A Reflection for the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul, by Fr Phil Andrews
In the image above, the pallium for each new metropolitan archbishop is laid at the tomb of St Peter having been blessed on the feast of Ss Peter and Paul. Archbishop John wears his as an insignia of his office, and of his communion with the Successor of Peter, the Pope.
Romae natalis sanctorum Apostolorum Petri et Pauli, qui eodem anno eodemque die passi sunt, sub Nerone Imperatore. Horum prior, in eadem Urbe, capite ad terram verso cruci affixus, et in Vaticano juxta viam Triumphalem sepultus, totius Orbis veneratione celebratur; posterior autem, gladio animadversus, et via Ostiensi sepultus, pari honore habetur.
“At Rome, the birthday of the holy apostles Peter and Paul, who suffered martyrdom on the same day, under the emperor Nero. Within the city the former was crucified with his dead downwards, and buried in the Vatican, near the Triumphal way, where he is venerated by the whole world. The latter was put to the sword and buried on the Ostian way, where he receives similar honours.”
So begins the entry for the feast of the Apostles Peter and Paul, 29 June, in The Roman Martyrology, the Church’s “Legion of Honour”, as it has been described. It was promulgated in the sixteenth century by Pope Gregory XIII and updated by successive pontiffs with the details of each generation’s new witnesses for the Faith. Sometimes read following one of the morning hours of the Divine Office (services of psalms and Sacred Scripture which priests and religious, and many laity pray daily), this text is, effectively, a concise list of some of the Church’s martyrs, along with a brief account of their witness. The holy men and women recorded belong to all classes and callings of life: from princes to paupers, from pontiffs to lowly clerics, from great philosophers to the simple of heart.
Pope Gregory had it compiled at a time when heroic sanctity was being demanded of Catholics, especially those living through the turmoil of protestant revolutions in the northern states of Europe. Although their pastor, politically he was pretty-much powerless to protect them from persecution; but what he could offer was a record of the Church’s heroes and heroines in order to bolster their own weaknesses, and in so doing help them to acquire, by the grace of God, a share in that same resolve to remain faithful to the truth. As St Paul himself testifies in today’s second reading:
My life is already being poured away as a libation, and the time has come for me to be gone. I have fought the good fight to the end; I have run the race to the finish; I have kept the faith; all there is to come now is the crown of righteousness reserved for me, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give to me on that Day; and not only to me but to all those who have longed for his Appearing.
The Lord stood by me and gave me power, so that through me the whole message might be proclaimed for all the pagans to hear; and so I was rescued from the lion’s mouth. The Lord will rescue me from all evil attempts on me, and bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom. To him be glory for ever and ever. Amen. (2 Timothy. 4:6-8,17-18).
Thus, the Solemnity of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, both of whom headed to Rome to witness with their lives, is also a memorial of all the great witnesses of Jesus Christ, and a confession of the truth for which they died: that the Church founded by Jesus Christ, and proclaimed by Peter and Paul, is one, holy, catholic and apostolic. In the red vestments of today’s feast which represent Peter and Paul’s martyrdom, we nonetheless also recall the red vestments of Pentecost —when the Holy Spirit breathed into a new community that would speak all languages and unite all peoples into one people, in one family of God, guaranteed by their fidelity to the truth. This is the truth for which Christian martyrs die, and this sign is a reality for us today. Although presently unable to gather for today’s Mass in church, watching via the live-streamed celebration from our cathedral will be men and women from every corner of the globe, whose first languages will be neither English nor Latin, but who will be united in the common Eucharistic, and thus ecclesial and communal language of the God who is Love.
Even despite the many hurdles which are placed in our way by the pandemic, and the restrictions to combat it, this feast reminds us all that strangers will become friends; and whilst we may not easily be able to traverse borders, in faith we can cross every frontier, and recognize each other as brothers and sisters. For too long, and for too many, the “sign of peace” has been an expedient replacement for what it actually signifies. That that handshake is currently forbidden on safety grounds, makes now the time to share tangibly in the apostles’ mission of Christ’s peace. Whether self-isolating next door, or in the next continent; the fulfilment of St Paul’s mission as the “minister of Christ Jesus among the Gentiles, with the priestly duty of preaching the Gospel of God so that the Gentiles [might] be offered up as a pleasing sacrifice, consecrated by the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:16) must be realized in our own witness during these difficult days.
