On Paul's Letters to Early Bishops

«Scripture Is Read Correctly by Putting Oneself in Dialogue»

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VATICAN CITY, JAN. 28, 2009 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of the address Benedict XVI gave today in Paul VI Hall at the general audience.

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Dear brothers and sisters:

The final letters of the Pauline collection, about which I would like to speak today, are called the pastoral letters, because they were sent to unique figures among the pastors of the Church: two to Timothy and one to Titus, close collaborators with St. Paul.

In Timothy, the Apostle saw almost an alter ego; in fact he entrusted him with important missions (in Macedonia: cf. Acts 19:22; in Thessalonica: cf. 1 Timothy 3:6-7; in Corinth: cf. 1 Corinthians 4:17; 16:10-11) and afterward he wrote flattering praise of him: «For I have no one comparable to him for genuine interest in whatever concerns you» (Philippians 2:20).

According to the 4th-century Church History of Eusebius of Caesarea, Timothy was later the first bishop of Ephesus (cf. 3,4).

Regarding Titus, he must have also been very beloved by the Apostle, who defined him explicitly as «full of zeal … my companion and collaborator» (2 Corinthians 8:17,23), and even more «my true son in the common faith» (Titus 1:4). He had been entrusted with a couple very delicate missions in the Church of Corinth, the results of which comforted Paul (cf. 2 Corinthians 7:6-7,13; 8:6). Straight away, from what we know, Titus caught up to Paul in Nicopolis of Epirus, in Greece (cf. Titus 3:12) and was later sent by him to Dalmatia (cf. 2 Timothy 4:10). According to the letter directed to him, he ended up being the bishop of Crete (cf. Titus 1:5).

The letters directed to these two pastors occupy an entirely unique spot in the New Testament. It seems to the majority of exegetes today that these letters wouldn’t have been written by Paul himself, and that their origin would be in the «Pauline school» and reflected his inheritance to a new generation, perhaps integrating some brief writing or word from the Apostle himself. For example, some words from the Second Letter to Timothy seem so authentic that they could only have come from the heart and lips of the Apostle.

Undoubtedly the ecclesial situation that emerges in these letters is distinct from that of the central years of Paul’s life. He now, retrospectively, defines himself as «herald, apostle and teacher» of the pagans in the faith and in the truth (cf. 1 Timothy 2:7; 2 Timothy 1:11); he presents himself as one who has obtained mercy because Jesus Christ — he writes thus — «might display all his patience as an example for those who would come to believe in him for everlasting life» (1 Timothy 1:16).

Therefore the essence is that truly in Paul, persecutor converted by the presence of the Risen One, appears the magnanimity of the Lord for our encouragement, to motivate us to hope and have trust in the mercy of the Lord who, despite our littleness, can do great things. Besides the central years of Paul’s life, the [letters] imply as well new cultural contexts. In fact, there is allusion to the appearance of teachings considered totally erroneous or false (cf. 1 Timothy 4:1-2; 2 Timothy 3:1-5), such as those who professed that matrimony was not good (cf. 1 Timothy 4:3a).

We see how modern this concern is, because today as well Scripture is sometimes read as an object of historical curiosity and not as the Word of the Holy Spirit, in which we can hear the very voice of the Lord and recognize his presence in history. We could say that, with this brief list of errors in the Letters, an outline is appearing from beforehand of that successive erroneous orientation we know by the name of Gnosticism (cf. 1 Timothy 2:5-6; 2 Timothy 3:6-8).

The author confronts these doctrines with two underlying calls. One consists in a return to a spiritual reading of sacred Scripture (cf. 2 Timothy 3:14-17), that is, a reading that considers it truly as «inspired» and coming from the Holy Spirit, such that with it one can be «instructed for salvation.» Scripture is read correctly by putting oneself in dialogue with the Holy Spirit, to take from it light «for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness» (2 Timothy 3:16). In this sense, the letter adds: «so that one who belongs to God may be competent, equipped for every good work» (2 Timothy 3:17).

The other call consists in the reference to the good «deposit» (parathéke): It is a special word from the pastoral letters with which is indicated the tradition of the apostolic faith that must be protected with the help of the Holy Spirit who dwells in us. This so-called deposit should be considered as the sum of apostolic Tradition and as the standard for fidelity to the proclamation of the Gospel. And here we should keep in mind that in the pastoral letters, as in all of the New Testament, the term «Scriptures» explicitly means the Old Testament, because the writings of the New Testament either didn’t exist yet or still did not form part of a canon of Scriptures.

