On Paul's Death and Heritage

«The Figure of St. Paul Is Magnified Beyond His Earthly Life»

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VATICAN CITY, FEB. 4, 2009 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of the address Benedict XVI gave today at the general audience in Paul VI Hall.

He concluded today his series of catechesis on St. Paul.

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Dear brothers and sisters:

The series of our catechesis on the figure of St. Paul has arrived to its conclusion: We wish to speak today of the end of his earthly life. Ancient Christian tradition testifies unanimously that the death of Paul came as a consequence of martyrdom suffered here in Rome. The writings of the New Testament do not take up this fact. The Acts of the Apostles ends its report indicating the Apostle’s condition as a prisoner, who nevertheless could receive all those who visited him (cf. Acts 28:30-31).

Only in the Second Letter to Timothy do we find these, his foreboding words: «For I am at the point of being poured out like a libation, and the time of my releasing the canvas [departure] is at hand» (2 Timothy 4:6; cf. Philippians 2:17). Two images are used here, the liturgical one of sacrifice, which he had already used in the Letter to the Philippians, interpreting martyrdom as part of the sacrifice of Christ; and the seafaring [image] of casting off: two images that together discreetly allude to the event of death, and of a bloody death.

The first explicit testimony about the end of St. Paul comes to us from the middle of the 90s of the first century, and therefore, something more than 30 years after his death took place. It comes precisely from the letter that the Church of Rome, with its bishop, Clement I, wrote to the Church of Corinth.

In that epistolary text, the invitation is made to have the example of the apostles before our eyes, and immediately after the mention of Peter’s martyrdom, it reads thus: «Owing to envy and discord, Paul was obligated to show us how to obtain the prize of patience. Arrested seven times, exiled, stoned, he was the herald of Christ in the East and in the West, and for his faith, obtained a pure glory. After having preached justice in the whole world, and after having arrived to the corners of the West, he accepted martyrdom before the governors; thus he parted from this world and arrived to the holy place, thereby converted into the greatest model of patience» (1 Clement 5,2).

The patience of which it speaks is the expression of his communion with the passion of Christ, of the generosity and constancy with which he accepted a long path of suffering, to the point of being able to say: «I bear the marks of Jesus on my body» (Galatians 6:17).

We heard in the text of St. Clement that Paul had arrived «to the corners of the West.» It is debated whether this refers to a trip to Spain that Paul would have carried out. There is not certainty about this, though it is true that St. Paul in his Letter to the Romans expresses his intention to go to Spain (cf. Romans 15:24).

It is very interesting, in the letter from Clement, the succession of the two names of Peter and Paul, even though these will be inverted in the testimony of Eusebius of Caesarea in the fourth century. When speaking of the Emperor Nero he wrote: «During his reign Paul was beheaded precisely in Rome and Peter was there crucified. The report is confirmed by the names of Peter and of Paul, which even today are conserved in their sepulchers in this city» (Hist. Eccl. 2,25,5).

Eusebius later would continue relating a previous declaration of a Roman presbyter by the name of Gaius, who dates back to the beginnings of the second century: «I can show you the trophies of the apostles: If you go to the Vatican or the Via Ostiense, there you will find the trophies of the founders of the Church» (ibid. 2,25,6-7).

The «trophies» are the sepulchral monuments, and these are the same sepulchers of Peter and Paul that even today we venerate, after two millenniums in the same place: here in the Vatican regarding St. Peter, in the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls on the Via Ostiense regarding that of the Apostle to the Gentiles.

It is interesting to point out that the two great apostles are mentioned together. Though no ancient source speaks of a contemporary ministry of theirs in Rome, the successive Christian awareness, on the basis of their common burial in the capital of the empire, will also associate them as founders of the Church of Rome. Thus it is read, in fact, in Irenaeus of Lyons, from the end of the second century, regarding the apostolic succession in the distinct Churches: «It would be tedious to enumerate the successions of all the Churches, we do take the very great and very ancient and well-known Church, the Church founded and established in Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul» (Adv. Haer. 3,3,2).

