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from issue no. 01/02 - 2009

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“My dear Timothy, take great care of all that has been entrusted to you”

St Paul's Pastoral Epistles show that the safeguarding of the depositum fidei is guaranteed by the action of the Holy Spirit, through the grace of the laying on of hands and the grace that shines forth from good works. And yet these same Epistles, which constitute the foundation of the Church as Institution, "no longer isolate the Church from the profane world but, on the contrary, they implant it within it with a remarkable optimism and certainty". Here, 30Days re-proposes a few pages of Ceslas Spicq's commentary on the Pastoral Epistles

by Lorenzo Cappelletti

The mosaic of Monreale Cathedral, Palermo, Sicily. Ananias baptises Paul

The mosaic of Monreale Cathedral, Palermo, Sicily. Ananias baptises Paul

For some time now, the expression “deposit of faith” or its Latin equivalent depositum fidei has been the focus of headlines and articles in 30Days. But 30Days does not hold the copyright. “My dear Timothy, take great care of all that has been entrusted to you” is St Paul’s final recommendation in his first letter to his favorite disciple and he repeats it, just before he goes to meet his martyrdom, in his second letter. Before then, this expression had never been used by St Paul (nor by other New Testament writers). But just when his blood was about to be shed. St Paul averted the danger that the treasure he had safeguarded like a delicate yet sturdy vase could be lost. The same danger as that other Paul closer to our own time averted when he wrote the Creed of the People of God. The great alternative, as someone recently wrote, for the life of a man and a people is, in fact, ideology or tradition.
It is not remotely by chance, perhaps, that the so-called Pastoral Epistles (the name given to the two letters to Timothy and one to Titus) have recently come into the limelight. They were the theme of an Italian Biblical Association convention held last September (1997) in Termoli, the small town in the Molise region of southern Italy which conserves Timothy’s relics in its enchanting cathedral. Pending the publication of the convention’s proceedings, 30Days looks to the great Dominican exegete Ceslas Spicq to accompany us in our reading of some passages of those letters. For his is the commentary, in its third edition published exactly 50 years ago (St. Paul. Les Épîtres pastorales, Paris, Gabalda, 1947), which is an exemplary text essential to even eminent scholars who came after him.

The Deposit
“My dear Timothy, take great care of all that has been entrusted to you. Turn away from godless philosophical discussions, and the contradictions of the ‘knowledge’: by adopting this, some have missed the goal of faith” (I Timothy 6, 20).
A proper understanding of the juridical institution of the deposit inspiring St Paul may be of help first of all. “In Rome ‘a deposit has been made when something is left to the safe-keeping of a person who pledges to conserve it and give it back when he is asked for it’. In contrast to the cession of something in trust entailing a transfer of ownership proper, there is in the deposit but a temporary cession on hold. The depositary does not himself possess but only does so on behalf of the person making the deposit: he is but a custodian and he conserves the goods at the disposition of the tradens (one who deposits), who retains all property rights. Also, as is the case of a contract of trusteeship, a deposit is readily made with a friend who will keep it safe free of charge. For a long time, the deposit made through simple consignment (traditio) was devoid of any juridical effectiveness, since it was an act without form” (page 331).
Evidently impressed by the characteristics of this institution which, in terms of contract, “was something new [it does not appear, in fact, until the age of Octavian’s triumvirate], something surprisingly new because it is one of the very first unofficial contracts” (page 329), St Paul adopts it at the very moment of the utmost danger for the faith. “Until that moment, the Apostle had mainly insisted on fidelity to his ministry, on loyalty towards his disciples; now, because of the danger of newly emerging heresies, he is being led to consider the integrity of the doctrine in itself, of which he was ordained ‘herald, apostle and teacher’. He received it with the charge of transmitting it. It does not belong to him. Now that his end is in sight, Paul has an even more vivid perception of the responsibility he bears to keep this treasure intact; until the established time, he must preserve the word of God (I Timothy 4, 6) from all error and corruption. For, it is a deposit which God entrusted to him and the day is coming when the divine creditor will ask him to give an account. Paul received this deposit from God and, more precisely, from Christ on the road to Damascus. Since, in real terms, this contract in the way it was formulated originally presupposed only the simple remission of possession of goods, it is, therefore, at the moment of this initial encounter between the Lord and his apostle that this agreement was born – the agreement of their two wills – the generator of obligation from the instant of the transmission of the entrusted object. The content of this deposit is the Gospel. The law did not authorize, except where stipulated, any use of goods in trust. Now, the Apostle only ever considered himself an administrator, a dispenser, of the divine mysteries (I Corinthians 4, 1). Unlike the teachers who teach an original doctrine, fruit of their own speculations, he is but a delegate. What he preaches he does not invent, he does not transform. He has apprehended and received it and, intact – like a deposit – he must transmit this treasure which is the word divine or the object of the faith ... He has run the race and the time has come for him to depart (II Timothy 4, 6-8); he exhorts Timothy to keep guard over the deposit he is transmitting to him; the hour has sounded for him to appear before God who will judge his faithful depositary” (pages 332-333).

