weekly general audience february 4, 2009


At his general audience on Feb. 4, Pope Benedict XVI concluded his series of catecheses on St. Paul. He spoke about the final years of St. Paul’s earthly life and martyrdom and highlighted his legacy to mankind. Paul’s writings, he noted, have inspired countless commentaries through the centuries, and new studies continue to shed light on Paul’s character, the churches he founded, and the Gospel he preached. Paul was a generous apostle and an original thinker. However, the Holy Father pointed out, Paul was not the “new founder” of Christianity, as some modern scholars would claim.


Our series of catecheses on St. Paul has come to an end. Today, we will speak about the final days of Paul’s life here on earth.

Early Christian tradition generally testifies to the fact that Paul suffered martyrdom here in Rome. The writings of the New Testament do not say anything about this. The Acts of the Apostles ends with a reference to the fact that Paul was a prisoner, yet he was still able to receive visitors (see Acts 28:30-31).

The only indication we find is in the Second Letter to Timothy: “For I am already being poured out like a libation, and the time of my departure is at hand” (2 Timothy 4:6; see Philippians 2:17).

Two images are used here. One refers to a sacrificial offering, which Paul used elsewhere in the Letter to the Philippians, where he interpreted martyrdom as participation in Christ’s sacrifice. The other image uses the nautical term for casting off a boat. These two images together discreetly allude to death — to a bloody death.


Paul’s Final Years

The first explicit testimony on Paul’s final days has been handed down to us from the last decade of the first century — a little more than 30 years after his death.

It is a letter that the Church in Rome, under its bishop, Clement I, wrote to the Church in Corinth. This letter exhorts the faithful to keep their eyes fixed on the example of the Apostles. After a reference to Peter’s martyrdom, we read the following words: “Owing to envy, Paul also obtained the reward of patient endurance, after being seven times thrown into captivity, compelled to flee, and stoned. After preaching both in the east and west, he gained an illustrious reputation due to his faith, having taught righteousness to the whole world. Having come to the extreme limit of the west, he suffered martyrdom under the prefects. Thus was he removed from the world and went into the holy place, having proved himself a striking example of patience” (1 Clement 5:2).

The patience to which the letter refers is Paul’s communion with the passion of Christ and the generosity and constancy with which he accepted the road of suffering, to the point of being able to say: “I bear the marks of Jesus on my body” (Galatians 6:17).

In St. Clement’s text, we read that Paul had come “to the extreme limit of the west.” There is some discussion as to whether this is an allusion to a journey to Spain that Paul might have made. There is no certainty on this point, but St. Paul does express his intention to go to Spain in his Letter to the Romans (see Romans 15:24).

However, it is interesting to note that Paul’s name follows Peter’s name in Clement’s letter, although the order is reversed in a fourth-century testimony from Eusebius of Caesarea, who wrote the following when speaking about the Emperor Nero: “It is, therefore, recorded that Paul was beheaded in Rome itself, and that Peter likewise was crucified under Nero. This account of Peter and Paul is substantiated by the fact that their names are preserved in the cemeteries of that place even to the present day” (Ecclesiastical History 2, 25, 5).

Eusebius then goes on to cite an older account of a Roman priest by the name of Gaius, dating back to the second century: “I can show the trophies of the apostles. For if you will go to the Vatican or to the Ostian way, you will find the trophies of those who laid the foundations of this Church” (Ecclesiastical History 2, 25, 6-7).

The “trophies” are the tombs of Peter and Paul, which we still venerate today at their same locations 2,000 years later — the tomb of Peter here in the Vatican and the tomb of Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, at the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls on the Via Ostiense.

It is interesting to point out that these two great apostles are mentioned together. Although there is no ancient source that speaks about them ministering in Rome at the same time, Christians later associated the two together as founders of the Church in Rome, based on the fact that they are both buried in the capital of the empire.

In fact, at the end of the second century, Irenaeus of Lyon spoke about apostolic succession in the different churches: “Since it would take too much time to make a list of succession in all the churches, we will consider that very great and ancient Church, revered by all, the Church that was founded and established in Rome by those two glorious apostles, Peter and Paul” (Avv. haer. 3, 3, 2).


Paul’s Martyrdom

However, let us set Peter aside now to concentrate on Paul. Paul’s martyrdom is first related in the Acts of Paul, which was written towards the end of the second century. It states that Nero condemned him to death by beheading, and the sentence was immediately carried out (see Acts of Paul 9:5).

The date of his death varies in these ancient sources, which place it between the persecution that Nero unleashed following the burning of Rome in the summer of 64 and the last year of his reign in the year 68 (see Jerome, De viris ill. 5:8). The date depends to a large extent on the chronology of Paul’s arrival in Rome — a discussion which we cannot enter into here.

Subsequent traditions provide two other details about his death. According to one tradition, which is based more on legend, his martyrdom took place at the Acquae Salviae on the Via Laurentina, where his head bounced three times, each time causing water to gush forth. Thus, the place is called Tre Fontane (Three Fountains) even to this day (Atti di Pietro e Paolo dello Pseudo Marcello from the fifth century).

According to the other tradition, which is more in harmony with an early testimony by the priest known as Gaius whom we already mentioned, Paul was buried not only “outside the city ... at the second mile on the Via Ostiense,” but, more precisely, “on the property of Lucina,” a Christian matron (Passione di Paolo dello Pseudo Abdia from the sixth century).

In the fourth century, the Emperor Constantine erected a church there for the first time, which the Emperors Valentinian II, Theodosius and Arcadius greatly enlarged between the fourth and fifth centuries.