Let us leave aside the figure of Peter and concentrate on that of Paul. His martyrdom comes recounted for the first time in the Acts of Paul, written toward the end of the second century. These report that Nero condemned him to death by beheading, carried out immediately afterward (cf. 9:5). The date of the death varies according to the ancient sources, which place it between the persecution unleashed by Nero himself after the burning of Rome in July of 64 and the last year of his reign, in 68 (cf. Jerome, De Viris Ill. 5,8).

The calculation depends a lot on the chronology of Paul’s arrival in Rome, a discussion that we cannot get into here. Successive traditions would pin down two other elements. One, the most legendary, is that the martyrdom took place on the Acquae Salviae, on the Via Laurentina, with a triple bounce of the head, each one of which caused a current of water to spring out, due to which even today the place is called «Tre Fontane» (Acts of Peter and Paul of Pseudo Marcellus of the fifth century).

The other, in consonance with the ancient testimony already mentioned, of the presbyter Gaius, is that the burial occurred «not only outside of the city, in the second mile of the Via Ostiense,» but more precisely «in the field of Lucina,» who was a Christian matron (Passion of Paul of Pseudo Abdias, of the sixth century).

There in the fourth century, the emperor Constantine erected a first church, later enormously amplified after the fourth and fifth century by Emperors Valentinianus II, Theodosius and Arcadius. After the fire of 1800, there was erected the current Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls.

In any case, the figure of St. Paul is magnified beyond his earthly life and his death; he has left in fact an extraordinary spiritual heritage. He as well, as a true disciple of Jesus, became a sign of contradiction. While among the so-called ebionites — a Judeo-Christian current — he was considered as an apostate of the Mosaic Law, already in the book of Acts of the Apostles, there appears a great veneration for the Apostle Paul.

I would like now to set aside the apocryphal literature, such as the Acts of Paul and Thecla and an apocryphal collection of letters between the Apostle Paul and the philosopher Seneca. It is important to confirm that very soon the Letters of St. Paul enter into the liturgy, where the prophet-apostle-Gospel structure is determinant for the form of the liturgy of the Word. Thus, thanks to this «presence» in the liturgy of the Church, the thought of the Apostle at once becomes spiritual nourishment for the faithful of all times.

It is obvious that the fathers of the Church and afterward all the theologian have drawn form the Letters of St. Paul and his spirituality. He has remained during the centuries, until today, as true teacher and apostle to the Gentiles. The first patristic commentary that has arrived to us regarding a writing of the New Testament is from the great Alexandrian theologian Origen, who comments on the Letter of St. Paul to the Romans.

This commentary is unfortunately conserved only in part. St. John Chrysostom, besides commenting his letters, has written of him his seven memorable panegyrics. St. Augustine owes him the decisive step o
f his own conversion and he will return to Paul during all of his life. From this permanent dialogue with the Apostle derives his great Catholic theology and also for Protestants of all times. St. Thomas Aquinas has left us a beautiful commentary on the Pauline letters, which represents the most mature fruit of medieval exegesis.

A true point of inflection was verified in the 16th century with the Protestant Reformation. The decisive moment in Luther’s life was the so-called Turmerlebnis (1517) in which in one moment he encountered a new interpretation of the Pauline doctrine on justification. An interpretation that liberated him from the scruples and anxieties of his preceding life and that gave him a new, radical confidence in the goodness of God, who pardons everything without condition. From that moment, Luther identified the Judeo-Christian legalism condemned by the Apostle with the order of life of the Catholic Church. And the Church appeared to him as an expression of the slavery to the law to which he opposed the liberty of the Gospel. The Council of Trent, between 1545 and 1563, deeply interpreted the question of justification and encountered in the line of all Catholic tradition the synthesis between law and Gospel, conforming to the message of sacred Scripture read in its totality and unity.

The 19th century, gathering the best heritage of the Enlightenment, witnessed a new renovation of Paulinism, now above all in the plane of scientific work developed for the historical-critical interpretation of sacred Scripture. Let us set aside here the fact that also in that century, as in the 20th, there emerged a true and proper denigration of St. Paul. I think above all of Nietzsche, who poked fun at the theology of humility in St. Paul, opposing to it his theology of the strong and powerful man. But let us leave that aside and look at the essential current of the new scientific interpretation of sacred Scripture and the new Paulinism of that century.

