The Pope: The Apostle Thomas

Dear Brothers and Sisters:

Continuing with our encounters with the Twelve Apostles chosen directly by Jesus, today we dedicate our attention to Thomas. Always present in the four lists of the New Testament, he is presented in the first three Gospels next to Matthew (cf. Matthew 10:3; Mark 3:18; Luke 6:15), while in the Acts of the Apostles he appears next to Philip (cf. Acts 1:13). His name stems from a Hebrew root, “ta’am,” which means “twin.” In fact, John’s Gospel calls him sometimes with the nickname “Didymus” (cf. John 11:16; 20:24; 21:2), which in Greek means precisely “twin.” The reason for this name is not clear.

The fourth Gospel, in particular, gives us some information which offers us some significant characteristics of his personality. The first is the exhortation he made to the other apostles when Jesus, at a critical moment of his life, decided to go to Bethany to raise Lazarus, thus coming dangerously close to Jerusalem (cf. Mark 10:32). On that occasion, Thomas said to his fellow disciples: “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (John 11:16). His determination when it came to following the Master is truly exemplary and gives us a precious teaching: It reveals the total willingness of adherence to Jesus to the point of identifying his own fate with His, and of wanting to share with Him the supreme trial of death.

In fact, what is most important is never to distance oneself from Jesus. When the Gospels use the verb “follow,” they intend to explain that wherever he goes, his disciple must also go. Thus, Christian life is defined as a life with Jesus Christ, a life that must be spent with him. St. Paul wrote something similar when he calmed Christians of Corinth with these words: “You are in our hearts, to die together and to live together” (2 Corinthians 7:3). What is true between the Apostle and his Christians must also be true above all in the relationship between Christians and Jesus himself: to die together, to live together, to be in his heart as he is in ours.

A second intervention of Thomas is recorded in the Last Supper. On that occasion, Jesus, predicting his imminent departure, announces that he will go to prepare a place for the disciples so that they will also be where he is; and he specifies: “And you know the way where I am going” (John 14:4). Then Thomas intervenes, saying: “Lord, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” (John 14:5).

In reality, with these words he places himself in a rather low level of understanding, but [his words] offer Jesus the opportunity to utter the famous definition: “I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:6). Therefore, in the first instance, he makes this revelation to Thomas, but it is valid for all of us and for all times. Every time we hear or read these words, we can be in thought next to Thomas and imagine that the Lord also speaks with us as he spoke with him.

At the same time, his question also gives us the right, so to speak, to ask Jesus for explanations. We often do not understand him. We must have the courage to say to him: I do not understand you, Lord, hear me, help me to understand. In this way, with such frankness, which is the authentic way to pray, to converse with Jesus, we express the littleness of our capacity to understand, but at the same time we assume the attitude of trust of one who expects light and strength from the one able to give them.

Then, very well known, even proverbial, is the scene of Thomas’ incredulity, which took place eight days after Easter. Initially, he did not believe that Jesus had appeared in his absence and had said: “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe” (John 20:25). Deep down, from these words emerges the conviction that Jesus is no longer recognized by his face, but rather by the wounds. Thomas believes that the characteristic signs of Jesus’ identity are now above all his wounds, in which is revealed to what point he has loved us. In this the apostle is not mistaken.

As we know, eight days later, Jesus again appears to his disciples and on this occasion Thomas is present. And Jesus says to him: “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side; do not be faithless, but believing” (John 20:27).

Thomas reacts with the most splendid profession of faith of the New Testament: “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28). In this connection, St. Augustine comments: Thomas “saw and touched the man, but confessed his faith in God, whom he did not see or touch. But what he saw and touched led him to believe that which until then he had doubted” (“In Iohann” 121, 5). The evangelist continues with one last phrase of Jesus addressed to Thomas: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” (John 20:29).

This phrase can also be enunciated in the present: “Blessed are those who do not see and believe.” In any case, Jesus enunciates here a fundamental principle for Christians who will come after Thomas, that is, for all of us. It is interesting to observe how another Thomas, the great medieval theologian from Aquino, joins this blessedness with another referred to by Luke that seems opposed: “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see!” (Luke 10:23).

However, Thomas Aquinas comments: “He has much more merit who believes without seeing than he who seeing, believes” (“In Iohann. XX lectio” VI paragraph 2566). In fact, the Letter to the Hebrews, recalling all the series of ancient biblical patriarchs, who believed in God without seeing the fulfillment of his promises, defines faith as “guarantee of what is hoped for; the proof of realities that are not seen” (11:1).

The case of the Apostle Thomas is important for us at least for three reasons: first, because it consoles us in our insecurities; second, because it shows us that every doubt can have a luminous end beyond any uncertainty; and, finally, because the words that Jesus addressed to him remind us of the authentic meaning of mature faith and encourages us to continue, despite the difficulties, on the path of fidelity to Him.

The fourth Gospel has preserved for us a last note on Thomas, on presenting him as witness of the Risen One in the moment after the miraculous catch on the Lake of Tiberias (cf. John 21:2). On that occasion, he is mentioned also immediately after Simon Peter: an evident sign of the notable importance that he enjoyed in the ambit of the first Christian communities. In fact, in his name, were later written the “Acts” and the “Gospel of Thomas,” both apocryphal, but in any case important for the study of Christian origins.

Let us recall, finally, that according to an ancient tradition, Thomas evangelized in the first instance Syria and Persia (so says Origen, as referred by Eusebius of Caesarea, “Hist. eccl.” 3,1) and later went as far as western India (cf. “Acts of Thomas” 1-2: 17 and following), from where Christianity also later reached the south of India. We end our reflection with this missionary perspective, hoping that Thomas’ example will increasingly confirm our faith in Jesus Christ, our Lord and our God.

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~ by Rob on September 29, 2006.

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