Paul hands the letters to Timothy

Paul hands the letters to Timothy

The Laying on of Hands
But will Paul’s exhortation to Timothy, young and timid by nature, suffice to ensure that he will conserve the deposit?
“In ordering him to conserve the deposit, Paul shows him the way to be faithful to it. It is not an easy task. Many have abandoned the faith and the Apostle himself is also about to go, but the Holy Spirit dwells in the Church and will enlighten and fortify her ministers (cf II Timothy 1, 7). St Paul does not doubt it (II Timothy 1, 12). These two latter verses establish Catholic teaching on the tradition. The apostles have received the Christian truth from the Lord; they themselves transmitted it orally, especially to their assistants and their successors in the ministry; but these latter are duty-bound to conserve it in all its purity and not to communicate it, in their turn, except to men whose capacity to guarantee its transmission anew is tried and tested (cf. II Timothy 2, 2). Now, this conservation and this transmission cannot be sufficiently guaranteed by human efforts. It is the Holy Spirit that preserves them from all alteration and from all deviation and, according to verse 7, one may specify that this action of the Holy Spirit is exercised with particular effectiveness in the members of the ecclesiastical hierarchy” (page 320). In other words, Timothy will have to and will make appeal to the grace of the ordination he received from Paul himself, who wrote to him, saying:
6That is why I am reminding you now to fan into a flame the gift of God that you possess through the laying on of my hands. 7God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but the Spirit of power and love and self-control. 8So you are never to be ashamed of witnessing to our Lord, or ashamed of me for being his prisoner; but share in my hardships for the sake of the gospel, relying on the power of God 9who has saved us and called us to be holy – not because of anything we our-selves had done but for his own purpose and by his own grace. This grace had already been granted to us, in Christ Jesus, before the beginning of time, 10but it has been revealed only by the appearing of our Saviour Christ Jesus. He has abolished death, and he has brought to light immortality and life through the gospel, 11in whose service I have been made herald, apostle and teacher.
12That is why I am experiencing my present sufferings; but I am not ashamed, because I know in whom I have put my trust, and I have no doubt at all that he is able to safeguard until that Day what I have entrusted to him. 13Keep as your pattern the sound teaching you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 14With the help of the Holy Spirit who dwells in us, look after that precious thing given in trust” (II Timothy 1, 6-14).

