This is not the book that I hoped it would be, meaning an extended meditation on the life and ministry of Saint Paul, in the same vein as Pope Benedict's earlier (and superlative) two-volume look at Jesus. That said, the book is still worth reading, and sometimes poetic in its theological power.

Ignatius Press transcribed and published a collection of the talks on Saint Paul that were given by Pope Benedict between 2008 and 2009 in "general audiences" associated with the celebration of the jubilee year honoring the Apostle to the Gentiles. Speeches originally delivered in Italian were translated into English by staffers at the Vatican newspaper. Reading each talk in succession is like sitting in a darkened theater while a wise old man at the control board shines a spotlight on different aspects of Paul's thought as it has come down to us through Scripture. Every talk is profound, but some are more memorable than others.

Among the nuggets that I found especially interesting is the pope's contention that Paul never regarded his famous unhorsing-by-Jesus experience on the road to Damascus as a "conversion," per se. That is because "this turning point in his life, this transformation of his whole being was not the fruit of a psychological process, of a maturation or intellectual and moral development. Rather it came from the outside: it was the fruit, not of his thought, but of his encounter with Jesus Christ."

That's our pope: a stickler for grammatical and theological precision.

Pope Benedict is predictably diplomatic when addressing the aspects of Pauline thought that Christians have argued with each other about, most notably Paul's teaching on faith and works. My takeaway from that talk is that (pace Martin Luther and the more zealous of the Reformers) there is no conflict between faith and works, or — in the canon of New Testament letters — between the theology of Saint Paul and the theology of Saint James. Each must be understood rightly. Pope Benedict puts it this way: "...while Paul is primarily concerned to show that faith in Christ is necessary and sufficient, James emphasizes the consequential relations between faith and works (cf Jas 2:24). Therefore, for both Paul and James, faith that is active in love testifies to the freely given gift of justification in Christ."

You won't find bon mots or sound bites in what this pope says in 132 dense pages, but you will find deep learning and trustworthy food for thought, even if you're not Catholic.