Weekly General Audience September 10, 2008
During his general audience on Sept. 10, Pope Benedict XVI devoted his catechesis to St. Paul’s vision of what it means to be an apostle of Jesus Christ. Even though St. Paul was not part of the Twelve Apostles, he claimed the title for himself, since he was chosen and transformed by the grace of God.
Dear brothers and sisters,
Last Wednesday, I spoke about the important turning point that took place in St. Paul’s life, following his encounter with the risen Christ.
Jesus entered his life and transformed him from a persecutor into an apostle. That encounter marked the beginning of his mission. Paul could not continue to live as he did before. He now felt as though the Lord had entrusted him with the task of proclaiming the Gospel as his apostle.
Today, I would like to speak about this new stage in his life — that of being an apostle of Christ.
As we read through the Gospels, we usually use the title of apostle to speak about the Twelve Apostles, in an effort to indicate those companions of Jesus who had heard his teaching in person. However, Paul felt as though he, too, was truly an apostle, and it seems quite clear that Paul’s concept of apostleship was not limited to the group of Twelve Apostles.
Of course, Paul distinguishes his own situation from those “who were apostles before” him (see Galatians 1:17).
He recognizes that they have a special place in the life of the Church. Yet, as we all know, St. Paul also considered himself an apostle in the strict sense of the word. There is no doubt that, at the time when Christianity began, no one traveled as many miles as he did by land and sea for the sole purpose of proclaiming the Gospel.
Therefore, his concept of apostleship went far beyond the concept associated with the Twelve Apostles — a concept handed down to us by St. Luke, above all in the Acts of the Apostles (see Acts 1:2-26; 6:2).
Indeed, in his First Letter to the Corinthians, Paul makes a clear distinction between “The Twelve” and “all the apostles,” speaking of them as two different groups that were blessed by appearances of the risen Christ (see 1 Corinthians 15:5-7).
In this passage, he humbly identifies himself as “the least of the apostles,” even likening himself to “one born abnormally,” saying, “For I am the least of the apostles, not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the Church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me has not been ineffective. Indeed, I have toiled harder than all of them; not I, however, but the grace of God [that is] with me” (see 1 Corinthians 15:9-10).
The metaphor of “one born abnormally” expresses extreme humility: It is also found in St. Ignatius of Antioch’s Letter to the Romans: “I am the last among all, one born abnormally, but it will be granted to me to be something, if I shall attain to God” (Letter to the Romans 9:2).
The bishop of Antioch was speaking about his imminent martyrdom, foreseeing it as the way to reverse his worthlessness.
St. Paul, on the other hand, speaks about it in relation to his own apostolic commitment: It is there that the fruitfulness of God’s grace, manifested for God, can transform a man who is a failure into a marvelous apostle — from a man who persecuted the churches into a man who founded churches!
This is what God has done in a man who, from an evangelical point of view, would have been considered a reject.
What then, in St. Paul’s eyes, makes him and others apostles?
According to his letters, there are three principal characteristics that distinguish an apostle. The first is having “seen the Lord” (see 1 Corinthians 9:1), that is, having had an encounter with him that was decisive in his life. He tells us in a similar vein in his Letter to the Galatians (see Galatians 1:15-16) that he was called — or set apart in a certain sense — through God’s grace and through the revelation of his son, to proclaim the glad tidings to pagans.
Ultimately, it is the Lord who makes an apostle, not any presumption on our part. Apostles do not make themselves, but are created by the Lord. Therefore, the apostle must be in a constant relationship with the Lord.
That is why Paul says he is “called to be an apostle” (see Romans 1:1), an apostle “not from human beings nor through a human being, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father” (see Galatians 1:1).
This, then, is the first characteristic: to have seen the Lord, to have been called by him.
Sent by Christ
The second characteristic is that of “being sent.” Indeed, the Greek word apóstolos means “someone who is sent or ordered” — an ambassador or an envoy. Therefore, he should act as the delegate and the representative of the one who sent him.
