Paul's proclamation of Christ,
while grounded in Judaism, was marked by a universalist vision.
On Wednesday, 2 July , at the General Audience
in the Paul VI Audience Hall, three days after the beginning of the
Pauline Year (29 June 2008 — 29 June 2009), the Holy Father announced to
the faithful that he was beginning a new series of Catecheses on "the
great Apostle St Paul".
In the late afternoon the Pope moved to the Papal
Summer Residence at Castel Gandolfo. The General Audiences will resume
on 13 August. The following is a translation of the Pope's Catechesis
given in Italian.
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Today I would like to begin a new cycle of Catecheses
focusing on the great Apostle St Paul. As you know, this year is
dedicated to him, from the liturgical Feast of Sts Peter and Paul on 29
June 2008 to the same Feast day in 2009.
The Apostle Paul, an outstanding and almost
inimitable yet stimulating figure, stands before us as an example of
total dedication to the Lord and to his Church, as well as of great
openness to humanity and its cultures.
It is right, therefore, that we reserve a special
place for him in not only our veneration but also in our effort to
understand what he has to say to us as well, Christians of today.
In this first meeting let us pause to consider the
environment in which St Paul lived and worked. A theme such as this
would seem to bring us far from our time, given that we must identify
with the world of 2,000 years ago. Yet this is only apparently and, in
any case, only partly true for we can see that various aspects of
today's social and cultural context are not very different from what
they were then.
A primary and fundamental fact to bear in mind is the
relationship between the milieu in which Paul was born and raised and
the global context to which he later belonged. He came from a very
precise and circumscribed culture, indisputably a minority, which is
that of the People of Israel and its tradition.
In the ancient world and especially in the Roman
Empire, as scholars in the subject teach us, Jews must have accounted
for about 10 percent of the total population; later, here in Rome,
towards the middle of the first century, this percentage was even lower,
amounting to three percent of the city's inhabitants at most.
Their beliefs and way of life, is still the case
today, distinguished them clearly from the surrounding environment; and
this could have two results: either derision, that could lead to
intolerance, or admiration which was expressed in various forms of
sympathy, as in the case of the "God-fearing" or "proselytes", pagans
who became members of the Synagogue and who shared the faith in the God
As concrete examples of this dual attitude we can
mention on the one hand the cutting opinion of an orator such as Cicero
who despised their religion and even the city of Jerusalem (cf. Pro
Flacco, 66-69) and, on the other, the attitude of Nero's wife,
Poppea, who is remembered by Favius Josephus as a "sympathizer" of the
Jews (cf. Antichità
giudaiche 20, 195, 252); Vita 16), not to mention that
Julius Caesar had already officially recognized specific rights of the
Jews which have been recorded by the above-mentioned Jewish historian
Flavius Josephus (cf. ibid., 14,200-216).
It is certain that the number of Jews, as, moreover,
is still the case today, was far greater outside the land of Israel,
that is, in the Diaspora, than in the territory that others called
It is not surprising, therefore, that Paul himself
was the object of the dual contradictory assessment that I mentioned.
One thing is certain: the particularism of the Judaic culture and
religion easily found room in an institution as far-reaching as the
Those who would adhere with faith to the Person of
Jesus of Nazareth, Jew or Gentile, were in the more difficult and
troubled position, to the extent to which they were to distinguish
themselves from both Judaism and the prevalent paganism.
In any case, two factors were in Paul's favour. The
first was the Greek, or rather Hellenistic, culture which after
Alexander the Great had become a common heritage, at least of the
Eastern Mediterranean and of the Middle East, and had even absorbed many
elements of peoples traditionally considered barbarian.
One writer of the time says in this regard that
Alexander "ordered that all should consider the entire oecumene as their
homeland... and that a distinction should no longer be made between
Greek and barbarian" (Plutarch, De Alexandri Magni fortuna aut
virtute, §§ 6, 8).
The second factor was the political and
administrative structure of the Roman Empire which guaranteed peace and
stability from Britain as far as southern Egypt, unifying a territory of
previously unheard of dimensions.
