Reflections on the Mass for their feast day, 29 June 1997, by Father Bob Maguire
(Acts, xii: 1-11) The earliest disciples of Jesus were Jews who continued, after Jesus' execution and resurrection, to observe Jewish laws of behaviour and worship. They were Jewish Christians. They felt obliged to continue Jesus' preaching in Jerusalem in the hope that all their compatriots would accept Jesus as Messiah. They were sometimes arrested and imprisoned for promoting a hostile sect within Judaism. But they were released after a beating, time and again. Today's first reading (Acts, iii: 1-10) marks a change in attitude towards the apostles. Herod had James beheaded. He had popular support. He then went after Peter, head of the apostles. In this way persecution touched the whole community of early Christians. They were to experience the same ordeal as their Master. They would seem to be deserted as was Jesus. But, they would also be delivered by God as was Jesus. Happily, Peter's arrest and deliverance occurred around Passover time when all faithful Jews were remembering their ancestors' deliverance from Egypt. They were assembled in prayer, powerfully interceding on behalf of their leader. It was God's plan to keep his church from the power of evil. The symbolism of this event is more important than the historical details. The responsorial psalm, 'The Lord has set me free from all my fears' (Ps, 33) links the two main scripture readings. On a personal note, I have been blessed to have been in a parish named after Sts Peter and Paul from 1973 until now! I have wondered over and over why Peter and Paul, the twin pillars of the church were never separated in either the ancient liturgy or in iconography. Is it as the Glennstal missal notes, 'Between institution and charism there must always be dialogue, even if, at times it leads to tension, for the Church must progress in the knowledge and practice of the truth.' In the Gospel from Matthew (Matt., xvi: 13-19), we have the well-known incident when Jesus commissioned Peter as 'Rock' and 'door-keeper'. Later, after the resurrection, ascension and Pentecost, Our Lord commissioned Paul as 'my chosen instrument to bring my name to the pagan nations'. The earliest Church was both conservative, out of sensitivity to the Jewish Christians and innovative out of sensitivity to the Greek Christians. There was tension between the two parties. Peter was eventually convinced that there had been two Pentecosts: one for the Jews in Jerusalem, another for the pagan family of Cornelius at Caesarea. Paul soon reported to Peter and the Church at Jerusalem that the spirit was at work wherever he preached to non-Jews far from Jerusalem. Local Churches in our own day need to be faithful to both Peter and Paul by keeping the faith and adventurously sharing it with others.
Extracts from Donald Attwater (ed), The Penguin Dictionary of Saints, 2nd ed rev Catherine Rachel John, Harmondsworth, Middlesex England, Penguin Books, 1983
The following extracts from The Penguin Dictionary of Saints by Donald Atwater way not be downloaded without the permission of AP Watt Literary Agents. Please contact them, if you wish to download, at: AP Watt Ltd, 20 John Street, London, WC1N 2DR, England.
Peter leader of the Apostles, died at Rome, around 64 AD.; feast daty 29 June with St Paul. He was a fisherman on the sea of Galilee, married and brother of St Andrew, with whom he was called to follow Christ and be a 'fisher of men'. Originally he was called Simon; but Jesus gave him the Aramaic title of Kephas (John i, 42), meaning 'rock', of which the Greek equivalent becomes 'Peter' in English, the name by which we know him. The title was explained when, in reply to Peter's declaration 'Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God', the Lord said to him, 'Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church', and conferred on him 'the keys of the kingdom of Heaven', and the power of 'binding and loosing' afterwards extended to the other apostles (Matt. xvi 16-19; xviii, 18). The New Testament gives ample evidence of Peter's unique position among the apostles, and also makes clear his earlier misunderstanding of Christ's messiahship, and the warm impetuosity of his character. Within a few hours of assuring his Master 'Though I should die with thee, yet will I not deny thee,' he in fact denied all knowledge of him three times to the Jewish high priest's servants (ibid. xxvi, 35, 69-75). But after the resurrection Peter was the first of the apostles to whom Jesus appeared: and subsequently the risen Lord elicited a three-fold assurance of his love; whereupon Jesus reiterated Peter's responsibilities: 'Feed my lambs. Feed my sheep' (John xxi, 15-19).
This St Peter did boldly and faithfully, as can be seen from the Acts of the Apostles. He was the leader of the Christian community. He directed that the place among the apostles left vacant by Judas Iscariot be filled; he addressed the crowd at Pentecost; he did miracles in Christ's name - his very shadow was health-giving (Acts v, 15); he passed sentence on Ananias and Sapphira; twice he refused to be silenced by the Jewish council; he admitted the first Gentile, Cornelius, to baptism; he was imprisoned by Herod Agrippa, and escaped through divine intervention; he made missionary and pastoral visits to Samaria, Antioch (traditionally he was the first bishop there), and other places. At Antioch he was reproved by St Paul for temporizing over eating with Gentiles (Gal. ii, 11-21); afterwards Peter spoke strongly against imposing the obligation of circumcision on Gentiles; to them also, he said, the Holy Spirit is given and their hearts are purified by faith (Acts xv, 7-11).