For this reason, Paul describes himself as “an apostle of Jesus Christ” (see 1 Corinthians 1:1; 2 Corinthians 1:1), his delegate, totally in his service, even calling himself “a slave of Christ Jesus” (see Romans 1:1).
Once again, the idea emerges of an initiative that originates with someone else, with God in Christ Jesus, to whom the apostle is bound by duty. It highlights, above all, the fact that he has received the mission that he is to carry out in his name directly from him, setting aside any personal interest.
Proclaiming the Gospel
The third requisite is to “proclaim the Gospel,” and, consequently, to establish churches. Indeed, the title of “apostle” is not and cannot be some honorary title. It involves in a concrete and dramatic way a person’s entire life.
In the First Letter to the Corinthians, Paul exclaims, “Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not my work in the Lord?” (see 1 Corinthians 9:1).
Likewise, in the Second Letter to the Corinthians, he states: “You are our letter, written on our hearts ... a letter of Christ written not in ink but by the Spirit of the living God” (see 2 Corinthians 3:2-3).
We should not be surprised, then, that St. John Chrysostom speaks of Paul as “a diamond soul” (see Panegirici 1:8) and goes on to say, “Just as fire, kindled by different materials, blazes even more ... so Paul’s words won over to his cause all those with whom he came into contact, while those who opposed him, captivated by his discourses, became fuel for this spiritual fire” (Panegirici 7:11).
This explains why Paul described apostles as “God’s co-workers” (see 1 Corinthians 3:9; 2 Corinthians 6:1), whose grace is at work in them.
Courage Amid Suffering
One element that is typical of a true apostle, which St. Paul clearly highlights, is a kind of identification between the Gospel and the one who evangelizes, since both are destined to share the same fate.
Indeed, no one more than Paul has demonstrated how the proclamation of the cross of Christ appears to be a “stumbling block” and “foolishness” (1 Corinthians 1:23), to which many have reacted with incomprehension and rejection.
It happened back then, and we should not be surprised that it happens even today. Therefore, the apostle shares this fate, appearing as “foolish and a stumbling block,” and Paul realized it. This was Paul’s own experience in life.
Paul wrote the following words to the Corinthians, not without a trace of irony: “For as I see it, God has exhibited us apostles as the last of all, like people sentenced to death, since we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels and human beings alike. We are fools on Christ’s account, but you are wise in Christ; we are weak, but you are strong; you are held in honor, but we in disrepute. To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are poorly clad and roughly treated, we wander about homeless and we toil, working with our own hands. When ridiculed, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we respond gently. We have become like the world’s rubbish, the scum of all, to this very moment” (1 Corinthians 4:9-13).
This is a self-portrait of Paul’s life as an apostle: The joy of being a bearer of God’s blessing and the grace of the Gospel prevails amid all these sufferings.
Moreover, Paul shared, in accordance with the stoic philosophy of his time, the idea of a tenacious constancy amid all the difficulties that came his way. But he goes beyond its merely humanistic perspective, referring to the love of God and Christ that are also factors: “What will separate us from the love of Christ? Will anguish, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword? As it is written: ‘For your sake we are being slain all the day; we are looked upon as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we conquer overwhelmingly through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (see Romans 8:35-39).
This is the certainty and the deep joy that guided the apostle Paul through all these experiences: Nothing can separate us from the love of God, and this love is truly the richness of human life.
As we can see, St. Paul gave his entire life to the Gospel — we might even say 24 out of the 24 hours of the day! Moreover, he carried out his ministry with faithfulness and joy, “to save at least some” (see 1 Corinthians 9:22).
In his dealings with the churches — knowing that he did not have a relationship of fatherhood with them (see 1 Corinthians 4:15), but rather a relationship of outright motherhood (see Galatians 4:19) — his attitude was one of complete service, declaring in a most admirable way: “Not that we lord it over your faith; rather, we work together for your joy, for you stand firm in the faith” (2 Corinthians 1:24).
This remains the mission of all of Christ’s apostles throughout the ages — to be his co-workers in true joy.