The Church is Catholic
Thus, we in our poor humanity, must become a living glorification of God, which is the true worship that God expects; and this is the most profound meaning of catholicity — a catholicity that has already been given to us, towards which we must constantly start out again. As Pope Emeritus Benedict reminds us, “Catholicity does not only express a horizontal dimension, the gathering of many people in unity, but also a vertical dimension”; for it is only by raising our eyes to the God who loved us into existence, by being open to him, that we can truly become one. Thus, any attempt to remain in that horizontal dimension alone is futile, it is not Catholic, and it is not of God.
First century Rome was geopolitically the centre of the world; consequently, both Peter and Paul ending their apostolic ministries so dramatically in that city became an expression par-excellence of the universal outreach of the Good News. The Lord Jesus, who had prayed psalm 22(21) from the cross, which ends, “All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord; all the families of the nations shall bow down before him”, was the same crucified and risen Lord whom both Peter and Paul preached in urbe Roma. Accordingly, in order to fulfil that divine psalm prayer, the Lord Jesus’ victory must now be proclaimed to all the nations, and Rome was at the centre of those nations. We, too, find ourselves with this same charge from the Lord Jesus, and for many of us, London is our Rome.
Since Catholic means universal—a multiplicity that becomes unity; it is a unity that nevertheless remains multiplicity. Our unity as men and women in our multiplicity has become possible because God, the one God, maker of heaven and earth, has shown himself to us; because the essential truth about our lives about where we have come from?, and where we are heading? became visible when the unseen God revealed himself to us and enabled us to see his face in the Lord Jesus. This is what makes the recent assaults on human dignity expressed through racist rhetoric and act so wholly abhorrent! Imperial Rome would tolerate the Hebrew faith of the “unseen God”; but the truth about the essence and integrity of our being is answered only in the truth of the unseen God-made-visible, which thus unites us and makes us brothers and sisters. Catholicity and unity go hand in hand. And unity has a substance: the true faith that the Apostles passed on to us in the name of the God-made-visible, the Lord Jesus Christ.
The Church is Holy
It is St Peter’s profession of faith in the God-made-visible, upon whom the Church is founded: “’You are the Christ,’ he said ‘the Son of the living God’” (Matthew 16:16). But the Church is not holy by herself. All too often, it is apparent of just how much the Church is made up of sinners. Rather, the Church is holy because she is made holy by the Holy One of God, by the purifying love of Christ. Hence, the same Peter spoke again on behalf of the Apostles: “We have come to believe; we are convinced that you are the Holy One of the Lord” (John 6:69). Peter would almost certainly have used this term, “the Holy One of the Lord”, knowing it had, until that moment, been identified with Aaron, who as the High Priest, was charged with offering sacrifice for Israel’s sanctification. Peter’s profession of Christ in this way, however, witnesses to the Lord Jesus’ own consecration of himself in the sacrifice of the Cross (Cf. John 17:19). In this way, the Lord proclaims himself to be the true High Priest who brings peace and reconciliation, the fruits of which are perpetuated and experienced most profoundly in the Most Holy Sacrament of his Body and Blood. God does not only speak, but he loves, he loves us with a profound love: he loved us to the point of the death of his own Son, so that we might be made holy. Pope Emeritus Benedict describes the full grandeur of God’s love for us as being, “as it were, inflicted … wounds in the heart of God himself”. The Church is holy, because with St Paul, its members can say, I live “a life of faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).
The Church is One
Hence, holiness is integral in the Church’s unity. As St Ignatius (a student of St John the Apostle, successor of St Peter in the See of Antioch, and who would himself be martyred at Rome sometime in the early part of the second century) taught: authentic and holy Christianity is epitomised in its unity — unity with and in the Most Holy Trinity, and consequently unity with one another. Jesus had prayed to the Father “that they may be one, even as we are one” (John 17:26). For Ignatius, this unity was realized in many ways, but pre-eminently, (and following in the tradition of St Paul, Cf. 1 Corinthians 10:17), in the sharing of the one Holy Eucharist. “Be watchful, therefore, to participate in one Eucharist. For the flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ is one, and the cup is one that gives unity in his blood” (Epistle to the Philadelphians 4:1). Thus, the observance of the one Eucharist safeguards unity in the one apostolic faith. Ignatius continues this in his catechesis on the link between the one Eucharist and communion with the Bishop of Rome and all bishops in communion with him, which is then manifest in the unity within the koinonia (fellowship) of all Christians in communion with the one Church founded by Christ, and built upon Peter (Cf. Epistle to the Smyrnaeans 8.1–2). “There is one body and one Spirit — just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call — one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all…” (Ephesians 4:4–6).