Here is emphasized as central above all the Pauline thought of the concept of liberty: In this is seen the heart of the thought of Paul, as on the other hand, Luther had already intuited. Now, nevertheless, the concept of liberty was reinterpreted in the context of modern liberalism. And later, the differentiation between the proclamation of St. Paul and the proclamation of Jesus was strongly emphasized. And St. Paul appears almost as a new founder of Christianity. It is certain that in St. Paul, the centrality of the Kingdom of God, determinant for the proclamation of Jesus, is transformed in the centrality of Christology, whose determinant point is the Paschal mystery. And from the Paschal mystery, come the sacraments of baptism and Eucharist, as a permanent presence of this mystery, from which the Body of Christ grows, and the Church is built.

But I would say, without entering here into details, that precisely in the new centrality of Christology and the Paschal mystery, the Kingdom of God is fulfilled, the authentic proclamation of Jesus is made concrete, present, operative. We have seen in the preceding catechesis that precisely this Pauline novelty is the deepest fidelity to the proclamation of Jesus. In the progress of exegesis, above all in the last 200 years, the convergences between Catholic and Protestant exegesis also grow, thus bringing about a notable consensus precisely in the point that was at the origin of the greatest historical dissent. Therefore a great hope for the cause of ecumenism, so central for the Second Vatican Council.

Briefly, I would like at the end to still point out the various religious movements, arising in the modern age in the heart of the Catholic Church, that refer back to St. Paul. That’s what came about in the 16th century with the Clerics Regular of St. Paul, called the Barnabites; in the 19th century with the Missionary Society of St. Paul the Apostle, better known as the Paulist Fathers; and in the 20th century with the multifaceted Pauline Family, founded by Blessed James Alberione; to not speak of the secular institute of the Company of St Paul.

Substantially, there remains luminous before us the figure of an extremely fruitful and deep apostle and Christian thinker, from whose closeness, every one of us can benefit. In one of his panegyrics, St. John Chrysostom made an original comparison between Paul and Noah, expressing it like this: Paul «did not place together the shafts to build an ark, instead, in place of uniting tablets of wood, he composed letters, and thus dug out of the waters not two or three or five members of his own family, but the entire inhabited world that was about to perish» (Paneg. 1,5).

Precisely still and always the Apostle Paul can do this. To tend toward him, as much to his apostolic example as to his doctrine, would be therefore a stimulus, if not a guarantee, to consolidate the Christian identity of each one of us and for the renewal of the whole Church.

[During his greetings, the Holy Father added:]

The situation in Sri Lanka continues to cause worry.

News of a worsening of the conflict and the growing number of innocent victims moves me to offer a pressing appeal to the combatants to respect humanitarian law and people’s freedom of movement.»

May they do everything possible to guarantee assistance for the wounded and security for civilians, and permit their urgent food and medical needs to be satisfied.»

May Our Lady of Madhu, so venerated by Catholics and also by members of other religions, hasten the day of peace and reconciliation in that dear country.

[Translation by ZENIT] [To the English-speakers, he said:]

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Concluding our catechesis on Saint Paul today, we look briefly at the end of his earthly life and his ongoing legacy. Though there is no account of Paul’s death in the New Testament, a strong tradition holds that he was martyred in Rome during the reign of Nero and buried along the Via Ostiense on the site of the present Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls. Saint Clement of Rome, in a first-century letter to the Corinthians, extols Paul’s patience in suffering as a model for all Christians to imitate. Paul himself alluded to his agony in sacrificial terms when he wrote: «for I am already being poured out like a libation, and the time of my departure is at hand» (2 Tim 4:6). Paul’s writings have inspired countless commentaries through the centuries. New studies continue to shed light on his character, the churches he founded and the Gospel he preached. Paul was a generous apostle and an original thinker,but not the «new founder» of Christianity, as some have claimed. By listening to his teaching, may we be strengthened in our commitment to Christ, so as to take part joyfully in the Church’s mission of evangelization!

I am pleased to greet the English-speaking visitors present at today’s audience. I particularly welcome students from the Bossey Graduate School of Ecumenical Studies in Geneva, as well as pilgrims from Hong Kong and the United States of America. God bless you all!

© Copyright 2009 — Libreria Editrice Vaticana

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