Register Summary

During his Oct. 25 general audience with 25,000 people in St. Peter’s Square, Pope Benedict XVI announced that, after completing a series of teachings on the Twelve Apostles, his forthcoming audiences would be dedicated to “other important figures of the early Church.” He then offered his reflections on St. Paul, who, he noted, was “foremost among them.”

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

We have concluded our series of reflections on the Twelve Apostles whom Jesus himself called during his life on earth. Today, we will begin to examine other important figures of the early Church. They, too, gave up their lives for the Lord, for the Gospel and for the Church. As Luke writes in the Acts of the Apostles, they are men and women who “have dedicated their lives to the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 15:26).

A Chosen Vessel

Undoubtedly, Paul of Tarsus, whom the risen Lord himself called to be a true apostle, is foremost among them. He shines forth in the history of the Church like a star of the first magnitude — and not just in the early Church. St. John Chrysostom extols him as someone who is greater than even many of the angels and archangels (see Panegirico 7, 3). In his Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri, who was inspired by Luke’s account in the Acts of the Apostles (see Acts 9:15), describes him simply as a “chosen vessel” (Inferno 2, 28), meaning an instrument chosen by God. Others have called him the “Thirteenth Apostle.” Actually, he insists on the fact that he truly was an apostle, having been called by the risen Christ and even “the first after the Only One.” Indeed, after Jesus, he is the person from those early times about whom we have the most information.

In fact, we have not only Luke’s account in the Acts of the Apostles but also a group of letters that come directly from his hand and that reveal to us his personality and thought without having to pass through any intermediaries. Luke tells us that his original name was Saul, a Hebrew name (see Acts 7:58; 8:1; 9:14-17; 22:7-13; 26:14), like King Saul (see Acts 13:21) and that he was a Jew from the Diaspora, since the city of Tarsus is situated between Anatolia and Syria. At an early age he went to Jerusalem to study the Law of Moses in depth at the feet of the great rabbi Gamaliel (see Acts 22:3). He had also learned the common manual trade of tent-making (see Acts 18:3), which later would allow him to support himself personally without being a burden on the churches (see Acts 20:34; 1 Corinthians 4:12; 2 Corinthians 12:13-14).

The Road to Damascus

A turning point for him was getting to know the community of those who professed themselves to be disciples of Jesus. Through them he came to know about a new faith, a new “way” as it was called, which concentrated not so much on the Law of God as on the person of Jesus, who had had been crucified and who had risen and to whom was attributed the remission of sins. Since Paul was a zealous Jew, he considered this message unacceptable and even scandalous, and felt it was his duty to persecute the followers of Christ, even outside of Jerusalem. It was on the road to Damascus at the beginning of the 30s, when, according to his own words, he was “taken possession of by Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:12).

Whereas Luke recounts the event in abundant detail—how the light of the risen Christ touched him and changed his life in a most fundamental way — Paul, in his letters, goes directly to what is essential, speaking not only of a vision (see 1 Corinthians 9:1) but also of an illumination (see 2 Corinthians 4:6) and, above all, of a revelation and a calling in his encounter with the risen Christ (see Galatians 1:15-16). In fact, he later described himself explicitly as “called to be an apostle” (see Romans 1:1; 1 Corinthians 1:1) or as “an apostle by the will of God” (2 Corinthians 1:1, Ephesians 1:1; Colossians 1:1) as though he wanted to underline that his conversion was not the result of some development of his thinking and his reflecting, but the fruit of a divine intervention, of an unforeseen grace from God.

From that moment on, everything that was of value to him beforehand became, paradoxically and in his own words, “loss” and “rubbish” (see Philippians 3:7-10). From then on, he devoted all his energy exclusively to serving Jesus Christ and his Gospel. His life, from then on, was that of an apostle who wanted to “become all things to all” (1 Corinthians 9:22) without any reservations.

From this we draw a very important lesson. What matters most is to put Jesus Christ at the center of our lives, so that our identity is characterized essentially by an encounter and by a communion with Christ and with his word. In his light, every other value is distilled and purified of any possible dross.

A Universal Love

Paul offers us yet another basic lesson: the universal nature of his apostolate. Paul felt in a very poignant way the difficulty of Gentiles — that is, the pagans — in attaining God who, in the crucified and risen Christ, offers salvation to all men without exception. He dedicated himself to making this Gospel — literally this “good news” — known, the proclamation of the grace that has been destined to reconcile man with God, with himself and with others.

From the beginning, he had understood that this reality not only concerned the Jews or a limited group of men, but had a universal value and concerned all people because God is the God of all. The starting point for his journeys was the church at Antioch in Syria, where, for the first time, the Gospel was proclaimed to the Greeks and where the word “Christian” was coined to denote believers in Christ (see Acts 11:20.26). From there he headed, first of all, to Cyprus and then on different occasions to regions of Asia Minor (Pisidia, Laconia, Galatia), and later to regions of Europe (Macedonia, Greece). The cities of Ephesus, Philippi, Thessalonica, Corinth, not to mention Berea, Athens and Miletus, were the most important places.

Paul did not lack any share of problems in his apostolate, and he faced them with courage out of his love for Christ. He himself recalls that he had to endure “labors ... imprisonments ... beatings; numerous brushes with death. ... Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked ... on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my own race, dangers from Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers at sea, dangers among false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many sleepless nights, through hunger and thirst, through frequent fastings, through cold and exposure. And apart from these things, there is the daily pressure upon me of my anxiety for all the churches” (2 Corinthians 11:23-28).

A passage from his Letter to the Romans (see Romans 15:24-28) reveals his determination to go to Spain, the western boundary of world as it was then known, in order to proclaim the Gospel everywhere. How can we not admire such a man? How can we not thank the Lord for having given us an apostle of this stature? Clearly, he would not have been able to face such difficult and, at times, such desperate situations if he did not have a reason of absolute value before which there were no insurmountable limits.

As we know, for Paul this reason was Jesus Christ, of whom he wrote the following: “For the love of Christ impels us ... so that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised” (2 Corinthians 5:14-15) — for us, for everyone.

Imitator of Christ

In fact, this apostle gave his supreme witness with his blood under the emperor Nero here in Rome, where we keep and venerate his mortal remains. In the last years of the first century, Clement of Rome, my predecessor in this Apostolic See, wrote the following: “Because of jealousy and discord, Paul was obliged to show us how to obtain the prize of patience. ... After preaching justice throughout the world and after having arrived at the limits of the western world, he suffered martyrdom at the hand of its rulers. Thus, he left this world and attained a holy place and became the greatest model of perseverance” (Letter to the Corinthians, 5). May the Lord help us to put into practice the exhortation the apostle left us in his letters: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1)

(Register translation)