After a fire in the 19th century, the present Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls was built.

In any case, the figure of St. Paul towers over the events of his life and death here on earth.

Indeed, he left an extraordinary spiritual legacy. Like every true disciple of Christ, he was a sign of contradiction. Whereas the Ebionites, a Judeo-Christian movement, considered him to be an apostate to the Mosaic Law, a great veneration for the apostle Paul is found in the Acts of the Apostles.

For now, though, I will not consider all the other apocryphal literature, such as the Acts of Paul and Tecla, as well as the apocryphal correspondence between the apostle Paul and the philosopher Seneca.

Above all, it is important to note that the letters of St. Paul entered into the liturgy almost immediately, where the structure of “prophet-apostle-Gospel” would play a decisive role for the formation of the Liturgy of the Word.

Thanks to this “presence” in the liturgy of the Church, Paul’s thinking immediately became spiritual nourishment for the faithful throughout the ages.


His Legacy to Us

The Fathers of the Church, and later all theologians, clearly drew sustenance from the letters of St. Paul and his spirituality. For this reason, he has remained throughout the centuries — as he does to this day — the true teacher and apostle of the Gentiles.

The first patristic commentary that was handed down to us on writings from the New Testament is the commentary of Origen, the famous theologian from Alexandria who wrote a commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Unfortunately, only a portion of his commentary has been preserved.

Besides writing a commentary on St. Paul’s letters, St. John Chrysostom wrote seven memorable homilies about him. St. Augustine owes the decisive step in his own conversion to Paul, and throughout his life, he often referred to him. This ongoing dialogue with the apostle Paul was the inspiration for his great Catholic theology, as well as for Protestant theology throughout the ages.

St. Thomas Aquinas left us a magnificent commentary on St. Paul’s letters, the finest fruit of medieval exegesis.

A true turning point occurred in the 16th century with the Protestant Reformation.

A decisive moment in Luther’s life was his so-called Turmerlebnis (Tower Experience) in 1517 when, in an instant, he discovered a new interpretation of St. Paul’s doctrine of justification that freed him from the scruples and concerns of his previous life and gave him a new and radical confidence in the goodness of God, who forgives everything unconditionally.

From that moment on, Luther identified Judeo-Christian legalism, which Paul condemned, with the order of life in the Catholic Church. Therefore, the Church appeared to him as enslaved to the law, with which he contrasted the freedom of the Gospel.

The Council of Trent, which took place from 1545-1563, provided a profound interpretation of the question of justification and found, in the line with all Catholic tradition, a synthesis between law and Gospel, which is in conformity with the message of sacred Scripture, when considered in its entirety and its unity.

The 19th century, drawing on the finest elements inherited from the Enlightenment, saw a fresh revival of studies devoted to St. Paul, especially in the field of academic research, which developed along the lines of a historical-critical interpretation of sacred Scripture.

Let us set aside the fact, though, that in the 19th century, as in the 20th century, a tendency emerged that truly denigrated St. Paul. I think first and foremost of Nietzsche, who derided St. Paul’s theology of humility, contrasting it with his theology of the strong and powerful man.

Let us set this aside, though, and look at the essential current of this new, scientific interpretation of sacred Scripture and these fresh studies on St. Paul from the 19th century.

First of all, they highlighted the concept of freedom as central to St. Paul’s thought. This freedom, which Luther had perceived earlier, was seen as the heart of Paul’s thought. At this point, however, the concept of freedom was reinterpreted within the context of modern liberalism.

Later, a strong emphasis was put on the difference between Paul’s message and Jesus’ message. St. Paul appeared at times as Christianity’s new founder.

It is true that in St. Paul the centrality of the Kingdom of God, which was a determining factor of Jesus’ proclamation, was transformed into the centrality of Christology, the decisive moment of which is the paschal mystery. The sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist are derived from this paschal mystery as a permanent presence of this mystery, from which the body of Christ grows, from which the Church is built.


Paul’s Gift to Us

Without going into details now, I would say that it is precisely in the centrality of Christology and the paschal mystery that the Kingdom of God becomes a reality, where Jesus’ authentic message becomes concrete, present and operative.

We saw in the previous catecheses that it is precisely this new approach of St. Paul that is most profoundly faithful to Jesus’ message.

As exegesis has progressed, especially over the last 200 years, there has been increasing convergence between Catholic and Protestant exegesis, resulting in a remarkable consensus on the very point that had been at the origin of the greatest disagreement in history.

This represents a great hope for the cause of ecumenism, so fundamental for the Second Vatican Council.

Finally, I would like to briefly note the various religious movements which have emerged in modern times within the Catholic Church that draw their inspiration from St. Paul. As with the Congregation of St. Paul, known as the Barnabites, in the 16th century, the 19th century saw the dawn of the Missionaries of St. Paul — the Paulists — and the 20th century saw the dawn of the multifaceted Pauline Family founded by Blessed Giacomo Alberione, as well as the Secular Institute of the Society of St. Paul.

Standing before us in a powerful way is the shining figure of an apostle and a fruitful and profound Christian thinker who is a benefit to us all. In one of his homilies, St. John Chrysostom compared Paul to Noah, saying that Paul “did not put together beams to make an ark.

Rather, instead of putting together planks of wood, he wrote letters, thus saving from the floodwaters not two, three or five members of his own family, but the entire inhabited world, which was on the verge of perishing” (Paneg. 1). This is precisely what the apostle Paul can still do and will always do.

Drawing from him — both from his apostolic example and from his teaching — will be a stimulus for us, if not a guarantee, to consolidate our Christian identity and rejuvenate the entire Church.

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