In this as in the other passage (I Timothy 4, 14) in which he reminds Timothy of the laying on of hands, “St Paul designates the divine gift thus communicated using the same word. This is not used in the Pastoral Epistles except in these two texts on ordination. As in the previous letters, this one designates a particular species of grace, which highlights an aspect of its gratuitousness; it is given less for the benefit of the subject than for the good of the Christian community, the general good’ (I Corinthians 12, 7), to edify the Church (I Corinthians 14, 12)” (page 325). In a note on this, Spicq quotes Father Lemonnyer, author of the “Charisms” item in the Supplément au Dictionnaire de la Bible: “This charism, whose receiving made Timothy the official figure that he is, is the sacramental character of Orders. The sacrament of Orders, generator of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, and the sacrament of Confirmation by which the milites Christi are constituted, are charismatic sacraments essentially. The sacred hierarchy is made of equally supernatural authority and capacity. This capacity has always been identified primarily with the character impressed by Orders on all those who receive them, to any degree, and which, as St Thomas said, is a potentia, a supernatural faculty, almost, a higher charism that abilitates the members of the hierarchy for all the functions of their office. To this is added the eventual extra-sacramental concession of complementary charisms: apostles, doctors, preachers, pastors and so on. Far from being founded on the disappearance of charisms, the hierarchy has always been founded on charisms” (page 325 note 1).
It must be stressed that the gift of God… that you possess...; God gave us a Spirit ... (II Timothy 1, 6. 7) is not unassociated with the deposit whose conservation is accomplished with the help of the Holy Spirit who dwells in us (II Timothy 1, 14) ... This means that ordination ensures the perpetuity of the orthodox doctrine; this is a holy legacy, a ‘deposit’. Its integrity partly and undoubtedly depends on the obedience and fidelity of the preachers, not to spread wrong teaching (I Timothy 1, 3) but ultimately the Holy Spirit is its primary custodian and only the Spirit can preserve Christian ministers from error. So one is right in identifying somewhat the grace transmitted with the laying on of hands with the immanent action of the Holy Spirit which guarantees the deposit of faith from any danger of alteration. Pastors and preachers, having received the charism of ordination, enjoy the Holy Spirit’s assistance in spreading and conserving the evangelical truth: Church of the living God, pillar and support of the truth (I Timothy 3, 15). This is the foundation of the Catholic doctrine on the oral tradition as the norm of faith. Having received the laying on of hands, Timothy is certain that he will always have the supernatural strength and attitude for fulfilling his evangelical office worthily” (pages 325-326). Spicq explicates further: “It is not so much a matter of ascetic efforts for acquiring a human kind of energy, a strength of character, as fidelity to the grace of ordination (II Timothy 1, Timothy will have to apply the supernatural powers and strengths he has received, to exercise them as well as possible despite the sufferings and painful feats entailed in his ministry; but for the Apostle everything is possible with grace!” (page 340).

The Pastoral Epistles therefore show that the safeguarding of the deposit is guaranteed by the sacramental nature of the ecclesiastical institution. And yet these same letters which constitute the foundation of the Church as institution (paradoxically, almost) “no longer isolate the Church from the profane world but, on the contrary, implant it within it with a remarkable optimism and certainty. Experience has proved that every Christian is called to live in the midst of his one-time companions of error and sin. Far from despising them and combating them, he will prove himself to them a man transformed by grace” (page. CXCVIII). Paul’s ecumenism is expressed to the utmost degree in the Pastoral Epistles, as illustrated in particular in I Timothy 2, 1-5:

1I urge then, first of all that petitions, prayers, intercessions and thanksgiving should be offered for everyone, 2for kings and others in authority, so that we may be able to live peaceful and quiet lives with all devotion and propriety. “3To do this is right, and acceptable to God our Saviour: 4he wants everyone to be saved and reach full knowledge of the truth. 5For there is only one God, and there is only one mediator between God and humanity, himself a human being, Christ Jesus, who offered himself as a ransom for all”.

