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Pope Benedict XVI’s weekly general audience.
BY The Editors
Weekly General Audience October 1, 2008
During his general audience Oct. 1 in St. Peter’s Square
with more than 20,000 people, Pope Benedict XVI continued his series of
teachings on St. Paul. He focused on Paul’s relationship with the other
apostles — especially that with St. Peter, which was a relationship of respect
Dear brothers and sisters,
The respect and veneration that St.
Paul always cultivated for the Twelve Apostles did not diminish when he boldly
defended the truth of the Gospel — which is none other than Jesus Christ, the
Lord. Today, we will reflect on two episodes that demonstrate his respect for
them and, at the same time, the freedom with which he addressed Cephas and the
other apostles: the so-called Council of Jerusalem and an incident that
occurred at Antioch in Syria that Paul recounts in his Letter to the Galatians
(see Galatians 2:1-10; 2:11-14).
Every council and synod of the
Church is “an event of the Spirit,” and its proceedings are representative of
all of God’s people. Those who had the privilege of participating in the Second
Vatican Council experienced this firsthand.
Thus, St. Luke, when telling us
about the first council of the Church, which took place in Jerusalem,
introduced the letter that the apostles sent at that time to the Christian
communities of the Diaspora with these words: “‘It is the decision of the Holy
Spirit and of us ...” (see Acts 15:28).
The Spirit, who is at work
throughout the entire Church, led the apostles by the hand as they ventured on
new paths, in order to make his plans a reality: He is the main architect in
building the Church.
Nevertheless, the assembly at
Jerusalem took place during a time of significant tension within the early
community. The issue at stake was whether pagans who professed allegiance to
Jesus Christ, the Lord, were required to be circumcised or whether they could
legitimately be dispensed from the Mosaic Law — that is, from the observance of
those norms that were required of “just men” who obeyed the Law — and, above
all, whether they were dispensed from the Jewish norms governing ritual purification,
clean and unclean foods, and the Sabbath.
The Council of Jerusalem
St. Paul refers to the gathering in
Jerusalem in Galatians 2:1-10. Fourteen years after his encounter with the
risen Christ at Damascus — in the middle of the 40s — Paul departed from
Antioch in Syria with Barnabas, accompanied by Titus, his faithful co-worker
who, because he was of Greek origin, was not required to be circumcised upon
entering the Church.
At this time, Paul explained his
gospel of freedom from the Law (see Galatians 2:6) to the Twelve Apostles, whom
he described as the proper people to consult on this matter.
In light of his encounter with the
risen Christ, it was his understanding that upon embracing the Gospel of Jesus
Christ pagans no longer needed to be circumcised, follow dietary laws or
observe the Sabbath as a sign of being justified: Christ is our justice, and
all those who follow him are “just.” No other sign was needed to be considered
In a few lines in his Letter to the
Galatians, Paul describes the outcome of the gathering in Jerusalem. He
enthusiastically recalls how the gospel of freedom from the Law was approved by
James, Cephas and John — the “pillars” who offered him and Barnabas their right
hands as a sign of ecclesial communion in Christ (see Galatians 2:9).
If, as we noted, the Council of
Jerusalem was for Luke an expression of the work of the Holy Spirit, for Paul
it represented the decisive acknowledgment of the freedom that was shared by
all those who took part in it — a freedom from those obligations that were
derived from circumcision and from the Law — the freedom for which “Christ set
us free so that we should remain free, no longer allow the yoke of slavery to
be imposed on us” (see Galatians 5:1).
The liberating action of the Spirit is
common to both Paul’s and Luke’s descriptions of the gathering in Jerusalem,
because “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom,” Paul wrote in his
Second Letter to the Corinthians (see 2 Corinthians 3:17).
True Christian Freedom
Nonetheless, the letters of St. Paul
express with great clarity that Christian freedom is never to be identified
with license or the freedom of choice to do as we please. Rather, Christian
freedom is realized by conforming ourselves to Christ — that is, in true service
to our brothers and sisters, especially those who are most in need.
That is why Paul’s report of the
gathering closes with a reminder of the recommendation the apostles made to
him: “They asked us only to be mindful of the poor, which is the very thing I was
eager to do” (Galatians 2:10).
The Church is the birthplace of
every council, and every council gives back to the Church. On that occasion,
its attention was directed to the poor, who, according to Paul’s various
comments in his letters, belonged primarily to the church in Jerusalem.
