Today, June 29, is the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul.
Sts. Peter and Paul were the two great Apostles of Christ and the two great Apostles of Rome. Rome became the central city of Christendom based on the fact that both Peter and Paul ministered there, Peter as bishop and Paul as evangelist, and that both were martyred for Christ there, Peter by crucifixion and Paul by beheading.
The Acts of the Apostles records especially the acts of Peter and Paul, Peter for the first few chapters and Paul for the remainder of the book. Peter is portrayed as the undisputed leader of the Apostles. It is Peter who preaches at Pentecost (AA 2), Peter who receives the vision that calls for the baptism of Gentiles (AA 10), and Peter who leads and speaks for the others at the Council of Jerusalem (AA 15). By tradition, Peter traveled from Palestine to become the Bishop of Antioch, and from Antioch traveled on to become the first Bishop of Rome and, hence, the first pope. Tradition says that Peter was crucified upside down on Vatican hill in Rome. The Vatican was built on the traditional site of his grave and excavations done in the 1960s found his grave directly under the main altar of St. Peter’s Basilica. Papias of Hierapolis, a bishop who died in the early second century, claims that Mark’s Gospel is based on the recollections of St. Peter. Two New Testament letters are attributed to St. Peter.
Paul was famously converted by his encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus (AA 9), and went on to preach the good news of Jesus throughout the Mediterranean world. He was arrested in Jerusalem for causing a ruckus by preaching in the Temple area, and brought to Caesarea to protect him from a plot to kill him (AA 21). There he was kept in custody for two years before he appealed to Caesar to hear and rule on the charges against him, a right of every Roman citizen (AA 25). Acts says that Paul was given great freedom to preach the gospel in Rome. Tradition says that he was eventually beheaded there, beheading being the more merciful manner of execution reserved for Roman citizens. Thirteen New Testament letters are attributed to St. Paul.
St. Peter and St. Paul represent, if you will, two great missions of the Church. St. Peter’s mission, and that of every pope to follow him, is to provide a point of unity for the Church. St. Peter is the Rock on which Christ’s Church was built, and the Rock that is the papacy has been a key factor in empowering the Church to survive the centuries of persecution, heresies, challenges by state authorities, and even its own corruptions. The Church is the Body of Christ, and the Holy Spirit is the soul of the Church. A Church united in faith and morals is essential for her mission. That sign of unity is Peter, as he was in the first years after the death, resurrection and ascension of Christ, and as Pope Francis is now as the successor of St. Peter.
St. Paul’s mission was to preach the truth with passion to the four corners of the world. It does little good for the Church, having received the good news of Jesus, to keep it under a bushel, or to hide it from others. St. Paul was courageous and indefatigable in his missionary work and his preaching. He suffered the many trials and tribulations that missionaries and those who preach the gospel would face throughout the Church’s centuries. He is the first in a long and illustrious line of missionaries that would bring the gospel to virtually every territory on earth. There is not a continent now where the people have not heard the gospel. Even still, there is great work remaining to bring the gospel to ears that have not heard the Lord’s words and hearts that do not yet love Him.
Each year, the Church celebrates the Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul by singing “What Fairer Light?”, the fifth century hymn composed by Elphis, the wife of Boethius:
What Farier Light?
What fairer light is this than time itself doth own,
The golden day with beams more radiant brightening?
The princes of God’s Church this feast day doth enthrone,
To sinners heavenward bound their burden lightening.
One taught mankind its creed, one guards the heavenly gate,
Founders of Rome, they bind the world in loyalty;
One by the sword achieved, one by the cross his fate;
With laurelled brows they hold eternal royalty.
Rejoice, O Rome, this day, thy walls they once did sign
With princely blood, who now their glory share with thee.
What city’s vesture glows with crimson deep as thine?
What beauty else has earth that may compare with thee?
To God the three in one eternal homage be,
All honour, all renown, all songs victorious,
Who rules both heaven and earth by one divine decree
To everlasting years in empire glorious.
God our Father, today you give us the joy of celebrating the feast of the apostles Peter and Paul. Through them your Church first received the faith. Keep us true to their teaching. Grant this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. (from The Liturgy of Hours).
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.