The tradition, age-long but not explicitly recorded in the New Testament, that St Peter eventually went to Rome and was put to death there has been called in question from time to time in later ages; but the researches of modern scholars have done much to confirm the tradition. That he was martyred under Nero is undisputed; it is said that he was crucified head downward at his own request, but this is very uncertain. Tradition again points to a spot below where the altar of the Vatican basilica stands as his burial-place. The results of recent excavations there are impressive and of profound interest, but not wholly conclusive on this point.
There seems no good reason to doubt St Peter's authorship of the first New Testament epistle bearing his name, but the second has been questioned by some scholars. It is generally agreed that Mark's gospel represents Peter's teaching. Other early works claiming St Peter as their author, or written about him, are apocryphal; one of them the Acts of Peter, is the source of the story that the saint, fleeing from persecution in Rome, met Christ on the road and asked him 'Lord where are you going?' - 'Quo vadis Domine?' Christ answered, 'I am coming to be crucified again', and thereupon Peter turned back to meet his martyrdom. St Peter is symbolized in art by two crossed keys.
References: O. Cullmann, Peter: disciple apostle, martyr (1954); O.Karrer, Peter and the church (1963); Lord Elton, Simon Peter (1965).
Paul apostle of the Gentiles, born at Tarsus in Cilicia; died at Rome around 67 AD; feast day 29 June with St Peter. Until his conversion to Christ, Paul was known as Saul. He inherited Roman citizenship from his Jewish father (Acts xxii, 28), who brought him up a strict Pharisee (ibid. xxvi, 5); he studied his religion under the celebrated Rabbi Gamaliel at Jerusalem (ibid. xxii, 3), and learned the trade of a tentmaker (ibid. xviii, 1-3). As a young man he was present and consenting when St Stephen was stoned to death; afterwards he 'made havoc of the church' (ibid. viii, 3), searching out Christians and handing them over to prison and even death. Then, while on the way to Damascus to persecute there, he had a sudden vision, in which Jesus Christ rebuked him and told him he was destined to take the Christian faith to the Gentiles, ie. to non-Jews. Paul was duly baptized, and retired for a time to Arabia; then he came back to Damascus, but after three years his Jewish enemies became so threatening that he had to make his escape by night, being lowered over the city wall in a basket. From thence, he went to Jerusalem, 'to see Peter', whom later he 'withstood to the face' because of his uncertain attitude in the disagreement about Gentile converts and Jewish observances. This happened at Antioch, the metropolis of the East, to which Paul had been called to help St Barnabas in his work of evangelization: it was the beginning of the great mission to the Gentiles. Their converts raised a fund for the relief of the famine-stricken Christian community at Jerusalem, and Paul and Barnabas were commissioned to take it there (ibid. ix, 1-30; xi, 26-30).
From about the year 45 St Paul was on his three principle missionary journeys, beginning with Cypress and going hither and thither in Asia Minor, Syria, Macedonia, and Greece (Acts xiii-xx). In each town he first preached in the Jewish synagogue before addressing himself to the heathen. At the end of a dozen years he went to Jerusalem, and his presence there caused such disorder that he was taken into custody by the Roman governor. After two years he appealed for trial in the emperor's court, and was sent to Rome, being shipwrecked in Malta on the way (ibid. xxi - xxviii). He remained under house arrest in Rome for two years, and thereafter his movements are uncertain. He may have been condemned at his trial, and then executed; or he may have been acquitted, for there is some indication that he revisited Ephesus and other places, and perhaps even went to Spain. He would then have been againarrested, brought to Rome once more, and there put to death. In either case the tradition is that he was beheaded at the place now called Tre Fontane, and his body buried where the church of St Paul outside the Walls stands. (The belief that Peter and Paul were martyred on the same day is probably due to the fact that they have a joint feast day.)
Up to his first arrival in Rome, St Paul's life is related in considerable detail in the Acts of the Apostles, and there are further gleanings to be had from those numerous letters of his that form so precious a part of the New Testament (the authorship of certain of them, notably the one to the Hebrews, is questioned). In a famous passage he has himself emphasized the external conditions of his life as a Christian missionary: ' In journeyings often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils by mine own countrymen, in perils by the heathens, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness' (II Cor. xi, 26-27). These things and more were brought upon him by his faithfulness to his daily preoccupation, 'the care of all the churches'. A second-century document depicts Paul as a man of unimpressive physical presence ('small, bald, bow-legged', etc; cf II Cor. x,10); the Acts and the Epistles testify to the loftiness of his spiritual stature and the transcendent qualities of his mind. For he was a great deal more than a tireless and powerful missionary: as religious thinker he has been through his letters a profound and enduring formative influence in the development of Christianity, and his greatness of mind and spirit becomes only more apparent as the centuries pass. The symbols of St Paul in art are a sword and a book.
References: H.V. Morton, In the steps of St Paul (1949); A Penna, St Paul the apostle (1953); C. Tresmontant, St Paul and the mystery of Christ (1957).