Pope Benedict XVI- General Audiences
St. Paul's Teaching on the Church
"We Are the Temple of God in the World"
H.H. Benedict XVI
October 15, 2008
Dear brothers and sisters:
In last Wednesday's catechesis, I spoke of Paul's relationship with the
pre-Easter Jesus in his earthly life. The question was: "What did Paul
know of the life of Jesus, his words, his passion?"
Today, I would like to speak of the teaching of St. Paul on the Church.
We should begin by noting that this word -- "iglesia" in Spanish, like "église"
in French or "chiesa" in Italian -- is taken from the Greek "ekklēsía."
It comes from the Old Testament and means the assembly of the people of
Israel, gathered by God, and particularly the model assembly at the foot
Now this word alludes to the new community of believers in Christ who
know themselves to be the assembly of God, the new gathering of all
peoples by God and before him. The term "ekklēsía" only appears in the
writings of Paul, who is the first author of a Christian writing. This
happens in the "incipit" of the first Letter to the Thessalonians, where
Paul addresses himself textually to "the Church of the Thessalonians"
(cf. later as well the [address to the] "Church of the Laodiceans in
In other letters he speaks of the Church of God that is at Corinth (cf.
1 Corinthians 1:2 and 2 Corinthians 1:1), that is at Galatia (Galatians
1:2, etc). -- particular Churches, therefore -- but he recounts also
having persecuted "the Church of God," not one particular local
community, but the "Church of God." Thus we see that this word "Church"
has a multifaceted meaning: It indicates on one hand the assemblies of
God in particular places (a city, a country, a house), but it also means
all of the Church taken together. And thus we see that "the Church of
God" is not just the sum of the particular local Churches, but that
these are at the same time the actualization of the one Church of God.
All together they are the "Church of God," which precedes each local
Church and which is expressed and actualized in them.
It is important to observe that nearly always the word "Church" appears
with the added descriptor "of God": It is not a human association, born
from ideas or common interests, but a gathering of God. He has gathered
it together and because of this it is one in all of its actualizations.
The unity of God creates the unity of the Church in all of the places
where it is found. Later, in the Letter to the Ephesians, Paul
abundantly elaborates the concept of the unity of the Church, in
continuation with the concept of the people of God, Israel, considered
by the prophets as the "spouse of God," called to live a spousal
relationship with him. Paul presents the only Church of God as "spouse
of Christ" in love, one spirit with Christ himself.
It is known that the young Paul had been an ardent adversary of the new
movement constituted by the Church of Christ. He had been its adversary,
because he had seen threatened in this new movement the fidelity to the
tradition of the people of God, animated by faith in the one God. This
fidelity was expressed above all in circumcision, in the observance of
the norms of cultural purity, in abstaining from certain foods, in
respect for the Sabbath.
The Israelites paid for this fidelity with their blood during the time
of the Maccabees, when the Greek regime wanted to force all peoples to
take on a sole Greek culture. Many of the Israelites had defended with
their blood the vocation proper to Israel. The martyrs had paid with
their lives for the identity of their people, expressed through these
After his encounter with the risen Christ, Paul understood that the
Christians weren't traitors; on the contrary, in the new situation, the
God of Israel, through Christ, had extended his call to all people,
becoming the God of all peoples. In this way, fidelity to the only God
was fulfilled; the distinctive signs made up of particular norms and
observances were no longer necessary, because all were called, in their
differences, to form part of the one people of God in the "Church of
God," in Christ.
One thing was immediately clear to Paul in the new situation: the
fundamental and foundational value of Christ and the "word" he
proclaimed. Paul knew that not only is one not a Christian by coercion,
but that rather in the internal configuration of the new community, the
institutionally component was inevitably linked to the "living word,"
the proclamation of the living Christ in which God opens himself to all
peoples and unites them in the one people of God. It is significant that
Luke, in the Acts of the Apostles, uses many times, even because of
Paul, the phrase "proclaim the word" (Acts 4:29,31; 8:25; 11:19; 13:46;
14:25; 16:6,32), with the evident intention of showing to the maximum
the decisive reach of the "word" of the proclamation.
Concretely, this word is made up of the cross and resurrection of
Christ, in which the Scriptures have been fulfilled. The paschal
mystery, announced in the word, is fulfilled in the sacraments of
baptism and Eucharist, and materializes in Christian charity. The
evangelizing work of Paul does not have any other goal than to firmly
establish the community of the believers in Christ. This idea is within
the same etymology of the term "ekklēsía," which Paul, and with him all
of Christianity, prefers to the other term "synagogue," not only because
originally the first is more "lay" -- deriving from the Greek praxis of
the political assembly and not properly religious -- but also because it
directly implies the more theological idea of a call "ab extra," not
only a simple meeting. The believers are called by God, who gathers them
in a community, his Church.
