The end of Saint Paul’s earthly life and his ongoing legacy was the theme chosen by Pope Benedict XVI, who concluded his series of teachings on St. Paul today. The Holy Father reflected on St. Paul’s apostolic example and his doctrine, which he said can serve as stimulus for the faithful to strengthen their Christian identity and invigorate the entire Church.
St. Paul’s martyrdom, the Pope said, "is first related in the 'Acts of Paul' written towards the end of the second century.” The Acts of Paul state that “Nero condemned Paul to be beheaded, and that the execution was summarily carried out. The date of Paul’s death varies in the ancient sources, which place it between the persecution unleashed by Nero following the fire of Rome in the summer of 64, and the last year of his reign in 68.”
According to tradition, Paul was beheaded at a place in Rome known as “Three Fountains,” and buried on the Via Ostiense, where the basilica of St. Paul's Outside-the- Walls, erected over his tomb, stands today.
Pope Benedict then turned to St. Paul’s “extraordinary spiritual heritage.” “Thanks to the presence of the Letters of St. Paul in the liturgy,” he observed, the Apostle Paul has provided, “since the very start, spiritual nourishment for the faithful of all times."
The Holy Father went on: “The Fathers of the Church, and later all theologians, drew sustenance from the Letters of St. Paul and from his spirituality. For this reason Paul has, for centuries, been the true Master and Apostle of the Gentiles.” He added: “To Paul St. Augustine owes the decisive step in his own conversion, and St. Thomas Aquinas left us a magnificent commentary on Paul’s Letters, the finest fruit of medieval exegesis.”
Another decisive moment was the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation, the Pope said. Luther, he explained, "found a new interpretation for the Pauline doctrine of justification which freed Luther from scruples and concern and gave Luther a new and radical trust in the goodness of God, Who forgives everything unconditionally.” However, this insight brought Luther to identify Judeo-Christian legalism—which St. Paul condemned—with the life of the Catholic Church, the Holy Father noted.
The Council of Trent, Pope Benedict recalled, “provided a profound interpretation of the question of justification and found, in line with all Catholic tradition, a synthesis between the Law and the Gospel, in conformity with the message of Scripture considered in its entirety and unity.”
Moving on to the 19th century, Pope Benedict pointed to a revival in Pauline studies combined with the new traditions of the Enlightenment. “The new Paulinism of the nineteenth century considered the concept of freedom as a central part of the Apostle Paul's thought.”
“Paul is presented almost as a new founder of Christianity,” the Pope said of this time period.
Over the last two hundred years, the field of Pauline studies has seen an increasing convergence between Catholic and Protestant exegesis, Pope Benedict said.
The Pope even characterized the recent developments in Pauline studies as leading to a “conformity…on the very point that gave rise to the greatest historical disagreement.” “This represents a great hope for the cause of ecumenism, so fundamental for Vatican Council II,” he added.
Benedict XVI concluded his reflections on Paul by mentioning a number of Pauline-inspired religious movements that have come into being in Catholic Church during the modern age, such as the Congregation of St. Paul in the sixteenth century, the Missionaries of St. Paul in the nineteenth century and the Pauline Family or Secular Institute of the Company of St. Paul in the twentieth century.