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Solemnity of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul

Sunday, June 29, 2014

On the 29th of June we celebrate the Solemnities of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, two apostles both very familiar to us and yet, to some degree, somewhat shrouded in the mist of history. So who were they, and why do they merit so great a celebration in the liturgical life of the Church?

Simon Peter the fisherman was found by Our Lord going about his daily work and it was from the nets that Jesus called Peter to make him ‘a fisher of men.’ When the twelve apostles were chosen from among Jesus’s disciples Simon Peter was chosen first; he was to be their head. Fulton Sheen observes that at the pivotal moment when Jesus asked his apostles ‘who do men say that I am’ he tried out all possible forms of Church governance. Was the Church to be a democracy? Who did the multitudes think Jesus was? To which there was a multitude of answers:  Elijah, John the Baptist, Jeremiah. Perhaps then the Church would be modelled after an aristocracy: ‘Who do you say that I am?’ But to this question the apostles had no words. Then, speaking up for himself, Peter confessed his faith ‘you are the Christ, the son of the living God.’ The Church of Christ was to be monarchic and its governance left in the custodianship of the fisherman Simon: ‘I say to you that you are Peter, and upon this Rock I will build my Church… I will give to you the keys of the kingdom of Heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven’ (Matthew 16: 13-20).

And yet immediately following this great elevation of Peter came a humiliation. When Jesus gave the apostles a sight of the Divine Plan for man’s redemption, predicting his own death in Jerusalem, Peter cried out, ‘be it far from you Lord!’ Peter, first to confess Jesus’s divinity, wanted a Christ without the Cross. To which Our Lord responded ‘Get behind me Satan! You are a hindrance to me; for you are not on the side of God, but of men’ (Matthew 16: 21-23). Again and again Peter was elevated only to fall, he walked upon water only to sink. He declared to Jesus ‘even if I have to die, I will never disown you’ but then went on to deny Christ three times. However, each time St. Peter went wrong, Jesus restored him to the right path; he never abandoned the apostle he named Rock.

St. Paul too had his life, as well as his name, changed by Jesus. Originally a zealous persecutor of Christians called Saul he was overcome by a vision of Christ on the road to Damascus and from then on he became Paul, the most zealous of Christ’s advocates. As with Peter, Paul was taken by Christ and put upon a royal road, the road of Christian discipleship.

However, this road was not a smooth exit out of earth into eternity. Rather, it was the road that Christ himself travelled. Peter and Paul shared intimately Christ’s own mission, calling men back to God. They followed Christ’s path by preaching and working miracles, giving glory to God wherever they went, but their ultimate participation in Christ’s mission was to be the summation of their earthly lives, their martyrdom in Rome.

Peter’s threefold denial of Christ was forgiven by a threefold affirmation of his love. But that first denial, when he said of Christ’s cross ‘be it far from you Lord’ was not to be fully atoned for until the end of his life. Jesus said to Peter ‘when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will gird you and lead you where you do not want to go’ (John 21:18).

Peter’s desire for a Christ without a Cross was a rejection of God’s saving plan of mankind, it was a turning away from that infinite act of love upon the Cross whereby the Father glorified the Son and the Son purchased the Spirit for us. Thus, that Peter’s transgression might be utterly washed away, he was called up by Christ to the throne of martyrdom. 

Both Peter and Paul manifest for us the truth that Christian discipleship passes through Calvary, that the greatest experience of love is to be caught up in the sacrificial act of Christ upon his Cross. An experience we have every time we go to Mass, to the one same sacrifice of Calvary re-presented before our very eyes. A mystery to be sure, but as St. Paul said, ‘we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.’

Jordan Scott OP


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