Peter And Paul

by Father Chris Goodwin

Today is the solemnity of the two great Apostles of Rome and pillars of the Church: Peter, the first Bishop of Rome and Vicar of Christ, and Paul, the zealous teacher and evangelizer of the Roman world. As you proclaimed in the Entrance Antiphon, “These are the ones who, living in the flesh, planted the Church with their blood.”

They died under the Roman Emperor Nero – Peter by crucifixion and Paul by beheading. To Nero, it was not tolerable that there should be a man raised from the dead whose power and glory made him the Lord of all people, even of emperors. It did not fit into Nero’s plan for governance that the Law of Grace and Love instituted by Jesus of Nazareth should outweigh all other laws. And so, all of those who pledged their allegiance to this Jesus needed to be exterminated. Many Christians were murdered under Nero, and we celebrate the first of those Roman martyrs tomorrow. Today we hold up Saints Peter and Paul as the two most illustrious of them.

In art, Peter is almost always depicted symbolically holding the “keys of the kingdom of heaven” that Jesus gave to him as recounted in today’s Gospel passage. Jesus said, “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” This means that Peter and each one of his successors is empowered to make doctrinal determinations and disciplinary decisions for the Catholic faithful that carry the weight of Christ’s own authority.

Foolish people hear this and think that this makes Catholics like slaves to the Pope. But if we are wise, we recognize that we can only enjoy real freedom by knowing what is true and doing what is right. Because we have imperfect intelligence and weakened wills, we need God to lead us into all truth and goodness; and thanks to God, Jesus has given to us an authority on earth to do that very thing in his name. This authority is the magisterium, which consists of the Pope and the other Bishops; and as I said yesterday, their official teachings are blessed with the gift of infallibility.

Even popes make personal mistakes; every pope is a sinner. For instance, Paul recognized the duplicity that Peter was showing when he stayed away from the Gentile Christians in order to keep the favor of an overly rigid group of Jewish converts. But Paul publicly reprimanded Peter for his duplicity. And yet, at the same time, Paul also recognized the primacy of Peter’s official teaching authority when Peter decreed, in the Council of Jerusalem, which disciplines should be upheld by those same Gentiles.

The celebration of Saints Peter and Paul is a celebration of the rich gift by Jesus of the Catholic Church, which is a mystery of paradoxes. We are grateful for the firm hierarchical structure of the Church that is exemplified by Peter, and at the same time, for the expansive and missionary action of the Holy Spirit that comes forth in Paul’s travels and preaching. We are a Church of saints who were sinners. We are built on the faith of a man that Jesus named, literally, “Rock”, who, when he took his eyes off Jesus, began to sink like a rock in the Sea of Galilee, and yet who, when finally filled with the Holy Spirit, converted thousands, raised the dead, and accepted death by crucifixion upside down. We are a Church of those who, like Peter, believed in Jesus from the beginning, and of those who, like Paul, converted from being haters of the Church to its most ardent lovers.

In Rome today, the people know well whose feast it is, because the shed blood of Peter and Paul is practically the lifeblood of that city. But their shed blood is our lifeblood, too. There is no true Church apart from Peter. And we would hardly know what our mission to the world looks like without the glorious example of Paul.

In this Eucharist, we are one with them and they are one with us, because all who bear the name of Christian, both on earth and in heaven, find the source of their life in the living Blood of Christ.