Acts 12:1-11; 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 17-18; Matthew 16:13-19
The Feast of Saints Peter and Paul, is a feast commemorating the martyrdom in Rome of the apostles St. Peter and Paul of Tarsus, observed on June 29. The celebration is of ancient origin, the date selected being either the anniversary of their death or of the translation of their relics. This day commemorates the martyrdom of the two great Apostles, assigned by tradition to the same day of June in the year 67. They had been imprisoned in the famous Mamertine Prison of Rome and both had foreseen their approaching death. Saint Peter was crucified; Saint Paul, a Roman citizen, was slain by the sword. They were the two men around whom the mission of Jesus to establish the Kingdom was centered and from whom it grew and spread to every corner of the world. As the preface for today’s Mass says: “Peter raised up the church from the faithful flock of Israel. Paul brought your call to the nations, and became the teacher of the world. Each in his chosen way gathered into unity the one family of Christ. Both shared a martyr’s death and are praised throughout the world.” Each one represents two very distinct roles of the Church in its mission to the world.
Saint Peter’s original name was Simon but Christ Himself gave him the name Cephas or Peter when they first met. This new name was meant to show both Peter’s rank as leader of the apostles and the outstanding trait of his character. Peter represents that part of the Church which gives it stability: its traditions handed down in an unbroken way from the very beginnings, the structures which help to preserve and conserve those traditions, the structure which also gives consistency and unity to the Church, spread as it is through so many races, cultures, traditions, and geographical diversity. He was a native of Galilee like Our Lord. As he was fishing on its large lake he was called by Our Lord to follow him. Peter was poor and unlearned, but candid, eager, and loving person. In his heart his conviction grew, and then from his lips came the spontaneous confession: “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God!” Our Lord chose him and prepared him to be the Rock on which He would build His Church. He chose him as His Vicar on earth, the leader of His Apostles, the center and indispensable bond of the Church’s unity, the unique channel of all spiritual powers, the guardian and unerring teacher of His truth.
All Scripture is alive with Saint Peter; his name appears no fewer than 160 times in the New Testament. After Pentecost he stands out in the full grandeur of his office. Peter today is represented by the pope, who is the great symbol of unity and continuity. After the miraculous catch of fish on the Sea of Galilee, Peter received his definitive call. He left his family, and occupation to take his place as leader of the Twelve. Thereafter we find him continually at Jesus’ side as the spokesman of the apostolic college. His sanguine temperament often led him into hasty, unpremeditated words and actions; his denial of Jesus during the passion was a salutary lesson. It accentuated a weakness in his character and made him humble. In Rome Saint Peter’s Chair was placed and there for twenty-five years he laboured at building up the great Roman Church.
Several signs in the Gospel indicate Christ’s desire to give Peter special prominence within the Apostolic College: in Capernaum the Teacher enters Peter’s house; when the crowd becomes pressed at the Lake Genesaret, Jesus chooses Simon’s boat to sit and preach; when, on certain occasions, Jesus takes only three disciples with him, Peter is always recorded as the first of the group: as in the raising of Jairus’ daughter, in the Transfiguration and during the agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. Moreover, Peter himself was aware of his special position: he often also spoke on behalf of the others, asking for the explanation of a difficult parable, the exact meaning of a precept or the formal promise of a reward. It is Peter in particular who resolved certain embarrassing situations by intervening on behalf of all. Thus, when Jesus, saddened by the misunderstanding of the crowd after the Bread of Life discourse, asks: “Will you also go away?” Peter’s answer is very convincing. He says: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life”.
Paul, on the other hand, represents the prophetic and missionary role in the Church. It is that part of the Church which constantly works on the edge, pushing the boundaries of the Church further out, not only in a geographical sense but also pushing the concerns of the Church into neglected areas of social concern and creatively developing new ways of communicating the Christian message. This is the Church which is constantly renewed, a Church which needs to be constantly renewed. This renewal is spurred on by the Church’s contact with the surrounding world. This world is itself changing and, in our own times, changing with bewildering speed. Saint Paul was originally Saul of Tarsus, born in that city of Cilicia of Jewish parents, two or three years after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea. He studied in Jerusalem at the feet of the famous teacher Gamaliel, who later would be converted and listed among the Saints. While still a young man, Saul was a man of commitment and zeal, was a witness at the stoning of the proto-martyr Stephen. In his restless zeal he pressed on to Damascus, where he was miraculously converted. He left Damascus for a long retreat in Arabia, before he set out at the call of God, and carried the Gospel to the uttermost limits of the known western world, for years living and laboring with no thought but that of Christ crucified, no desire but to dispense himself for Him. He became the Apostle to the Gentiles, whom he had been taught to hate. Paul who may never have met Jesus personally, has left to the Church the treasure of thirteen Epistles, which have been a fountainhead of doctrine, elucidating the most basic truths taught by Christ, and constituting the consolation and delight of her greatest Saints. His interior life, insofar as words can express it, lies open before us in these divine writings; it is the life of one who has died forever to himself, and risen again in Christ Jesus. Saint John Chrysostom, his imitator, wrote: “The heart of Paul is the Heart of Christ!” Nor will his labour cease while the race of man continues. Even now, like a chivalrous knight, he stands alive in our midst, and captivates each of his readers to the obedience of Christ.
