Benedict on St. Paul

“The theology of the Cross is not a theory–it is the reality of Christian life. To live in the belief in Jesus Christ, to live in truth and love, implies daily sacrifice, implies suffering. Christianity is not the easy road; it is, rather, a difficult climb, but one illuminated by the light of Christ and by the great hope that is born of him.” (70)


This collection of Pope Benedict’s twenty Wednesday audiences discussing St. Paul during the recent Pauline year give us a candid glimpse both into the life and writings of Paul the Apostle and into Pope Benedict’s own spirituality and hope for the Church. The Pauline year was meant to awaken in us a love for and understanding of the saint we hear from so much at Mass and in Scripture. Pope Benedict’s audiences also lead one to know and love St. Paul, but also to understand the profundity of the message he preached.

Paul has always been a dominating figure in the Church. He, along with St. Peter, is heralded as a founder of the Church, one among the Jews, one among the Gentiles. Yet Paul’s genius is not only in his preaching and teaching–a genius shared by this pope as well–but in his particular spirituality. Until reading the audiences, one might not be able to see the consistent themes running through Paul’s various letters as he develops a systematic theology.

St. Paul was a scholar of Jewish law at the same time he was a vigorous persecutor of the incipient Christian Church. As a result of Paul’s life prior to his conversion, his spirituality is richly imbued with suffering–and a particular love for the Cross–and a deep understanding of the mercy of God. In St. Paul,

“a persecutor converted by the presence of the Risen One, the Lord’s magnanimity is really shown to encourage us and lead us to hope and to have faith in the mercy of the Lord, who, notwithstanding out littleness, can do great things.” (119)

Benedict sets the stage by first discussing Paul’s earthly life and his interaction with the early Christians. In the first eight audiences, Benedict discusses Paul’s life before his conversion, what his “conversion” entailed, and Paul’s interaction with Christians afterward. The fervor St. Paul had for his life in Christ and his ministry of preaching helps us “to see his passion for the Gospel and thereby grasp the greatness, the beauty, indeed the deep need of the Gospel for all of us.” (20) The pope is asking us, essentially, to be St. Pauls to our modern world, to allow ourselves to see the light and be transformed in our hearts “that we too may give the light of the Gospel and the truth of Christ to today’s world, which thirsts for it.” (20)

In this first set of audiences, we see hoe St. Paul’s life and conversion have influenced Benedict’s own theology. His Introduction to Christianity is essentially an extended discussion of how the Christian life is an extension of–the fruit of–our individual encounter with Jesus Christ. Paul’s life shows us how profound and essential that encounter is as the foundation of Christian life and ministry. At the same time, we see how the individual encounter only reaches its full potential within the community of the Church. In Paul’s beautiful image of the Church as the Body of Christ, we see that we are a “convocation of God,” individuals brought together to work for a common goal in an organic way.

This is the greatness of the Church and the greatness of our call; we are a temple of God in the world, a place in which God truly dwells, and at the same time we are a community, a family of God who is love. (54)

St. Paul’s theology is more fully explained in the next twelve audiences. Benedict takes us through Paul’s Christology, Ecclesiology, Eschatology, an extended discussion of Justification, and Sacramental Theology. In all this, the reader comes to see that Paul’s work was not merely a collection of letters sent to newfound communities. His work and legacy was a consistent and systematic approach to theology, one meant to engage the culture and understanding of his day.

Paul’s approach to theological inquiry centered on Christ.

Christ, for the Apostle, is the criterion for evaluating events and things, the goal of every effort that he makes to proclaim the Gospel, the great passion that sustains his footsteps on the roads of the world. And this is a real and living Christ: “Christ,” Paul says, “who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). This person who loves me, with whom I can speak, who listens to me and answers me, this is truly the starting point for understanding the world and finding the way through history.

This Pauline Christology includes three main elements: (1) the need for a personal encounter with the Lord; (2) the centrality of the Cross; and (3) the Resurrection, the “keystone of Pauline Christology.” (66) The personal encounter is made possible through the humility of God, shown forth through the Incarnation and Christ’s life on earth. The Resurrection that we focus on so much presupposes the second element, the Cross. Without the Cross and without suffering, there is no Resurrection. Suffering is a necessary and fruitful part of the Christian life, and the part of Christ’s life that ” truly shows who God is, that is, a force of love which went even as far as the Cross to save men and women.” (64)

From the Resurrection comes the possibility for preaching, ministry, and the sacramental life of the Church. The Resurrection also points us to the life to come and our need to be actively waiting for the Lord’s return. Ultimately, the Resurrection teaches us, as it taught Paul, that “the situation [has] changed radically.” (81)

The Life, Death, and Resurrection of Christ changes Paul’s entire understanding of his own religious observance and the world-at-large. The Law that Paul studied so diligently prior to his conversion is removed to make way for an authentic Christian freedom. But contrary to the understanding of Paul’s culture–and ours as well–”Christian freedom is not libertinism; the liberation [from the Law] of which Saint Paul spoke is not liberation from good works.” (80) True Christian freedom comes from our faith:

Faith is looking at Christ, entrusting oneself to Christ, being united to Christ, conformed to Christ, to his life. And the form, the life of Christ, is love; hence to believe is to conform to Christ and to enter into his love.

From that belief, “in a faith that creates charity,” we are able to perform good works for others in authentic freedom. As a result, “We become just by entering into communion with Christ, who is Love.” (82)

This work on St. Paul can be read on many levels. One who simply wants a deeper understanding of the epistles we hear so often would benefit from knowing the cultural and historical contexts St. Paul dealt with. Those interested in learning about what might be called St. Paul’s systematic theology are well served also. Finally, those seeking to see how one great theologian (Benedict) reads another great theologian (Paul) will be engaged throughout this short tome. I found it to be intellectually stimulating and a call to action to be a new Paul in our day, in a world that was so much like his in its unbelief and skepticism. We need more people like St. Paul, and this primer on Pauline theology is a great start for those who want to learn how to transform themselves and the world.

This review was written as part of the Catholic book Reviewer program from The Catholic Company. Visit The Catholic Company to find more information on Saint Paul .


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