters he uses the term «Church» both with reference to local Christian communities and to the Church as a whole. For Paul, faith in the person of Jesus Christ and his Gospel is at the heart of the Church. Paul’s entire work of evangelization, centred on the proclamation of the Paschal mystery of the Lord’s death and resurrection, was aimed at establishing new communities of those who believe in the Lord and share in the life of the Spirit. The Church thus takes shape as an «ekklesía», a concrete assembly called into being by God’s word. For Paul, the Church is also the «Body of Christ», a living body endowed with a complex of ministries which are spiritual in their origin and purpose. In the variety and the theological richness of his teaching on the Church, Paul invites us to understand and love the Church ever more deeply, and to work for her upbuilding in faith and charity.

I offer a warm welcome to all the English-speaking visitors present at today’s Audience including the members of the English and Welsh Bishops’ Committee for Christian Unity and the representation of government officials from the Philippines. I also greet the Mill Hill missionaries, and school groups present from England and Scotland. May your visit to Rome strengthen your commitment to share God’s word with others. Upon all of you, I invoke the Lord’s blessings of peace and joy.

© Copyright 2008 — Libreria Editrice Vaticana

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