Benedict XV's latest book illuminates the early years of Christianity
JESUS, THE APOSTLES AND THE EARLY CHURCH
Pope Benedict XVI
(Ignatius Press, 2007, 163pp, hardcover, $29.90 Available from Freedom Publishing)
Benedict XVI's weekly audiences have been received with great interest from the start of his papacy. These have emphasised two of the Pope's distinctive personal missions as head of the Church: his desire to see Europe reunited with her Christian roots; and the relationship between the Church and the person of Jesus Christ.
For the Catholics to participate fully in the rich life of grace to which they are called, Benedict has highlighted the preliminary need to become acquainted - perhaps re- acquainted - with both Jesus Christ and His Church.
To this end, Benedict made use of his weekly audiences for much of 2006 (and the beginning of 2007) to deliver a catechesis on the birth of the Church and the works of its earliest members. These audiences, 31 in all, have been transcribed and published as chapters in a new book: Jesus, The Apostles and The Early Church.
While brief, the chapters in this book are like sketches from the hand of a master painter, with concise, simple lines revealing insights into the complexity of the subject. Benedict draws on his wealth of theological, historical and philosophical knowledge to deliver a message which, although occasionally challenging, is yet accessible to the average reader.
It is a message which reaches beyond mere history. Indeed, this is not an historical text as such; far more extensive histories have been written, and readers seeking an in-depth account of the Church's early years should look elsewhere. Benedict seeks rather to illuminate the exemplary behaviour of the early Christians, to outline their struggles, and show how familiarity with the activities of the early Church can help today's faithful to better respond to the call of grace in their own lives, to draw nearer to Jesus Christ.
The book begins with an analysis of the nature and role of the Church from the perspective of its institution by Jesus Christ. The author demonstrates the inseparability of Christ and the Church, pointing to a 'mysterious continuity' between the two. Christ is really present in the Church, not just as an historical reality, but as an immediate reality too.
Here, Benedict emphasises the essential function of the Church through the ages to introduce the person of Christ to all people, and to enable them to develop a deep, personal relationship with Him. From the outset, the Church has been the means by which people can come to know the risen Christ.
These early chapters also explore the mystery of 'communion' within the Church: that phenomenon by which all individual members are united with one another, today and throughout the history of the Church, and by which all members are united with the person of Christ Himself.
This communion confirms that, just as the early Church was the means by which the faithful could come to know Jesus Christ, so it is today, because the Church today is one and the same as the fledgling Church overseen by the Apostles.
Benedict makes particular reference to the pivotal role of the Twelve Apostles as the first custodians of the Faith. This involved safeguarding and propagating the faith, preserving its essential elements while at the same time proclaiming it to all the world - a role entrusted today to the Apostles' successors, the bishops of the Church.
From this general viewpoint, the author looks more closely at the specific role played by some of the Church's earliest and most prominent members, beginning with the Apostles. Again, Benedict's goal here is not to produce a thorough biographical account of the Church Fathers. Instead he provides a brief overview of their unique and varied contributions.
There are chapters on each of the Twelve, including numerous ones on Saints Peter and John the Evangelist, as well as multiple chapters on Saint Paul, and chapters on several of his collaborators, including Timothy, Titus, Bartholomew and the married couple, Priscilla and Aquila.
In emphasising their uniqueness, Benedict sets out to show the Apostles as exemplary not because they were born with an inherent disposition to holiness, but because they responded generously to the call to follow Christ. This affirmative response to God's will is the one factor which bound the motley crew of Apostles into an indivisible ecclesial community in Christ.
Benedict shows that these men and women to whom the guardianship of the faith had been entrusted were generally unremarkable, and subject to the very same human foibles we experience in our own lives. He shows, however, that by submitting themselves to the service of Christ, they allowed Him to draw forth from them the great acts of service to God, to the Church and to others for which they are now remembered.
In addition, Benedict shows that the unique contribution made by each of the Apostles naturally corresponded with their unique individual qualities. Today's Christians can likewise take heart in the knowledge that, if they place their trust completely in the Lord, He will make perfect use of their unique gifts to bring about His divine will.
God's plan is not confined to the religious; rather it has been entrusted to each of us to participate in Christ's redemptive work. We have only to submit to God's will and leave the rest to His infinite wisdom.
Readers stand to gain a great deal from a careful reading of Benedict's latest work. The content is almost exclusively referenced from biblical texts (which are neatly indexed), and most chapters end with a call to prayer.
Tim Cannon is a research officer with the Thomas More Centre.