Acts 12:1-11; 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 17-18; Matthew 16:13-19
Today we celebrate the Feast of Peter and Paul, the Apostles of Christ. Saints Peter and Paul are probably the most known of all the saints in the Catholic Church. What makes them so famous is that both of them were chosen by Jesus in a very special way for the building of the Mystical Body of Christ. 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 Jesus himself. Secondly, 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 Peter and his companions were preaching the good news and building the Church under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, Paul was persecuting the early Christians, arresting them and placing them in prison. 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. Once he was converted on his way to Damascus, Paul was totally a changed person, preaching Christ and finally became the Apostle to the Gentiles. 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 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 puts it: “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.
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 Savior-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. For Jesus it was a search about his mission to see and discover whether they, his beloved friends have understood his mission. Hence his question is personal: what do people say I am. They tell him that he is a prophet and quote various names. People thought he was only preparing the way to messiah for Elijah was one who had not tasted death and Jeremiah had hidden the ark and would show it to Messiah. Jesus is interested in the discovery of the twelve. Peter their spokesman says you are Christ the son of God. Peter now receives praise from Jesus and also receives the responsibility to take care of his people. This responsibility is carried out by Peter and his successors down the centuries and the work goes on even now.
In the First Reading from the Acts of the Apostles tells us that Peter is thrown into prison for preaching the message of Christ and his Kingdom. As Paul, who was himself in prison more than once, will say later, the word of God cannot be bound. The church continued to pray for him and the angel of the Lord came to Peter and released him from his chains. Peter finds release and then goes back to the only thing he can do – proclaim the message of his beloved Master. The Christian community was indeed happy to receive back their leader. 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. In our life too God will give us strength so that through Him, we may achieve the mission for which we have been called. As Paul was rescued from many obstacles, the Lord will preserve from evil attacks all those who persevere in His service in obedience and in humility. 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.
In the Gospel of today we have the confession of Peter, the Leader of the Apostles. Peter, for himself and his brethren, said that they were assured of our Lord’s being the promised Messiah, the Son of the living God. This showed that they believed Jesus to be more than man. Our Lord declared Peter to be blessed, as the teaching of God made him differ from his unbelieving countrymen. Christ added that he had named him Peter, in allusion to his stability or firmness in professing the truth. The word translated “rock,” is not the same word as Peter, but is of a similar meaning. Nothing can be more wrong than to suppose that Christ meant the person of Peter was the rock. Without doubt Christ himself is the Rock, the tried foundation of the church; and woe to him that attempts to lay any other! Peter’s confession is this rock as to doctrine. If Jesus be not the Christ, those that own him are not of the church, but deceivers and deceived. Our Lord next declared the authority with which Peter would be invested. He spoke in the name of his brethren, and this related to them as well as to him. They had no certain knowledge of the characters of men, and were liable to mistakes and sins in their own conduct; but they were kept from error in stating the way of acceptance and salvation, the rule of obedience, the believer’s character and experience, and the final doom of unbelievers and hypocrites. In such matters their decision was right, and it was confirmed in heaven. But all pretensions of any man, either to absolve or retain men’s sins, are blasphemous and absurd. None can forgive sins but God only. And this binding and loosing, in the common language of the Jews, signified to forbid and to allow, or to teach what is lawful or unlawful.
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.
Paul, on the other hand, represents the prophetic and missionary role in the Church. He was chosen as God’s instrument to bring the Name of the Lord before the Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel. 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. 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 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 labor 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.
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. Today we celebrate the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul. If we believe what the Church believes it is because the Faith received from Christ was lived, preached and safeguarded by them. It is a marvelously great gift for which we should be deeply grateful and this gratitude can be shown by our readiness to live it and hand it on to our children and to all in our lives.
A fox that lived in the deep forest of long ago had lost its front legs. No one knew how: perhaps escaping from a trap. A man, who lived on the edge of the forest, seeing the fox from time to time, wondered how in the world it managed to get its food. One day when the fox was not far from him he had to hide himself quickly because a tiger was approaching. The tiger had fresh game in its claws. Lying down on the ground, it ate its fill, leaving the rest for the fox. Again the next day the great Provider of this world sent provisions to the fox by this same tiger. The man began to think: “If this fox is taken care of in this mysterious way, its food sent by some unseen Higher Power, why don’t I just rest in a corner and have my daily meal provided for me?” Because he had a lot of faith, he let the days pass, waiting for food. Nothing happened. He just went on losing weight and strength until he was nearly a skeleton. Close to losing consciousness, he heard a Voice which said: “O you, who have mistaken the way, see now the Truth! You should have followed the example of that tiger instead of imitating the disabled fox.”
Fr. Eugene Lobo S.J. Mangalore, India