By Pope Benedict XVI

Ignatius Press, 2007

163 pages, $14.95

To order:

(800) 651-1531

Shortly after being elected Pope, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger received this accolade from a Protestant theologian: “Pope Benedict is one of the greatest living theologians.”

While the term “theologian” often evokes a figure deep in intellect and obscure in speech, casual observers who have had a chance to get to know Pope Benedict’s writing have often been surprised to find that he is both a profound thinker and clear communicator, able to write and speak to many levels of understanding.

While his “class” actually meets on Wednesdays, Benedict is also among the greatest living Sunday School teachers.

Jesus, the Apostles and the Early Church is a collection of his Wednesday audience addresses from 2006 and 2007 on the “mystery of the relationship between Christ and the Church, reflecting upon it from the experience of the Apostles, in light of the duty entrusted to them.” The first seven talks are introductions to the Catholic teaching on the nature of the Church as a communion of love, whose gifts are securely passed down in its Tradition. The rest are reflections on the specific figures of the Apostles, Paul, Timothy and Titus, Stephen, Priscilla and Aquila — and others who played a role in the young Church. Teaching about the mystery of Christ by encountering his followers is effective because, as Benedict says, “The value of witness is irreplaceable, because the Gospel leads to it, and the Church is nourished by it.”

Benedict’s talks usually begin with crisp, miniature biographies of the figures, including information from the biblical passages that mention them and other documents. When there are disputes over a biographical point, such as whether St. Barnabas wrote the Letter to the Hebrews, he refuses to get bogged down, and wryly remarks that such questions can be left to the biblical scholars or historians.

Benedict proceeds to examine the teaching of these figures or the lessons one can draw from their actions and speech.

The Pope doesn’t take a blinkered view. Concerning the disputes between Paul and Barnabas, Benedict reflects that the “disputes, disagreements and controversies among saints” are “comforting, because we see that the saints have not ‘fallen from heaven.’ They are people like us, who also have complicated problems.” And yet, the secret of all of these figures is that they found the answers to their problems in Jesus.

While Benedict’s talks are studded with insights on the nature of the papacy, the diversity of gifts in the Church, the problems of faith and countless other aspects of Christian life, the heart of these talks is a reflection on building a relationship with Jesus.

For those who missed “class” in Rome, these “lessons” are ideal for group and individual study, or simply devotional reading.

David Paul Deavel writes from St. Paul, Minnesota.