The following is adapted from the portrait of St. Barnabas provided by Pope Benedict XVI in his Wednesday General Audience of January 31, 2007:
Barnabas means “son of encouragement” (Acts 4:36) or “son of consolation”. He was a Levite Jew, a native of Cyprus, and this was his nickname. Having settled in Jerusalem, he was one of the first to embrace Christianity after the Lord’s Resurrection. With immense generosity, he sold a field which belonged to him, and gave the money to the Apostles for the Church’s needs (Acts 4:37).
Barnabas vouched for the sincerity of Saul’s conversion before the Jerusalem community that still feared its former persecutor (cf. Acts 9:27). He was then sent to Antioch in Syria to meet Paul in Tarsus, where Paul had withdrawn. He spent an entire year with Paul there, evangelizing that important city in whose church Barnabas was known as a prophet and teacher (cf. Acts 13:1).
The Church of Antioch sent Barnabas on a mission with Paul, which became known as the Apostle’s first missionary journey. In fact, it was Barnabas’ missionary voyage since it was he who was really in charge of it and Paul had joined him as a collaborator, visiting the regions of Cyprus and Central and Southern Anatolia in present-day Turkey, with the cities of Attalia, Perga, Antioch of Pisidia, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe (cf. Acts 13–14).
Together with Paul, Barnabas then went to the so-called Council of Jerusalem where, after a profound examination of the question, the Apostles with the Elders decided to discontinue the practice of circumcision so that it was no longer a feature of the Christian identity (cf. Acts 15:1-35). It was only in this way that, in the end, they officially made possible the Church of the Gentiles, a Church without circumcision; we are children of Abraham simply through faith in Christ.
The two, Paul and Barnabas, disagreed at the beginning of the second missionary journey because Barnabas was determined to take with them as a companion John called Mark, whereas Paul was against it, since the young man had deserted them during their previous journey (cf. Acts 13:13; 15:36-40). Hence there are also disputes, disagreements and controversies among saints. And this is very comforting: saints have not “fallen from Heaven”, but are people like us, who also have complicated problems. Holiness does not consist in never having erred or sinned. Holiness increases the capacity for conversion, for repentance, for willingness to start again and, especially, for reconciliation and forgiveness.
And so it was that Paul, who had been somewhat harsh and bitter with regard to Mark, in the end found himself with him once again. In St Paul’s last Letters, to Philemon and in his Second Letter to Timothy, Mark actually appears as one of his “fellow workers”. Consequently, it is not the fact that we have never erred but our capacity for reconciliation and forgiveness that makes us saints. And we can all learn this way of holiness.
In any case, Barnabas, together with John Mark, returned to Cyprus (Acts 15:39) in about the year 49. From that moment we lose track of him. Tertullian, a prominent writer in the early Church, attributes to St. Barnabas the Letter to the Hebrews. This is not improbable. Since Barnabas belonged to the tribe of Levi, he may have been interested in the topic of the priesthood; and the Letter to the Hebrews interprets Jesus’ priesthood for us in an extraordinary way.
St. Barnabas’ story is thus intertwined with that of the great Apostle St. Paul; Paul does not act as a “soloist”, on his own, but together with collaborators like Barnabas in the “we” of the Church. The “I” of Paul is not an isolated “I”, but an “I” in the “we” of the Church, in the “we” of the apostolic faith.