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Sts. Peter & Paul: the Church's 2 bright lights 2000 years later...(Part 1)

Posted by Connie I. Ko on July 10, 2010 at 11:35 PM

(Click here for Part II) 

           "You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church"        

Matthew 16:18

Saints Peter and Paul in iconic embrace.


The Feast of Sts. Peter & Paul is too good to pass up without a second look. The power in Jesus’ words recorded by Mathew hits me like a sledgehammer as it does ringing true and vibrant some 2000 years later today! Obviously Jesus words have come to pass 2.5B Catholics and Christians later. No, and it is not just the numbers that are impressive. “I am the Way, the Truth and the life.” John 14:6  Indeed Christ's Church & His Truth keeps marching on, generally not by the sword--except for some brief, sordid interludes in its history and, if so, mostly as a defensive act--but by the very same branded missionary and evangelizing zeal of Peter and Paul, in dazzling strides as, by and large, the acknowledged mother of western civilization. "By their fruits you will know them." Matthew 7:16  Truly, the salvation narrative unfolds and moves on…

In his Homily at Vespers for the same Feast some three years ago, Pope Benedict XVI referred to the preeminence of our two beloved saints generally hailed as the two principal pillars of the Catholic Church:  “We will commemorate St Peter…celebrating the Divine Sacrifice in the Vatican Basilica, built on the site of his martyrdom…we turn our gaze to St Paul, whose relics are preserved with deep veneration in this Basilica.” (Source: Immaculate Heart of Mary’s Hermitage Report)

The feast, of course, is observed on June 29, a day that commemorates the martyrdoms of both apostles. A quick web-source lookup, specifically one attributed to James Kiefer (and confirmed by reference to the Catholic Encyclopedia, New Advent) tells us that the date is “the anniversary of a day around 258, under the Valerian persecution, when what were believed to be the remains of the two apostles were both moved temporarily to prevent them from falling into the hands of the persecutors.”


The same source also informs us that “from an early date it has been said” (and as Catholics we hold on to a very firm tradition backed up by scholarship that dates back to Tertulian at the end of the 2nd century) that Saints Peter & Paul “were martyred at Rome at the command of the Emperor Nero, and buried there. As a Roman citizen, Paul would probably have been beheaded with a sword.” In addition we, Catholics also believe that Peter “was crucified head downward.” Kiefer writes: “The present Church of St Peter in Rome replaces earlier churches built on the same site going back to the time of the Emperor Constantine, in whose reign a church was built there on what was believed to be the burial site of Peter. Excavations under the church suggest that the belief is older than Constantine.” Also we learn from the Catholic Encyclopedia that the “exact spot…of the crucifixion of St. Peter was preserved by tradition throughout the centuries, and in the present Church of St. Peter is marked by an altar”  and that a magnificent basilica was begun in the year 323 on the site by Constantine the Great.


With respect to the remains of St. Paul we defer to the Pope’s reference to the “sarcophagus which, by the unanimous opinion of experts and an undisputed tradition, preserves the remains of the Apostle Paul…preserved beneath the Papal Altar of this Basilica for 20 centuries.”

The great church theologian St. Augustine himself observes (Sermon 295): “Both apostles share the same feast day, for these two were one; and even though they suffered on different days, they were as one. Peter went first, and Paul followed. And so we celebrate this day made holy for us by the apostles' blood. Let us embrace what they believed, their life, their labors, their sufferings, their preaching, and their confession of faith.”

Pope Benedict’s homily recalls a quite touching, decidedly human incident between the two when he points out a “very ancient tradition” this time dating back to apostolic times “that claims that their last meeting before their martyrdom actually took place not far from here: the two are supposed to have embraced and blessed each other.” In fact the Pope emphasizes that from the beginning Christians uphold a long-standing tradition that Peter and Paul were “inseparable” even if they each had different roles to play and “despite the tensions that existed in their relationship...”

(Courtesy of Emmanuel Natividad)

“Peter professed his faith in Christ first; Paul obtained as a gift the ability to deepen its riches. Peter founded the first community of Christians who came from the Chosen People; Paul became the Apostle to the Gentiles. With different charisms they worked for one and the same cause: the building of Christ’s Church.”

To understand what Jesus’ words mean in Mathew 16:18 above, Pope John Paul the Great reminds us in his own 2006 Homily on the same Feast (Source: Zenit.org) that the Gospels narrate three different occasions when “the Lord each time in a special way, transmits to Peter his future task.”  In the Gospel according to Mathew, Peter’s own earlier confession & recognition of Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God moves our Lord to confer Peter’s special task upon him “through three images: the rock that becomes the foundation or cornerstone, the keys, and the image of binding and loosing.” The other two instances cited by Pope John Paul II are in the Gospels according to Luke 22:31-33 and St. John 21:15-19.

On the other hand, Saint Paul is credited as being “chosen to form part of the apostolic college by Christ himself on the road to Damascus (Acts9:1-16). Selected to bring Christ's name to all peoples (Acts 9:15), he is the greatest missionary of all time, the advocate of pagans, the Apostle of the Gentiles. (Source:Women for Faith & Family attributed to Daily Roman Missal, Edited by Rev.James Socías, Midwest TheologicalForum, Chicago, Illinois ©2003)

According to Pope Benedict XVI, the union that links Saints Peter and Paul and their missions in the church is so well established in Rome since the earliest centuries that for Romans they are akin to Romulus and Remus, “the two mythical brothers who are said to have given birth to the City, so Peter and Paul were held to be the founders of the Church of Rome.”

To this point, the Pope quotes St Leo the Great: “These are your holy Fathers and true shepherds” and attributes Peter and Paul “as the founders of a new City, the expression of a new and authentic way of being brothers which was made possible by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. For this reason, it can be said that the Church of Rome is celebrating her birthday today, since it was these two Apostles who laid her foundations.

Pope Benedict XVI quotes St John Chrysostom:“Not so bright is the heaven, when the sun sends forth his rays, as is the City of Rome, sending out these two lights (Peter and Paul) into all parts of the world… Therefore, I admire the City… for these pillars of the Church” (Homily on St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, 32, 24).

FInding inspiration in St. Paul himself, let us burn from the same fire that blazes in his cry to the Romans: “Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (8:38-39). Taking up the same appeal, our present Pope intones: “Dear brothers and sisters, as in early times, today too Christ needs apostles ready to sacrifice themselves. He needs witnesses and martyrs like St Paul.”

In closing, let us invoke our beloved Pope John Paul the Great: “Yes, his promise is true: the powers of death, the gates of hell, will not prevail against the Church which he built on Peter (cf. Matthew 16:18) and which he, in this very way, continues to build personally.”

“…and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew16:18).

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1 Comment

Reply Sita
2:57 AM on July 11, 2010 
Very informative. It refreshes my memory of what seemed to have forgotten.