Weekly General Audience January 28, 2009
During his general audience on Jan. 28, Pope Benedict XVI offered his reflections on St. Paul’s pastoral letters, which were addressed to his closest collaborators, Timothy and Titus.
Dear brothers and sisters,
The last two letters of Paul’s epistles, of which I would like to speak, are known as pastoral letters because they were sent to two individuals — two to Timothy and one to Titus — who were shepherds of the Church and Paul’s closest collaborators.
For Paul, Timothy was somewhat of an alter ego. In fact, he entrusted to him several important missions (to Macedonia: see Acts 19:22; to Thessalonica: see 1 Titus 3:6-7; and to Corinth: see 1 Corinthians 4:17 and 16:10-11) and later wrote a very flattering tribute to him: “For I have no one comparable to him for genuine interest in whatever concerns you” (Philippians 2:20).
According to Eusebius of Caesarea’s Ecclesiastical History from the fourth century, Timothy was later the first bishop of Ephesus (see Ecclesiastical History 3:4).
As for Titus, Paul also loved him dearly, unambiguously describing him as “full of zeal … my partner and coworker for you” (2 Corinthians 8:17 and 23) as well as “my true child in our common faith” (Titus 1:4). He was entrusted with a couple of sensitive missions to the Church in Corinth, the results of which were very heartening for Paul (see 2 Corinthians 7:6-7 and 13; 8:6).
According to what we know, Titus later joined Paul in Greece at Nicopolis in Epirus (see Titus 3:12) and was then sent by him to Dalmatia (see 2 Timothy 4:10). According to the letter addressed to him, he later became the bishop of Crete (see Titus 1:5).
The letters that were sent to these two shepherds occupy a unique place within the New Testament.
Today, the majority of exegetes feel that Paul himself did not write these letters. Rather, their origins are in the “school of Paul” and reflect his legacy to a future generation, perhaps integrating some brief writings or sayings of Paul himself.
For example, some of the language of the Second Letter to Timothy appears so authentic that it could have come only from the heart and lips of the Apostle Paul.
There is no doubt that the ecclesial situation from which these letters emerged was different from the central years of Paul’s life. In retrospect, he now describes himself as “preacher, apostle and teacher” to the pagans in faith and in truth (see 1 Timothy 2:7; 2 Timothy 1:11), and as one who has obtained mercy so that Jesus Christ, as he says, “might display all his patience as an example for those who would come to believe in him for everlasting life” (1 Timothy 1:16).
Thus, it is truly essential for Paul, the persecutor who was converted by the presence of the risen Christ, that the goodness of the Lord be made visible in him to encourage us to hope and have faith in the mercy of the Lord who, in spite of our insignificance, can do great things.
Besides the central years of Paul’s life, some new cultural contexts also appear. In fact, there is an allusion to the emergence of some teachings that were completely false and erroneous (see 1 Timothy 4:1-2; 2 Timothy 3:1-5), like that of some people to present marriage as something that was not good (see 1 Timothy 4:3).
This concern remains relevant to this day because people sometimes read Scripture out of a historical curiosity and not as the word of the Holy Spirit where we hear the voice of the Lord and perceive his presence in history. We might say that the short list of errors described in these three letters foreshadows some characteristics of an erroneous orientation that appeared later under the name of Gnosticism (see 1 Timothy 2:5-6; 2 Timothy 3:6-8).
Scripture and Tradition
The author responds to these teachings with two basic admonitions. First, he encourages us to read sacred Scripture from a spiritual perspective (see 2 Timothy 3:14-17); that is, to read it as being “inspired by” and coming from the Holy Spirit, “giving wisdom for salvation.”
We read Scripture in the proper way by entering into a dialogue with the Holy Spirit so that he will give us light “for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). In the same vein, the letter adds the following words: “so that one who belongs to God may be competent, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:17).
The second admonition makes reference to the good “deposit” (parathéke) — a special word in the pastoral letters that refers to the tradition of apostolic faith that must be safeguarded with the help of the Holy Spirit who dwells within us.
This so-called “deposit” is considered the sum of apostolic tradition and the standard of faithfulness to the proclamation of the Gospel. Here we have to keep in mind that in the pastoral letters — as in the entire New Testament — the word “Scripture” explicitly refers to the Old Testament, since the writings of the New Testament either did not exist yet or were not part yet of the canon of Scripture.
Thus, this tradition of apostolic proclamation, this “deposit,” is the key for reading and understanding Scripture, the New Testament.