The Church is Apostolic
The Lord’s establishment of Twelve Apostles mirrors the twelve sons of Jacob, who would go on to become the twelve tribes of Israel. In so doing, he was presenting them as leaders of God’s Holy People which, being universal, includes a mission to all peoples; for it is to all peoples, effectively, that apostles are sent, as Jesus called the Apostles “to be with him, and to be sent out” (Mark 3:14). Whilst this is seemingly a contradiction, as one can surely only remain, or go forth? In the book of the Apocalypse, we read that bishops are described as “angels” in their Church. At first, this might simply suggest the original Greek meaning of angel (ἄγγελος) as being a ‘messenger’; but as Pope St Gregory the Great reminds us, the qualities of angels are such that they are always sent out and at the same time always in God’s presence. “Wherever they are sent, wherever they go, they always journey on in God’s heart” (Homily, 34, 13). Thus, the Apostles and their successors must always be with the Lord Jesus and precisely in this way — wherever they may go — they must always be in communion with him and live by this communion, realized by their communion with the Church.
Thus, the Church is apostolic, because she professes the one true faith of the Apostles and attempts to live it. That same ministry which Peter received from the Lord Jesus now continues in the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church through apostolic succession: priestly ordination. This communion is essential, as the Word of God is alive; it is not only written but, through the Church as the Body of Christ, it remains a living word. Archbishop John wears a Pallium made of lamb’s wool blessed by the Successor of Peter. It was blessed, as though by Peter himself, having been placed beside his tomb in the Vatican Basilica; and it is a sign of common responsibility with the Successor of Peter to the “chief Shepherd” himself, the Lord Jesus Christ. Thus, Archbishop John’s Pallium is an expression of communion and his apostolic mission with the See of Peter, because the visible guarantee is the ministry of Peter and his successors. Unity as well as apostolicity are bound to the Petrine service, as it is this same service that visibly unites the Church of all times and in all places; and it is the maintenance of this communion that, as St Paul reminds us, prevents error and schism from ripping apart the Church.
The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love. (Ephesians 4:11-16).
The One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church is Missionary – we are missionaries
We find ourselves living in a world full of scepticism, deceit, and doubt; but there is also a desire for God. As Baptized Christians we should all recognise our common mission to witness to the Lord Jesus together; and on the basis of that unity which has already been given to us, help the world in order that it may also believe so that the splendour of the truth, which alone can create unity, may once again become visible. It is not because of her own strength but because of the power of the Good News in which the Holy Spirit breathes, that the Church can be an immense force for renewal and holiness in the world. Whilst the challenges of the present age may seem insurmountable: bishops, priests, religious and lay-faithful may, at times, feel like those first century Apostles, who when faced with thousands of hungry people following Jesus, asked in exasperation “What can we do for these people?”; we should remember that with faith in God, nothing is impossible! In faith, what little we – seemingly – have to offer, can become like the loaves and the fish, a spiritual banquet with which to satisfy the world’s true hunger for God… we have just to respond in faith and with generosity!
As Catholics living in the twenty-first century, we have a choice: we can choose to bury the ‘talents’ that have been given to us (by virtue of our Baptism, through Sacred Scripture and the examples of the saints), or we can choose life! We can invest them and put them to work so as to render a profit, both for our own good, and the good of Holy Church. (Cf. Matthew 25). Therefore, like those sixteenth century Catholics who were first inspired by the stories of faith and heroism recorded in The Roman Martyrology, and who invested their talents by fidelity and witness; let us likewise imitate them – here, today – by remaining faithful to our calling to be saints, and to remain steadfast in our communion with the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, founded by our Lord Jesus Christ, and built upon the witness of the Holy Apostle. Aided by the prayers of Peter and Paul, may we grow daily in holiness and, like them, not only be saints whose names will be recorded for eternity in the “Lamb’s Book of Life” (Cf. Apocalypse 3:5, 13:8, 17:8, 20:12, 20:15, 21:27), but saints who have also helped to fill its pages with the many more names of those who have been drawn to the Lord Jesus by our witness as his faithful disciples.