Pope Benedict XVI- General Audiences
On Paul's Death and Heritage
"The Figure of St. Paul Is Magnified Beyond His Earthly Life"
H.H. Benedict XVI
February 4, 2009
Dear brothers and sisters:
The series of our catechesis on the figure of St. Paul has arrived to
its conclusion: We wish to speak today of the end of his earthly life.
Ancient Christian tradition testifies unanimously that the death of Paul
came as a consequence of martyrdom suffered here in Rome. The writings
of the New Testament do not take up this fact. The Acts of the Apostles
ends its report indicating the Apostle's condition as a prisoner, who
nevertheless could receive all those who visited him (cf. Acts
Only in the Second Letter to Timothy do we find these, his foreboding
words: "For I am at the point of being poured out like a libation, and
the time of my releasing the canvas [departure] is at hand" (2 Timothy
4:6; cf. Philippians 2:17). Two images are used here, the liturgical one
of sacrifice, which he had already used in the Letter to the
Philippians, interpreting martyrdom as part of the sacrifice of Christ;
and the seafaring [image] of casting off: two images that together
discreetly allude to the event of death, and of a bloody death.
The first explicit testimony about the end of St. Paul comes to us from
the middle of the 90s of the first century, and therefore, something
more than 30 years after his death took place. It comes precisely from
the letter that the Church of Rome, with its bishop, Clement I, wrote to
the Church of Corinth.
In that epistolary text, the invitation is made to have the example of
the apostles before our eyes, and immediately after the mention of
Peter's martyrdom, it reads thus: "Owing to envy and discord, Paul was
obligated to show us how to obtain the prize of patience. Arrested seven
times, exiled, stoned, he was the herald of Christ in the East and in
the West, and for his faith, obtained a pure glory. After having
preached justice in the whole world, and after having arrived to the
corners of the West, he accepted martyrdom before the governors; thus he
parted from this world and arrived to the holy place, thereby converted
into the greatest model of patience" (1 Clement 5,2).
The patience of which it speaks is the expression of his communion with
the passion of Christ, of the generosity and constancy with which he
accepted a long path of suffering, to the point of being able to say: "I
bear the marks of Jesus on my body" (Galatians 6:17).
We heard in the text of St. Clement that Paul had arrived "to the
corners of the West." It is debated whether this refers to a trip to
Spain that Paul would have carried out. There is not certainty about
this, though it is true that St. Paul in his Letter to the Romans
expresses his intention to go to Spain (cf. Romans 15:24).
It is very interesting, in the letter from Clement, the succession of
the two names of Peter and Paul, even though these will be inverted in
the testimony of Eusebius of Caesarea in the fourth century. When
speaking of the Emperor Nero he wrote: "During his reign Paul was
beheaded precisely in Rome and Peter was there crucified. The report is
confirmed by the names of Peter and of Paul, which even today are
conserved in their sepulchers in this city" (Hist. Eccl. 2,25,5).
Eusebius later would continue relating a previous declaration of a Roman
presbyter by the name of Gaius, who dates back to the beginnings of the
second century: "I can show you the trophies of the apostles: If you go
to the Vatican or the Via Ostiense, there you will find the trophies of
the founders of the Church" (ibid. 2,25,6-7).
The "trophies" are the sepulchral monuments, and these are the same
sepulchers of Peter and Paul that even today we venerate, after two
millenniums in the same place: here in the Vatican regarding St. Peter,
in the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls on the Via Ostiense
regarding that of the Apostle to the Gentiles.
It is interesting to point out that the two great apostles are mentioned
together. Though no ancient source speaks of a contemporary ministry of
theirs in Rome, the successive Christian awareness, on the basis of
their common burial in the capital of the empire, will also associate
them as founders of the Church of Rome. Thus it is read, in fact, in
Irenaeus of Lyons, from the end of the second century, regarding the
apostolic succession in the distinct Churches: "It would be tedious to
enumerate the successions of all the Churches, we do take the very great
and very ancient and well-known Church, the Church founded and
established in Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul"
(Adv. Haer. 3,3,2).
Let us leave aside the figure of Peter and concentrate on that of Paul.