Another fundamental lesson offered by Paul is the universal breadth that characterizes his apostolate. Acutely feeling the problem of the Gentiles to know God, who in Jesus Christ Crucified and Risen, offers salvation to all without exception, Paul dedicates himself to bring the “good news” to them and to announce the grace destined to reconcile men with God, self and others. Paul’s exhortations concerning the various charisms that give life and structure to the Christian community also derive from this. The Apostle wrote, “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good”. It is important, however, that all the charisms cooperate with one another for the edification of the community and do not instead become the cause of a rift. In Paul’s apostolate difficulties were not lacking, which he faced with courage for love of Christ. He himself recalls having endured pain, imprisonment, beatings and numerous brushes with death. He says that three times he was beaten with rods, once he was stoned, three times he was shipwrecked, and he passed a night and a day on the deep sea. He adds that in toil and hardship, through many sleepless nights, through hunger and thirst, through frequent fasting, cold and exposure he has worked on his mission. All this was possible because of his intimate knowledge of Jesus Christ,
Hence we see the mission of Peter was twofold. First, he was chosen by Jesus to lead the 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. He was the first Pope, he having been personally chosen by Our Lord Jesus. Secondly, Peter was chosen to lead most of the Jewish people into the new Covenant of grace to show that Jesus was the link between the old and the new. Paul, not originally a member of the twelve apostles that were chosen by Jesus and later called himself an Apostle, was in fact a person persecuting the early Christians. Once converted to Christ, Paul was a different person. He 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.
The readings of today emphasize the presence of God in the work of his Church. Peter’s faith and acknowledgment of Jesus as the Messiah-Christ and Saviour-King are rewarded by his being made the foundation on which Christ will build his Church. Through Peter, Jesus gives his Church the promise of his unending protection. Jesus gives Peter the power that he had received from the Father, which is symbolized in the keys of the Kingdom. In the First Reading we read Peter being thrown into prison for preaching the message of Christ and the Kingdom. As Paul, who was himself in prison more than once, will say later, the word of God cannot be bound. Peter finds release and then goes back to the only thing he can do – proclaim the message of his beloved Master. The miraculous release from prison symbolizes that protection over his Church which Jesus had promised in the Gospel. It is significant too that Peter’s imprisonment occurred during Passover week, the same week in which Jesus himself was arrested and suffered. Here again we see the unity of the Church and the power of prayers. The community was praying for the release of peter who kept a prisoner like a criminal. But God comes to their aid and listens to their prayer and he sends an angel to release him.
Today’s Second Reading from the Second Letter to Timothy speaks first with gratitude of how his life has been spent in the service of his Lord and affirms the importance of persevering in one’s living faith. St. Paul claimed to have fought a good fight, to have held on to his faith until the end. Consequently, he affirmed that there was reserved for him in Heaven the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give on that day to those who have longed for His appearing. Paul further proclaimed that the Lord stood by him and gave him strength so that through him, the message, the Good News of the Gospel, may be fully proclaimed to the Gentiles. To secure Paul’s mission, the Lord rescued him from the lion’s mouth and every evil attack that became obstacles to the Divine Will. Paul’s love for Jesus is so intense that he finds it difficult to choose between staying alive and working for the Kingdom or dying and being reunited with Jesus, his beloved Lord.
On this feast day we ask for the grace to remain faithful to the traditions and at the same time, be ever ready to make the necessary changes and adaptations by which the message of Christ can be effectively communicated to all those who still have a hunger for that truth and love. Let us pray today for the whole Church all over the world, for our pope and for Christians everywhere. Let us pray for those who, while remaining faithful to the core traditions, are creatively finding new ways to proclaim the message of the Kingdom to people everywhere. Let us pray for ourselves that after the example of Peter and Paul, we may proclaim the word of God to the world.
Fr Eugene Lobo S.J. Rome