Therefore the Tradition of the apostolic proclamation, this «deposit,» is the reading key to understand Scripture, the New Testament. In this sense, Scripture and Tradition, Scripture and the apostolic proclamation as key for reading, approach and almost merge to form together «God’s solid foundation» (2 Timothy 2:19). The apostolic proclamation, that is, Tradition, is necessary to introduce oneself in the understanding of Scripture and capture in it the voice of Christ. It is necessary in fact to be «holding fast to the true message as taught» (Titus 1:9). At the base of everything is precisely faith in the historical revelation of the goodness of God, who in Jesus Christ has concretely manifested his «love for man,» a love that in the original Greek text is meaningfully designated as filanthropía (cf. Titus 3:4; 2 Timothy 1:9-10); God loves humanity.

Taken together, it is clearly seen that the Christian community goes configuring itself in very clear terms, according to an identity that not only stays distant from incongruent interpretations, but above all affirms its own anchor in the essential points of the faith, that here is synonymous with «truth» (1 Timothy 2:4,7; 4:3; 6:5; 2 Timothy 2:15,18,25; 3:7,8; 4:4; Titus 1:1,14).

In the faith, the essential truth of who we are appears, of who is God, and how we should live. And from this truth (the truth of the faith) the Church is defined as «pillar and foundation» (1 Timothy 3:15). In any case, it remains as an open community, of universal reach, that prays for all men of every class and condition so they come to know the truth. «God wants everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth» because «Jesus has given himself as ransom for all» (1 Timothy 2:4-5).

Thus the sense of universality, though the communities are still small, is strong and determinant for these letters. Moreover this Christian community «slanders no one» and «exercises all graciousness toward everyone» (Titus 3:2). This is a first important component of these letters: the universality of the faith as truth, as the reading key to sacred Scripture, to the Old Testament, and thus it delineates a unity in the proclamation of Scripture and a living faith open to all and witness of the love of God for all.

Another typical component of these letters is a reflection on the ministerial structure of the Church. It is these [letters] that present for the first time the triple subdivision of bishops, presbyters and deacons (cf. 1 Timothy 3:1-13; 4:13; 2 Timothy 1:6; Titus 1:5-9). We can observe in the pastoral letters the joining of two distinct ministerial structures and thus the make-up of the definitive form of ministry in the Church. In the Pauline letters of the central years of his life, Paul speaks of «episcopi» (Philippians 1:1) and of «diaconi»: This is the typical structure of the Church that formed in the epoch of the pagan world. The figure of the apostle himself remains, therefore, dominant, and because of this only little by little are the res
t of the ministries developed.

If, as I have said, in the Churches formed in the pagan world we have bishops and deacons, and not presbyters, in the Churches formed in the Judeo-Christian world, the presbyters are the dominant structure. At the end in the pastoral letters, the two structures unite: Now appears the «episcopo» (the bishop) (cf. 1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:7), always in singular, accompanied by the determinant article «the.» And together with the «episcopo» we find the presbyters and deacons. Still now the figure of the apostle is determinant, but the three letters, as I have said, are directed not now to communities, but to people: Timothy and Titus, who on one hand appear as bishops, and on the other, begin to be in the place of the Apostle.

Thus is noted initially the reality that will later be called «apostolic succession.» Paul says with a tone of great solemnity to Timothy: «Do not neglect the gift you have, which was conferred on you through the prophetic word with the imposition of hands of the presbyterate» (1 Timothy 4:14). We can say that in these words appears initially also the sacramental character of the ministry. And thus we have the essential of the catholic structure: Scripture and Tradition, Scripture and proclamation, forming a whole; but to this structure that we could call doctrinal, should be added the personal structure, the successors of the apostles, as witnesses of the apostolic proclamation.

It is important finally to indicate that in these letters the Church understands herself in very human terms, in analogies with the house and the family. Particularly in 1 Timothy 3:2-7, very detailed instructions for the episcopo are given, such as: «Therefore, a bishop must be irreproachable, married only once, temperate, self-controlled, decent, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not aggressive, but gentle, not contentious, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, keeping his children under control with perfect dignity; for if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how can he take care of the church of God? … He must also have a good reputation among outsiders.»