Paul’s concern for the poor — to
which his Second Letter to the Corinthians (see 2 Corinthians 8-9) and the
final part of his Letter to the Romans (see Romans 15) attest — shows his
faithfulness to the decisions that were the fruit of that gathering.
Perhaps we are no longer able to
fully comprehend the significance that Paul and his communities attributed to
the collection for the poor of Jerusalem. Within the range of religious
activities it was a totally new initiative: It was not obligatory, but free and
All the churches that Paul founded
in the West took part in it. The collection was an expression of these
communities’ debt towards the Mother Church of Palestine, from whom they had
received the priceless gift of the Gospel.
Paul attached so much value to this
gesture of sharing that he rarely called it simply a “collection.” To him it
was rather a “service,” “blessing,” “love,” “grace,” and even “liturgy” (see 2
This last term is especially
surprising. It confers a worship value on the collection of money, as well.
On the one hand, it is a liturgical
gesture or “service” that every community offers to God. On the other, it is an
act of love that is done for the benefit of the people.
Love for the poor and the divine
liturgy go hand in hand: Love for the poor is liturgy. These two aspects are
present in every liturgy that we celebrate and experience within the Church,
which, by its nature, opposes separation between worship and life, between
faith and good works, and between prayer and charity towards our brothers and
Thus, the Council of Jerusalem
originated in order to resolve the question of how to deal with those pagans
who were joining the faith — opting for freedom from circumcision and from the
observances that the Mosaic Law imposed — and ended with an ecclesial and
pastoral decision that places faith in Jesus Christ and love for the poor of
Jerusalem and of the entire Church at the center.
Peter in Antioch
The second episode is the well-known
incident at Antioch in Syria, which attests to the inner freedom that Paul
enjoyed: how to act during common meals between believers of Jewish origin and
those of Gentile descent.
The other epicenter of Mosaic
observance emerges here: the distinction between clean and unclean foods, which
profoundly divided observant Jews and pagans. Initially, Cephas (Peter) shared
meals with one group or the other. But when some Christians who were associated
with James, “the brother of the Lord,” arrived (see Galatians 1:19), Peter
began to avoid contact at table with the pagans in order to not scandalize
those who continued to observe the dietary laws — a decision that Barnabas
This decision profoundly divided those
Christians who had been circumcised and those who were of pagan origin. Their
behavior, which actually threatened the unity and freedom of the Church,
aroused a heated reaction from Paul, who, at one point, accused Peter and the
others of hypocrisy: “If you, though a Jew, are living like a Gentile and not
like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?” (see Galatians
Actually, Paul, on the one hand, and
Peter and Barnabas on the other, had different concerns. For Peter and Barnabas,
separation from the pagans was a way to protect and to avoid scandalizing
believers from a Jewish background, while for Paul it risked causing a
misunderstanding of the universal salvation in Christ that is offered to Jews
and pagans alike.
If justification is realized merely
by virtue of faith in Christ, of conformity to him, without any work of the
Law, what sense was there in continuing to observe the dietary laws when
It is very likely that Peter and
Paul’s perspectives were different. Peter did not want to lose those Jews who
now adhered to the Gospel; Paul did not wish to diminish the redemptive value
of Christ’s death for all believers.
Strangely enough, when writing to
the Christians of Rome some years later (in the middle of the 50s), Paul found
himself in a similar situation and asked the “strong” not to eat unclean food
in order to not alienate or scandalize the “weak:” “It is good not to eat meat
or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble” (see Romans
Thus, the incident at Antioch was a
learning lesson for both Peter and Paul. Only sincere dialogue that is open to
the truth of the Gospel could guide the Church’s path: “The Kingdom of God is
not a matter of food and drink, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy
Spirit” (see Romans 14:17).
This is a lesson that we, too,
should learn. With the different charisms entrusted to Peter and to Paul, let
us all be guided by the Spirit, seeking to live in that freedom that has faith
in Christ as its guide and service to our brothers and sisters as its concrete
The essential thing is to conform
ourselves ever more closely to Christ. In this way, we become truly free and
find within ourselves the real center and the profound essence of the Law: love
of God and of our neighbor.
Let us ask the Lord to teach us to
share his sentiments and to learn from him true freedom and the evangelical
love that embraces every human being.