Quoting St John Chrysostom, Spicq comments: “We must give thanks to God also for the good he accords others, that the sun shines, for example, on the evil and on the good, that the rain falls on the just and on the unjust. See how the Apostle, not only by petitions but with thanksgiving unites us and binds us together” (page 53). And he goes on: “All of these prayers are not limited to personal interests or to a closed circle of faithful; the next person is in their sights and they will have universal application ‘for everyone’. This universalism is a characteristic of ‘Catholic’ worship. Prayer has the same extensiveness as charity; each one the same universalism as salvation (I Timothy 1, 15: Titus 2, 11). There is no one, of whatever nation or religion, for whom the Church must not pray, no one, even someone excommunicated whose existence at least must not be a motive for giving thanks to God” (page 53). Commenting, then, on verse 3 (“To do this is right and acceptable to God our Saviour”), Spicq adds: “This intercession that the Christian people fulfills like a regal priesthood for all men is something morally good and, at the same time, excellent in itself, like an eminent work of charity, and it is beautiful and pleasing in the sight of God (hapax in the NT may be considered as explanatory of, that is, ‘beautiful in the sight’), because it is the best cooperation there is with the divine plan for the salvation of men” (page 57).

The embrace of Peter and Paul

The embrace of Peter and Paul

Works beautiful in the sight, that is, good
The adjective beautiful is the most characteristic word of the Pastoral Epistles. Of its 44 recurrences in the corpus paolinum, the Pastoral Epistles account for more than half (all of 24): this, to the extent that Spicq marvels that it is in his later years no less that “this beauty seems to have become, in St Paul’s eyes, a distinctive note of the Christian life, an expression of the new faith; all ages, all conditions, each sex are as if re-invested with beauty” (page 290). This is all the more remarkable in that “Aristotle believes that the elderly no longer live for what is beautiful (cf. Rhetorica II, 13, 1389b, 36); it is a sign of the force of renewal and rejuvenation of grace in the Apostle’s soul” (page 290 note 1). It is “the aesthetic test of hope”, Massimo Borghesi wrote in the last issue of 30Days (No. 12, 1997), which is revealed, as we saw above, in prayer, as the first work of charity and in charity in the strict sense, that is, in those good works to which “the Pastoral Epistles proper have given the technical sense that the Christian tradition has conserved... rightfully identifying them with works of mercy” (page 294 and 282), writes Spicq in his commentary to the letter to Titus 3, 3-8:

3There was a time when we too were ignorant, disobedient and misled and enslaved by different passions and dissipations; we lived then in wickedness and malice, hating each other and hateful ourselves. 4But when the kindness and love of God our Saviour for humanity were revealed,5it was not because of any upright actions we had done ourselves; it was for no reason except his own faithful love that he saved us, by means of the cleansing water of rebirth and renewal in the Holy Spirit 6which he has so generously poured over us through Jesus Christ our Saviour; 7so that, justified by his grace, we should become heirs in hope of eternal life. 8This is doctrine that you can rely on. I want you to be quite uncompromising in teaching all this, so that those who now believe in God may keep their minds constantly occupied in doing good works. All this is good, and useful for everybody”

Titus, who was of pagan origin, knew the value of these words by experience. “How”, Spicq wonders in his commentary on this passage, “can a pagan be made a Christian? It is the work of grace alone, gratis et gratiose. The verse Titus 3, 4 is parallel to Titus 2, 11. Just as the reciprocal duties of Christians were founded on the initiative and educating force [further on, Spicq speaks, in contrast with the Pelagian claim, of a “paideia of grace” (page 282)] of the grace of God in Christ, so the duties of Christians towards the world are founded on the kindness and love of God for men. ... It is the love of God for men which is the cause of the conversion of blind pagans and sinners to a holy life. This love was made manifest concretely at a moment in history and in a dual form that contrasts with the hatred and jealousy of men, one for the other; while they were detesting each other, God loved them all tenderly and wanted their good. Kindness above all. According to the etymology, means that which may serve’ and it is particularly used in relation to high quality foods... The kindness then, is a delicate amiability but it also implies magnanimty” (page 275). Then the, that is, “an effective sympathy; it is the equivalent of the Latin humanitas, meaning respect for man as man... A synonym, then, of but accentuating the universality of this favor” (page 276).
Prayer, kindness, respect for man as man: beautiful things, that is, good and acceptable to God.

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