Register Summary

Pope Benedict XVI concluded his series of teachings on St. Paul with a fourth teaching on the apostle during his Nov. 22 general audience. He focused on Paul’s teaching on the Church.

He recalled how Paul’s first contact with Jesus was through the Christian community in Jerusalem. However, his initial response was rejection and persecution. Christ later revealed himself to Paul on the road to Damascus and Paul was then converted to Christ and to the Church. As a result, the Church then played an important part in his thought and in his work as he went on to establish churches in various cities as an evangelizer.

For Paul, the Church is the “body of Christ,” an extension of Christ’s presence in the world. “Paul helps us to understand that there is a way in which the Church not only belongs to Christ, is also equivalent to and closely identified with Christ himself,” Pope Benedict pointed out. The Holy Spirit gives life and structure to the Church by pouring out his gifts upon believers. “It is important, therefore, that all the charisms work together to build up the community and that they not become instead a reason for division,” the Holy Father emphasized.

Paul also developed the image of the Church as the bride of Christ, which has its roots in the Old Testament. The Pope noted the intimate relationship that exists between Christ and his Church according to St. Paul: “She is the object of the Lord’s most tender love and since love must be mutual, we, too, as members of the Church, must demonstrate a passionate faithfulness to him.”

Pope Benedict concluded the general audience by encouraging Christians to pray that we may enter more deeply into this mystery of communion in order to be more effective witnesses of Christ’s presence in the world.

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Today we will complete our series of encounters with the apostle Paul, devoting one last reflection to him. Indeed, we cannot take leave of him without taking into consideration one of the crucial elements of his work and one of the most important themes of his thought: the reality of the Church.

First of all, we must note that his first contact with the person of Jesus occurred through the witness of the Christian community in Jerusalem. It was a stormy contact. Having become acquainted with this new group of believers, he immediately became its fiercest persecutor. He himself acknowledges this three times in three different letters: “I persecuted the church of God” (1 Corinthians 15:9; Galatians 1:13; Philippians 3:6) he writes, presenting his behavior as though it were the worst crime.

History shows us that people normally make a commitment to Christ through the Church! In a certain sense, we might say that this was also true for Paul, who had an encounter with the Church before finding Jesus. In his case, however, this contact was counterproductive: It did not lead to a commitment but to vehement rejection. Paul’s commitment to the Church was facilitated by the direct intervention of Christ, who, revealing himself to Paul on the road to Damascus, identified himself with the Church and helped Paul to understand that by persecuting the Church, he was persecuting him, the Lord. In fact, the risen Christ said to Paul, the Church’s persecutor: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts of the Apostles 9:4). By persecuting the Church, he was persecuting Christ. At that very moment, Paul was converted to Christ and to the Church.

Paul the Evangelizer

This helps us to understand why the Church was so present in the thoughts, heart and activities of Paul, first and foremost in the fact that Paul literally founded many churches in the various cities where he went as an evangelizer. When he spoke of his “anxiety for all the churches” (2 Corinthians 11:28), he was thinking of the various Christian communities that he had established over time in Galatia, Ionia, Macedonia and Achaia. Some of these churches were at times a source of worry and displeasure, as was the case, for example, with the churches in Galatia, which he saw turning “to a different gospel” (Galatians 1:6) — something he opposed with spirited determination. Nonetheless, he felt a bond with the communities he founded that was not cold and bureaucratic but intense and passionate. For example, he describes the Philippians as “my brothers, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown” (Philippians 4:1). In some instances, he compares the different communities to a letter of recommendation that is unique for its kind: “You are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by all” (2 Corinthians 3:2). In other instances, he demonstrates paternal and even maternal feelings that are genuine and fitting, as is the case when he calls them by addressing these words to them: “My children, for whom I am in labor until Christ be formed in you!” (Galatians 4:19; see also 1 Corinthians 4:14-15; 1 Thessalonians 2:7-8).

The Body of Christ

In his letters, Paul also explains his doctrine on the Church to us. Thus, his well know definition of the Church as “body of Christ” is original and we do not find it among other Christian authors of the first century (see 1 Corinthians 12:27; Ephesians 4:12; 5:30; Colossians 1:24). We find the deepest roots of this amazing description of the Church in the sacrament of the body of Christ. “Because the loaf of bread is one,” he tells us, “we, though many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf” (1 Corinthians 10:17). In the Eucharist, Christ gives us his body and makes us his body. In this regard, St. Paul says to the Galatians, “You are all one in Christ” (Galatians 3:28). Through all this, Paul helps us to understand that there is a way in which the Church not only belongs to Christ, is also equivalent to and closely identified with Christ himself. It is from this, therefore, that the Church derives its greatness and nobleness, as well as we who are part of it: By being members of Christ, we are, in a way, an extension of his personal presence in the world, and from this follows, in a very natural way, our duty to really live in conformity with Christ.

The Charismatic Gifts

Paul’s exhortations regarding the various charisms that give the Christian community its life and structure are also derived from this. They all can be traced back to a single source, which is the Spirit of the Father and the Son, who is well aware that no one in the Church lacks them, because, as the apostle Paul writes, “To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit” (1 Corinthians 12:7). It is important, therefore, that all the charisms work together to build up the community and that they not become instead a reason for division. In this regard, Paul poses a rhetorical question: “Is Christ divided?” (1 Corinthians 1:13). He knows very well and teaches us that it is necessary “to preserve the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace: one body and one spirit, as you were called to the one hope of your call” (Ephesians 4:3-4).

Obviously, emphasizing the need for unity does not mean that the life of the Church has to be uniform or unexciting, according to one mode of operating. Elsewhere Paul teaches us to “not quench the Spirit” (1 Thessalonians 5:19), that is, to generously make room for the unforeseeable dynamism of the charismatic manifestations of the Spirit, who is an ongoing source of new energy and vitality. However, the one criterion to which Paul holds fast is building each other up: “Everything should be done for building up” (1 Corinthians 14:26). Everything should work together to build up in an orderly way the fabric that is the Church, avoiding not only stagnation but also losses and divisions.

The Bride of Christ

One of Paul’s letters even presents the Church as the bride of Christ (see Ephesians 5:21-33). He draws on an ancient prophetic metaphor whereby the people of Israel were the spouse of God of the covenant (see Hosea 2:4 and 21; Isaiah 54:5-8) in order to point out the intimate relationship between Christ and his Church: she is the object of the Lord’s most tender love and since love must be mutual, we, too, as members of the Church, must demonstrate a passionate faithfulness to him.

Therefore, it is clear that a relationship of communion is at work — what we may say is a “vertical” relationship between Jesus Christ and all of us and a “horizontal” relationship between all those in the world who are different from the world because they “call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 1:2). This is what defines us. We are part of those who call upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. Thus, we understand why it is desirable that all that Paul himself yearns for when writing to the Corinthians be fulfilled: “But if everyone is prophesying, and an unbeliever or uninstructed person should come in, he will be convinced by everyone and judged by everyone, and the secrets of his heart will be disclosed, and so he will fall down and worship God, declaring ‘God is really in your midst’” (1 Corinthians 14:24-25). Our liturgical gatherings should be like this. A non-Christian who enters one of our gatherings should be able to say at the end: “Truly God is with you.” Let us ask the Lord that we may be like this — in communion with Christ and in communion with each other.

(Register translation)