It was possible to move with sufficient freedom and
safety in this space, making use, among other things, of an
extraordinary network of roads and finding at every point of arrival
basic cultural characteristics which, without affecting local values,
nonetheless represented a common fabric of unification super partes,
so that the Jewish philosopher, Philo of Alexandria, a contemporary of
Paul himself, praised the Emperor Augustus for "composing in harmony all
the savage peoples, making himself the guardian of peace" (Legatio ad
Caium, §§ 146-147).
There is no doubt that the universalist vision
characteristic of St Paul's personality, at least of the Christian Paul
after the event on the road to Damascus, owes its basic impact to faith
in Jesus Christ, since the figure of the Risen One was by this time
situated beyond any particularistic narrowness.
Indeed, for the Apostle
"there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there
is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal
Yet, even the historical
and cultural situation of his time and milieu could not but have had an
influence on his decisions and his work. Some have defined Paul as "a
man of three cultures", taking into account his Jewish background, his
Greek tongue and his prerogative as a civis romanus [Roman
citizen], as the name of Latin origin suggests.
Particularly the Stoic
philosophy dominant in Paul's time which influenced Christianity, even
if only marginally, should be recalled. Concerning this, we cannot gloss
over certain names of Stoic philosophers such as those of its founders,
Zeno and Cleanthes, and then those closer to Paul in time such as
Seneca, Musonius and Epictetus: in them the loftiest values of humanity
and wisdom are found which were naturally to be absorbed by
As one student of the
subject splendidly wrote, "Stoicism... announced a new ideal, which
imposed upon man obligations to his peers, but at the same time set him
free from all physical and national ties, and made of him a purely
spiritual being" (M. Pohlenz, La Stoa, I, Florence, 2, 1978, pp.
One thinks, for example,
of the doctrine of the universe understood as a single harmonious body
and consequently of the doctrine of equality among all people without
social distinctions, of the equivalence, at least in principle, of men
and women, and then of the ideal of frugality, of the just measure and
self-control to avoid all excesses.
When Paul wrote to the
Philippians, "Whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is
lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is
anything worthy of praise, think about these things" (Phil 4:8), he was
only taking up a purely humanistic concept proper to that philosophical
In St Paul's time a
crisis of traditional religion was taking place, at least in its
mythological and even civil aspects. After Lucretius had already ruled
polemically a century earlier that "religion has led to many misdeeds"
(De rerum natura, 1, 101, On the Nature of Things), a philosopher
such as Seneca, going far beyond any external ritualism, taught that
"God is close to you, he is with you, he is within you" (Epistulae
morales to Lucilius, 41, 1).
Similarly, when Paul
addresses an audience of Epicurean philosophers and Stoics in the
Areopagus of Athens, he literally says: "God does not live in shrines
made by man,... for in him we live and move and have our being" (Acts
In saying this he
certainly re-echoes the Judaic faith in a God who cannot be represented
in anthropomorphic terms and even places himself on a religious
wavelength that his listeners knew well. We must also take into account
the fact that many pagan cults dispensed with the official temples of
the town and made use of private places that favoured the initiation of
their followers. It is therefore not surprising that Christian
gatherings (ekklesiai) as Paul's Letters attest, also took place
in private homes.
At that time, moreover,
there were not yet any public buildings. Therefore Christian assemblies
must have appeared to Paul's contemporaries as a simple variation of
their most intimate religious practice. Yet the differences between
pagan cults and Christian worship are not negligible and regard the
participants' awareness of their identity as well as the
participation in common of men and women, the celebration of the "Lord's
Supper", and the reading of the Scriptures.
In conclusion, from this
brief overview of the cultural context of the first century of the
Christian era, it is clear that it is impossible to understand St Paul
properly without placing him against both the Judaic and pagan
background of his time.
Thus he grows in
historical and spiritual stature, revealing both sharing and originality
in comparison with the surrounding environment. However, this applies
likewise to Christianity in general, of which the Apostle Paul,
precisely, is a paradigm of the highest order from whom we all, always,
still have much to learn.
And this is the goal of
the Pauline Year: to learn from St Paul, to learn faith, to learn
Christ, and finally to learn the way of upright living.