His martyrdom comes recounted for the first time in the Acts of Paul,
written toward the end of the second century. These report that Nero
condemned him to death by beheading, carried out immediately afterward
(cf. 9:5). The date of the death varies according to the ancient
sources, which place it between the persecution unleashed by Nero
himself after the burning of Rome in July of 64 and the last year of his
reign, in 68 (cf. Jerome, De Viris Ill. 5,8).
The calculation depends a lot on the chronology of Paul's arrival in
Rome, a discussion that we cannot get into here. Successive traditions
would pin down two other elements. One, the most legendary, is that the
martyrdom took place on the Acquae Salviae, on the Via Laurentina, with
a triple bounce of the head, each one of which caused a current of water
to spring out, due to which even today the place is called "Tre Fontane"
(Acts of Peter and Paul of Pseudo Marcellus of the fifth century).
The other, in consonance with the ancient testimony already mentioned,
of the presbyter Gaius, is that the burial occurred "not only outside of
the city, in the second mile of the Via Ostiense," but more precisely
"in the field of Lucina," who was a Christian matron (Passion of Paul of
Pseudo Abdias, of the sixth century).
There in the fourth century, the emperor Constantine erected a first
church, later enormously amplified after the fourth and fifth century by
Emperors Valentinianus II, Theodosius and Arcadius. After the fire of
1800, there was erected the current Basilica of St. Paul Outside the
In any case, the figure of St. Paul is magnified beyond his earthly life
and his death; he has left in fact an extraordinary spiritual heritage.
He as well, as a true disciple of Jesus, became a sign of contradiction.
While among the so-called ebionites -- a Judeo-Christian current -- he
was considered as an apostate of the Mosaic Law, already in the book of
Acts of the Apostles, there appears a great veneration for the Apostle
I would like now to set aside the apocryphal literature, such as the
Acts of Paul and Thecla and an apocryphal collection of letters between
the Apostle Paul and the philosopher Seneca. It is important to confirm
that very soon the Letters of St. Paul enter into the liturgy, where the
prophet-apostle-Gospel structure is determinant for the form of the
liturgy of the Word. Thus, thanks to this "presence" in the liturgy of
the Church, the thought of the Apostle at once becomes spiritual
nourishment for the faithful of all times.
It is obvious that the fathers of the Church and afterward all the
theologian have drawn form the Letters of St. Paul and his spirituality.
He has remained during the centuries, until today, as true teacher and
apostle to the Gentiles. The first patristic commentary that has arrived
to us regarding a writing of the New Testament is from the great
Alexandrian theologian Origen, who comments on the Letter of St. Paul to
This commentary is unfortunately conserved only in part. St. John
Chrysostom, besides commenting his letters, has written of him his seven
memorable panegyrics. St. Augustine owes him the decisive step of his
own conversion and he will return to Paul during all of his life. From
this permanent dialogue with the Apostle derives his great Catholic
theology and also for Protestants of all times. St. Thomas Aquinas has
left us a beautiful commentary on the Pauline letters, which represents
the most mature fruit of medieval exegesis.
A true point of inflection was verified in the 16th century with the
Protestant Reformation. The decisive moment in Luther's life was the
so-called Turmerlebnis (1517) in which in one moment he encountered a
new interpretation of the Pauline doctrine on justification. An
interpretation that liberated him from the scruples and anxieties of his
preceding life and that gave him a new, radical confidence in the
goodness of God, who pardons everything without condition. From that
moment, Luther identified the Judeo-Christian legalism condemned by the
Apostle with the order of life of the Catholic Church. And the Church
appeared to him as an expression of the slavery to the law to which he
opposed the liberty of the Gospel. The Council of Trent, between 1545
and 1563, deeply interpreted the question of justification and
encountered in the line of all Catholic tradition the synthesis between
law and Gospel, conforming to the message of sacred Scripture read in
its totality and unity.
The 19th century, gathering the best heritage of the Enlightenment,
witnessed a new renovation of Paulinism, now above all in the plane of
scientific work developed for the historical-critical interpretation of
sacred Scripture. Let us set aside here the fact that also in that
century, as in the 20th, there emerged a true and proper denigration of
St. Paul. I think above all of Nietzsche, who poked fun at the theology
of humility in St. Paul, opposing to it his theology of the strong and
powerful man. But let us leave that aside and look at the essential
current of the new scientific interpretation of sacred Scripture and the
new Paulinism of that century.
