Solemnity of Sts. Peter & Paul – 14
Acts 12:1-11; 2Tim.4:6-8, 17-18; Matt.16:13-19
One year (Pope) St. John Paul II, was visiting a parish in Rome as part of his duties as Bishop of that city. After celebrating Mass with the parishioners he met with the youth of the parish in a time of dialogue and exchange. The young people had the opportunity to ask the Pope questions many of us would love to ask – about his growing up in Poland: Did he have a girlfriend? What football team he supported? And so on. One young man asked him: ‘Who is your best friend?’ Are we surprised that his answer was ‘Jesus Christ’?
We celebrate today the feast of the apostles Peter and Paul. We rejoice and praise God for having given these two apostles the light and strength they needed to announce the Gospel throughout their life-time, and to witness Christ at their death through the shedding of their blood. Both were executed at Rome around the year 67 A.D. that is 35 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection.
According to an ancient tradition, Peter was crucified while Paul was beheaded. According to Roman law, no Roman citizen could be sentenced to die on a cross, no matter how great his crime might have been; that shameful sort of death was reserved to non-citizens, to slaves and to criminals. That explains why the two apostles were sentenced to two different types of death: Paul, being a roman citizen, was beheaded; Peter being an outsider was crucified.
You may wonder why the two apostles are honored together in a single feast. Actually, Paul is remembered on another day too, that is on Jan’25th the feast of his conversion. The church honored Peter and Paul together from the earliest times. A proof of this is that the two are represented side by side in paintings which come to us from those ancient times.
Peter and Paul, in their lifetime they did not work so closely together. Humanly speaking, the two were very different: Peter was an illiterate man, while Paul had gone through what we would call today a university education. Paul was far more intelligent than Peter. Peter allowed himself to be carried away by feelings; he was a very impetuous man; Paul reasoned things out very carefully.
Yet, both had one thing in common: a deep love for Christ which urged them to carry out faithfully the task Jesus had entrusted to them. This love which guided them in life united them also in death; early Christians liked to call them “the two pillars of the Church”, “two lanterns” burning for Christ, showing the way to heaven to all Christians.
The mission of Saint Peter was twofold. First of all, he was chosen by Jesus to lead the Catholic Church in the early stage of its foundation after the Lord had departed from earth. To Peter was given the keys to the Kingdom of God. Saint Peter was the first Pope, he having been personally chosen by Our Lord Jesus.
Secondly, Saint Peter was chosen to lead most of the Jewish people into the new Covenant of grace, especially those who accepted Jesus as the promised Messiah. Saint Paul, not originally a member of the twelve apostles that were chosen by Jesus, came into the picture a little later. When St Peter was instituting the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, Saint Paul was persecuting the early Church Christians.
Faithful to Yahweh the true God, Paul had not perceived that in Jesus the fullness of God was pleased to dwell bodily, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to Himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the Blood of His Cross. [Col. 1:19-20, 2:9] The conversion of Paul, known then as Saul, came when he was approaching Damascus. A light from heaven suddenly flashed around him. He fell to the ground off his horse and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” [Acts 9:3-4]
While St. Peter had been chosen to bring most of the Jewish people into the Body of Christ as stated before, St. Paul was chosen as God’s instrument to bring the Name of the Lord before the Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel. [Acts 9:15] As Biblical history teaches us, St. Paul played a major role in the early days of the Church in bringing a great number of the gentiles into the Catholic Church.
In a manner of speaking, St. Paul can be viewed as the spiritual father of all of us who would be considered as Gentiles, we not being members of the Jewish nation. If there are members of the Church here today who are of Jewish ancestry, St. Peter would be considered their spiritual father.
There is a traditional story about Peter’s death in Rome during the persecution of Nero. When he heard about Nero’s plan to burn the city and blame the Christians Peter knew that as the church leader in the city he would be arrested and put to death. So, urged by his friends he did the sensible thing and got ready to leave town at night along the Appian Way. As the night wore on the sky was illuminated by the flames rising from the city.
Then Peter saw someone coming in the opposite direction, heading back towards the city, someone who even at night seemed familiar. “Where are you going, Lord?” (“Quo vadis, Domine?”), asked the bewildered Peter. “To Rome,” was the reply, “to be crucified again, in your place.” Peter turned around and returned to Rome.
The Catholic Church teaches that by giving Peter the “keys” along with the promise that all his decisions would be ratified in heaven, Christ gave him the power of freedom from error when he was officially teaching the universal Church. In other words, Peter received primacy in the Church and the gift of infallibility in his official teaching on matters of faith and morals.
The first Vatican Council defined this dogma and the second Vatican Council reconfirmed it. As the Church was to continue long after Peter had died, it was rightly understood from the beginning that those privileges given to him which were necessary for the successful mission of the Church, were given to his lawful successors – the Popes.
We need to accept Jesus as our Lord and personal Savior: Jesus is not merely the founder of a new religion, or a revolutionary Jewish reformer, or one of the great teachers. For Christians, he is the Son of God and our personal Savior. This means that we have to see Jesus as the Good Shepherd, the Savior and the Redeemer. He is our beloved friend, closer to us than our dear ones, and a living experience, who walks with us, loves us, forgives us, helps us and transforms our lives and outlook.
We have to give all areas of our lives to him. He must have a say in our daily lives, and we must radiate all around us his sacrificial agápe love, unconditional forgiveness, overflowing mercy and committed service. The joy, the love, the peace that we find in Jesus should be reflected in the way we live our lives.
We need to grow in the faith and loyalty of Peter and acquire the missionary zeal of St. Paul. Just as the Lord called Saint Peter and Saint Paul in different ways, we are also called in many different ways to follow the Lord throughout our lives. Let us not ignore the call of the Lord. Let us listen to his call and answer generously. Like Saint Paul, let us fight the good fight, racing towards the finish line, while persevering in our faith. Amen.