In this sense, Scripture and Tradition, Scripture and the apostolic proclamation as the key for reading, support each other and, as it were, fuse together in order to form “God’s solid foundation” (2 Timothy 2:19). Apostolic proclamation, that is, Tradition, is needed in order to penetrate and understand Scripture and to hear Christ’s voice in it.
Indeed, we have to “hold fast to the true message as taught” (Titus 1:9). The foundation of all things is precisely this faith in the historical revelation of the goodness of God, who, in Jesus Christ, has concretely manifested his “love for all men,” a love that in the original Greek text is meaningfully described as filanthropía (Titus 3:4; see 2 Timothy 1:9-10). God loves mankind.
Anchored in the Truth
On the whole, it is obvious that the Christian community was configuring itself along some very clear lines, distancing itself from any interpretations that were inconsistent and anchoring itself first and foremost to the essential tenets of the faith, which is synonymous here 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).
The essential truth of the faith regarding who we are, who God is, and how we must live makes its appearance. The Church is described as the “pillar and foundation” (1 Timothy 3:15) of this truth — the truth of our faith.
In any case, it remains an open community, with a universal outreach, that prays for men of every class and every condition, so that they might attain knowledge of the truth: “God … wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth” because “Christ Jesus … gave himself as ransom for all” (1 Timothy 2:4-5).
Therefore, this sense of universality, even if the communities were still small, is a strong, determining factor in these letters. Furthermore, these Christian communities “slander no one … exercising all graciousness toward everyone” (Titus 3:2).
This is the first important component of these letters: universality and faith as truth, as the key to reading sacred Scripture, to the Old Testament, thereby defining a unity of proclamation and of Scripture and a living faith that is open to all and a witness of God’s love for all people.
Another component that is characteristic of these letters is their reflection on the ministerial structure of the Church. They are the first to present the three-fold subdivision of bishops, priests and deacons (see 1 Timothy 3:1-13; 4:13; 2 Timothy 1:6; Titus 1:5-9).
We can see that two distinct ministerial structures converge in these pastoral letters, thereby constituting the definitive form of ministry in the Church.
In the letters from the central years of his life, Paul speaks about “overseers” and “ministers” (Philippians 1:1) — the typical structure of the Church that had taken form during the era of the pagan world. Nevertheless, the figure of the apostle himself remains dominant and, as a result, the other ministries developed little by little.
If, as I have said, the churches that were formed in the pagan world had bishops and deacons but not presbyters, the churches that were formed in the Judeo-Christian world had presbyters as the dominant structure.
In these pastoral letters, these two structures were united in the end. The episcopo or bishop emerges (see 1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:7) — always in the singular and always accompanied by the definite article “the.” Together with the episcopo, we find the presbyters and the deacons.
Yet, the figure of the apostle continues to be a determining factor. However, the three letters, as I have already said, are no longer addressed to communities, but to individuals, Timothy and Titus, who, on one hand, appear as bishops, yet, on the other hand, begin to function in the place of the apostle.
Thus, we perceive for the first time the reality of what will later be called “apostolic succession.”
With a tone of great solemnity, Paul says 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 might also say that the sacramental nature of the ministry emerges for the first time in these words. Thus, we have the essential elements of Catholic structure — Scripture and Tradition, Scripture and proclamation — forming a whole. But to this structure — this doctrinal structure as we might call it — a personal structure must be added, the successors of the apostles as witnesses of the apostolic proclamation.
Members of God’s Household
Finally, it is important to point out that the Church perceives itself in very human terms in these letters, with analogies to home and family. In particular, very detailed instructions are given in 1 Timothy 3:2-7 for the bishop: “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.”
Above all, we should note here the importance of an aptitude for teaching (see also 1 Timothy 5:17), which is also echoed in other passages (see 1 Timothy 6:2c; 2 Timothy 3:10; Titus 2:1), as well as a special, personal characteristic — namely, “paternity.”
Indeed, the bishop is considered to be the father of the Christian community (also see 1 Timothy 3:15).
Moreover, this idea of the Church as the “house of God” has its roots in the Old Testament (see Numbers 12:7) and was reformulated in Hebrews 3:2, 6. Elsewhere, we read that all Christians are no longer strangers and sojourners, but fellow citizens with the holy ones and members of the household of God (see Ephesians 2:19).
Let us ask the Lord and St. Paul that we, too, as Christians today will always be characterized — with respect to the society in which we live — as members of the “family of God.”
Let us also pray that the pastors of the Church will increasingly acquire more paternal sentiments — sentiments that are tender and strong at one and the same time — for the formation of God’s household, the community, the Church.