Along this line, we can also understand the original concept,
exclusively Pauline, of the Church as "Body of Christ." In this respect,
it is fitting to keep in mind the two dimension of this concept. One is
of a sociological character, according to which the body is formed by
its components and wouldn't exist without them. This interpretation
appears in the Letter to the Romans and the First Letter to the
Corinthians, where Paul takes up an image that already existed in Roman
sociology. He says that a people is like a body with distinct members,
each one of which has its function, but all, even the smallest and
apparently insignificant, are necessary so the body can live and perform
its functions. Opportunely, the Apostle observes that in the Church
there are many vocations: prophets, apostles, teachers, simple peoples,
all called to live charity each day, all necessary for constructing the
living unity of this spiritual organism.
The other interpretation makes reference to the very Body of Christ.
Paul sustains that the Church is not just an organism, but rather
becomes truly the Body of Christ in the sacrament of the Eucharist,
where all receive his Body and truly become his Body. Thus is fulfilled
the spousal mystery, that all are one body and one spirit in Christ.
Hence the reality goes much beyond the sociological imagination,
expressing its true, profound essence, that is, the unity of all the
baptized in Christ, considered by the Apostle, "one" in Christ,
conformed to the sacrament of his Body.
Saying this, Paul shows he knows well and he brings us to understand
that the Church is not his and is not ours: the Church is the body of
Christ, it is "Church of God, " "field of God," construction of God …
"temple of God" (1 Corinthians 3:9,16). This last designation is
particularly interesting, because it attributes to an interweaving of
interpersonal relationships a term that was commonly used to indicate a
physical place, considered sacred. The relationship between Church and
temple assumes therefore two complementary dimensions: On one hand, the
characteristic of separation and purity, which the sacred building had,
is applied to the ecclesial community; on the other hand, the concept of
a material space is surpassed, to transfer this value to the reality of
a living community of faith. If before, temples were considered places
of the presence of God, now it is known and seen that God does not dwell
in buildings made of stone, but that the place of the presence of God is
in the world of the living community of the believers.
One separate discourse would merit the qualification of "people of God,"
which in Paul is applied substantially to the people of the Old
Testament and afterward to the pagans, that were "no people" and that
have become also the people of God thanks to their insertion in Christ
through the word and the sacrament.
And a last sketch: In the Letter to Timothy, Paul qualifies the Church
as "house of God" (1 Timothy 3:15); and this is a truly original
definition, because it refers to the Church as a community structure in
which warm interpersonal relationships of a familial character are
lived. The Apostle helps us to understand ever better the mystery of the
Church in its distinct dimensions of assembly of God in the world.
This is the greatness of the Church and the greatness of our call: We
are the temple of God in the world, the place where God truly dwells,
and we are, at the same time, community, family of God, who is love. As
family and house of God we should carry out in the world the charity of
God and thus be, with the strength that comes from faith, the place and
sign of his presence. Let us pray to the Lord so that he grants us to be
ever more his Church, his Body, the place of the presence of his charity
in this our world and in our history.
[The Pope then greeted the people in several languages. In English, he
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
In our continuing catechesis on Saint Paul, we now consider his teaching
on the Church. It was "the Church of God" which Paul persecuted before
his conversion, and throughout his Letters he uses the term "Church"
both with reference to local Christian communities and to the Church as
a whole. For Paul, faith in the person of Jesus Christ and his Gospel is
at the heart of the Church. Paul’s entire work of evangelization,
centred on the proclamation of the Paschal mystery of the Lord’s death
and resurrection, was aimed at establishing new communities of those who
believe in the Lord and share in the life of the Spirit. The Church thus
takes shape as an "ekklesía", a concrete assembly called into being by
God’s word. For Paul, the Church is also the "Body of Christ", a living
body endowed with a complex of ministries which are spiritual in their
origin and purpose. In the variety and the theological richness of his
teaching on the Church, Paul invites us to understand and love the
Church ever more deeply, and to work for her upbuilding in faith and
I offer a warm welcome to all the English-speaking visitors present at
today’s Audience including the members of the English and Welsh Bishops’
Committee for Christian Unity and the representation of government
officials from the Philippines. I also greet the Mill Hill missionaries,
and school groups present from England and Scotland. May your visit to
Rome strengthen your commitment to share God’s word with others. Upon
all of you, I invoke the Lord’s blessings of peace and joy.
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