One should note here above all the important aptitude for teaching (also cf. 1 Timothy 5:17), of which we find echoes as well in other passages (cf. 1 Timothy 6:2c; 2 Timothy 3:10; Titus 2:1) and then a special personal characteristic, that of «paternity.» The episcopo in fact is considered as father of the Christian community (cf. also 1 Timothy 3:15). Futhermore the idea of the Church as «house of God» sinks its roots in the Old Testament (cf. Numbers 12:7) and is found reformulated in Hebrews 3:2,6, meanwhile in another place it is read that all Christians are no longer foreigners nor guests, but fellow citizens of the saints and family members in the house of God (cf. Ephesians 2:19).

Let us pray to the Lord and to St. Paul so that also today, as Christians, we can be ever more characterized, in relation with the society in which we live, as members of the «family of God.» And let us pray also that the pastors of the Church have more and more paternal sentiments, simultaneously gentle and strong, in the formation of the house of God, of the community, of the Church.

[Translation by ZENIT] [The Holy Father then greeted the people in several languages. In English, he said:]

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

In our catechesis on the writings of Saint Paul, we come now to the Pastoral Epistles, the two Letters addressed to Timothy and the one to Titus. Although their authorship remains debated, these three Letters, while subsequent to the central years of Paul’s life and activity, clearly appeal to his authority and draw from his teaching. Against threats to the purity of the apostolic tradition, they insist on a discerning understanding of the Scriptures and fidelity to the deposit of faith. Scripture and Tradition are seen as the «firm foundation laid by God» for the life of the Church (cf. 2 Tim 2:19), and the basis of her mission of leading all people to the knowledge of God’s saving truth (cf. 1 Tim 2:1-4). The Pastoral Epistles also reflect the development of the Church’s ministerial structures, and in particular the emergence of the figure of the Bishop within the group of presbyters. They present the Church in very human terms as God’s household, a family in which the Bishop acts with the authority of a father. Inspired by this vision, let us ask Saint Paul to help all Christians to live as members of God’s family, and their Pastors to be strong and loving fathers, committed to building up their flocks in faith and unity.

I am pleased to greet all the English-speaking pilgrims and visitors present at today’s Audience, including the groups from England and the United States of America. Upon you and your families I willingly invoke God’s blessings of peace and joy!

© Copyright 2009 — Libreria Editrice Vaticana

[After his greetings in various languages, the Pope added in Italian:]

Before greeting the Italian pilgrims, I have three more announcements to make.


I have received with joy the news of the election of Metropolitan Kirill as the new Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia. I invoke upon him the light of the Holy Spirit for a generous service to the Russian Orthodox Church, entrusting him to the special protection of the Mother of God.


In the homily delivered on the occasion of the solemn inauguration of my pontificate, I said that the «call to unity» is an «explicit» duty of the pastor and I commented on the Gospel passages about the miraculous catch of fish, saying: «Though there were so many fish, the net did not break.» I continued after these Gospel words: «Alas, beloved Lord, with sorrow we must now acknowledge that it has been torn!» And I continued, «But no — we must not be sad! Let us rejoice because of your promise, which does not disappoint, and let us do all we can to pursue the path towards the unity you have promised. … Do not allow your net to be torn, help us to be servants of unity!»

Precisely in fulfilling this service to unity, which determines in a specific way my ministry as the Successor of Peter, I decided some days ago to concede the remission of the excommunication incurred by four bishops ordained without pontifical mandate in 1988 by Archbishop Lefebvre. I have carried out this act of paternal mercy because repeatedly these prelates have manifested their sharp suffering in the situation in which they found themselves. I trust that following from this gesture of mine will be the prompt effort on their part to complete final necessary steps to arrive to full communion with the Church, thus giving testimony of true fidelity and true recognition of the magisterium and the authority of the Pope and the Second Vatican Council.


In these days in which we remember the Shoah, my memory turns to the images taken in during my repeated visits to Auschwitz, one of the concentration camps in which was carried out the brutal massacre of millions of Jews, innocent victims of a blind racial and religious hate. As I renew with affection the expression of my total and indisputable solidarity with our brother recipients of the First Covenant, I hope that the memory of the Shoah moves humanity to reflect on the unpredictable power of evil when it conquers the human heart.

May the Shoah be for everyone a warning against forgetting, against negating or reductionism, because violence committed against even one human being is violence against all. No man is an island, a well-known poet has written. May the Shoah teach especially, as much the old generations as the new ones, that only the tiring path of listening and dialogue, of love and pardon, leads peoples, cultures and religions of the world to the desired encounter of fraternity and peace in the world. May violence never again humiliate the dignity of man!

[Translation by ZENIT]
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