Every year on June 29, the feast of Saints Peter and Paul is celebrated in a special way in Rome, as the feast marks the two apostolic pillars of Christianity. Pilgrims from all over the world travel to Rome to celebrate with the Pope, considered by Catholics to be the direct successor of Peter, the first head of the Church. Many people are also there with their newly appointed bishops who receive their blessing and the symbolic stole of a bishop during that day’s Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica. There is tangible and profound excitement throughout the city with numerous fireworks displays concluding the day’s festivities. Twenty years ago, as a participant in the Rome Renewal Program for Benedictine Sisters, I, along with many other Benedictines present, experienced the universality of the Church which was both remarkable and amazing. The excitement was real.
While these two saints, first-century Jewish men, are linked as pillars of the church, they could hardly have been less alike. Peter was a rural Galilean fisherman from Capernaum. Paul, on the other hand, was a citizen of the Cilician city of Tarsus. Peter, an Aramaic-speaking Palestinian Jew, was probably illiterate, only knowing the Hebrew Bible from hearing the Pharisees teach in the local synagogue. Paul, who knew Greek and Aramaic, in addition to knowing how to read Hebrew, studied in Jerusalem with a famous Pharisee, Gamaliel. Peter, we know, was married and Paul was either a widower or single. However, both men had remarkable vocation histories and they each have deep faith in Christ, the Son of the living God, who in due time led them to Rome and their martyrdom.
In an important passage from the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 16:13-19), Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am? Peter’s confession of faith proclaims Jesus as Messiah, the Anointed. His statement was a revelation from God. Jesus’ answer is: “You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church. Peter then receives the keys to the kingdom of heaven which grants him authority and an escape from the power of hell. Nevertheless, when Jesus faces death and suffers emotional anguish, Peter’s faith fails him. So Jesus challenges him: “If you love me, Simon Peter, feed my lambs, feed my sheep”.
We also have a farewell address from St. Paul in his second letter to Timothy. Paul is aware that persecution/martyrdom is coming. His goal is to finish the race, not necessarily win it. While keeping the faith, Paul now awaits “the crown of righteousness.” Paul pays homage to God for all that has been accomplished. He is well aware that it is God who has been his companion, who has strengthened and preserved him along the way. Paul served the Gentiles and his letters are a great testimony to this faithfulness of God.
There is no doubt that Peter loved Jesus and followed him to death on a cross. Paul felt “poured out like a drink offering,” experiencing the death of Jesus in his own body so that he could glory in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. Thanks to these two apostles, Peter the rock and Paul the prophet, we have known the saving power of the Lord. In an article by Father Columba Stewart, OSB, he asks the question: “What are the lessons that this feast teaches us? It is certainly nothing less than their love, their service, their faithful testimony and their total sacrifice. Oh yes, and for me, I am grateful for my good memories of celebrating with other Benedictines and people from all over the world in Rome at this feast.