Here is emphasized as central above all the Pauline thought of the
concept of liberty: In this is seen the heart of the thought of Paul, as
on the other hand, Luther had already intuited. Now, nevertheless, the
concept of liberty was reinterpreted in the context of modern
liberalism. And later, the differentiation between the proclamation of
St. Paul and the proclamation of Jesus was strongly emphasized. And St.
Paul appears almost as a new founder of Christianity. It is certain that
in St. Paul, the centrality of the Kingdom of God, determinant for the
proclamation of Jesus, is transformed in the centrality of Christology,
whose determinant point is the Paschal mystery. And from the Paschal
mystery, come the sacraments of baptism and Eucharist, as a permanent
presence of this mystery, from which the Body of Christ grows, and the
Church is built.
But I would say, without entering here into details, that precisely in
the new centrality of Christology and the Paschal mystery, the Kingdom
of God is fulfilled, the authentic proclamation of Jesus is made
concrete, present, operative. We have seen in the preceding catechesis
that precisely this Pauline novelty is the deepest fidelity to the
proclamation of Jesus. In the progress of exegesis, above all in the
last 200 years, the convergences between Catholic and Protestant
exegesis also grow, thus bringing about a notable consensus precisely in
the point that was at the origin of the greatest historical dissent.
Therefore a great hope for the cause of ecumenism, so central for the
Second Vatican Council.
Briefly, I would like at the end to still point out the various
religious movements, arising in the modern age in the heart of the
Catholic Church, that refer back to St. Paul. That's what came about in
the 16th century with the Clerics Regular of St. Paul, called the
Barnabites; in the 19th century with the Missionary Society of St. Paul
the Apostle, better known as the Paulist Fathers; and in the 20th
century with the multifaceted Pauline Family, founded by Blessed James
Alberione; to not speak of the secular institute of the Company of St
Substantially, there remains luminous before us the figure of an
extremely fruitful and deep apostle and Christian thinker, from whose
closeness, every one of us can benefit. In one of his panegyrics, St.
John Chrysostom made an original comparison between Paul and Noah,
expressing it like this: Paul "did not place together the shafts to
build an ark, instead, in place of uniting tablets of wood, he composed
letters, and thus dug out of the waters not two or three or five members
of his own family, but the entire inhabited world that was about to
perish" (Paneg. 1,5).
Precisely still and always the Apostle Paul can do this. To tend toward
him, as much to his apostolic example as to his doctrine, would be
therefore a stimulus, if not a guarantee, to consolidate the Christian
identity of each one of us and for the renewal of the whole Church.
[During his greetings, the Holy Father added:]
The situation in Sri Lanka continues to cause worry.
News of a worsening of the conflict and the growing number of innocent
victims moves me to offer a pressing appeal to the combatants to respect
humanitarian law and people's freedom of movement."
May they do everything possible to guarantee assistance for the wounded
and security for civilians, and permit their urgent food and medical
needs to be satisfied."
May Our Lady of Madhu, so venerated by Catholics and also by members of
other religions, hasten the day of peace and reconciliation in that dear
[Translation by ZENIT]
[To the English-speakers, he said:]
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Concluding our catechesis on Saint Paul today, we look briefly at the
end of his earthly life and his ongoing legacy. Though there is no
account of Paulís death in the New Testament, a strong tradition holds
that he was martyred in Rome during the reign of Nero and buried along
the Via Ostiense on the site of the present Basilica of Saint Paul
Outside the Walls. Saint Clement of Rome, in a first-century letter to
the Corinthians, extols Paulís patience in suffering as a model for all
Christians to imitate. Paul himself alluded to his agony in sacrificial
terms when he wrote: "for I am already being poured out like a libation,
and the time of my departure is at hand" (2 Tim 4:6). Paulís writings
have inspired countless commentaries through the centuries. New studies
continue to shed light on his character, the churches he founded and the
Gospel he preached. Paul was a generous apostle and an original
thinker,but not the "new founder" of Christianity, as some have claimed.
By listening to his teaching, may we be strengthened in our commitment
to Christ, so as to take part joyfully in the Churchís mission of
I am pleased to greet the English-speaking visitors present at todayís
audience. I particularly welcome students from the Bossey Graduate
School of Ecumenical Studies in Geneva, as well as pilgrims from Hong
Kong and the United States of America. God bless you all!
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