Today we celebrate the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, two of the most crucial saints of the early Church. They each had very different personalities and indeed quite different vocations. And both of them were also rather flawed characters. But as we know from the Old Testament, God has a way of choosing people who are completely unworthy to carry out his plans for the world.
We only have to look at Moses; who else but God would choose a murderer to lead his people out of slavery in Egypt into the Promised Land. King David was also a very flawed character; his lust for Bathsheba and his effective murder of her husband is not something anyone would be proud of. But this is what God so often does, he chooses the most unlikely people to carry out his wishes. Of course, one of the reasons he does this is to show that his ultimate desire is that every single person will have their sins forgiven and the way to eternal life opened up for them.
In the case of Peter, we know that he loved Jesus and he wanted to please him whenever he could but then when push came to shove, he let Jesus down badly. On that fateful evening after the Last Supper when the cock crows Peter realises that he has denied Christ thee times. And not just deny Christ, but deny him at the worst possible moment. We also note Peter’s constant misunderstandings and his impetuosity. After Christ’s death on the Cross what does Peter do? He goes back to his old occupation of fishing. It is as if now that Christ was no longer with them he just goes back to doing what he had always done as if nothing had ever happened.
Paul, as we know, was a noted persecutor of Christians. At the stoning of Stephen Paul was present and we are told that he entirely approved of the action of the crowd. He then is sent to Damascus to root out Christians there and put them to the sword. Paul has something of the fanatic about him and is an implacable opponent of Christianity until the moment when he is thrown off his horse and struck blind.
Peter has the experience of Pentecost and the Holy Spirit comes upon him and transforms him into a fearless Christian and qualifies him to lead the Church into an uncertain future in the face of severe persecution. And with Paul, his conversion experience completely changes the direction of his life and he becomes one of the most effective Evangelisers the Church has known.
The trajectory of the lives of Peter and Paul is utterly changed and they both in their different ways consolidate the Church and enable it to make rapid progress in those crucial early days. They both end up in Rome where their efforts to spread the faith lead them both to suffer a martyr’s death; Peter being nailed upside down on a Cross and Paul being beheaded.
Both Peter and Paul are the author of important letters to the various Churches in the ancient world. There are two letters by Peter and thirteen by Paul, they address the concerns of the various groups of Christians spread through the Empire. For example the First Letter of Peter addresses the question of persecution which many of the Churches are experiencing. He urges them to emulate Christ and to love their enemies and to keep faithful to Christian morality. In the Second Letter of Peter he answers questions about how long will Christ’s Second Coming be delayed. He reminds them that to God a thousand years are like a single day.
Paul’s letters are more extensive and are addressed to specific Christian communities in Greece, Asia Minor and Rome. He answers particular questions that have arisen in these Churches and covers a very wide range of topics. The early Christians greatly valued these letters and preserved them carefully and read them aloud in the liturgy just as we do today.
You may have heard the Quo Vadis story. It is an account of Peter fleeing Rome to escape persecution. As he travels down the Via Appia who should he encounter walking resolutely towards the city but Jesus himself carrying his Cross. He asks Jesus, ‘Domine, Quo Vadis?’ Literally, ‘Lord, where are you going?’ And Jesus replies that he is going to Rome to be crucified once again. Peter is ashamed that he is escaping from the city and turns around and goes back to Rome where he is soon arrested and Crucified.
If you go down the Via Appia on the way to the Catacombs of St Sebastian you will see there the Quo Vadis Church. Supposedly there is a stone in the centre of the Church with the imprints of Christ’s footprints there for all to see.
In the case of St Paul, it is said that when he was beheaded his head bounced three times and three springs suddenly appeared. There is a Trappist Monastery the Church of which was built around these three springs. The monks there keep a flock of sheep and the wool from these sheep is used to weave the pallium which the Pope gives to Metropolitan Archbishops on the Feast of SS Peter and Paul each year as a sign of their office.
You will also see in St Peter’s Square on either side of the Basilica two rather fine statues, one of Peter and the other of Paul. The current statues are five and a half meters tall and where placed there in 1847 to replace two rather smaller statues. These two statues placed in such a prominent position indicate the importance of these two wonderful saints who played such a crucial role in the development of the early Church.
Of course, our job as Christians in the world of today is to try and emulate these two extraordinary men. Like them our task is to unify the Church and to spread the faith. It is to encourage those around us who may be losing heart and to model the Christian virtues so that others may be strengthened in their faith. We do not know whether we will be asked to make the ultimate sacrifice of their lives as they did, but it is something that each one of us should prepare ourselves for.
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket