The Solemnity of SS Peter and Paul is both unusual, insofar
as it celebrates two great saints on a single day, and fitting in that combining
these two great pillars of the early Church we see the unity, the catholicity, of
the Church. Thus, in celebrating these two extraordinary figures we also
celebrate the Church, founded on the Rock of Peter, proclaimed universally by
Paul, and watered by the blood of these faithful martyrs.
Though we can see a unity of purpose in the lives of these
two Apostles, we can also see that they were two very different characters.
Saint Peter, the brother of Andrew, was a poor fisherman from the Sea of Galilee.
Originally named Simon, Christ Himself gave him the name Cephas or Peter,
meaning ‘rock’ in Hebrew. After his call to leave everything and follow Christ
we see him continually at the side of Jesus and, as a leading figure of the
Twelve, one who was favoured by Jesus in His earthly ministry. He is
particularly well remembered for his declaration at Caesarea Philippi,
recounted in today’s Gospel from Matthew. When asked by Jesus; ‘“But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter
said in reply, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’” Peter also
had his moments of human weakness and frailty, most notably in his denial of
Christ during the Passion. This weakness is reminiscent of our own and shows
us, just as it showed Peter, our constant need of the grace of God to remain
steadfast in the face of adversity. The Church would not, and could not exist,
without this grace which is continually poured out from the Holy Spirit.
St Paul presents us with a very different story. An ardent
Pharisee, Paul was a well-educated and committed ‘anti-Christian’ until his
conversion on the road to Damascus. This ‘Damascene conversion’ lead him from
being persecutor to defender of the faith. He worked tirelessly for nearly thirty
years preaching the Gospel and building Christian communities throughout the Mediterranean basin. His
fourteen letters which became part of the Canon are a powerful testimony to his
apostolic zeal and love of Christ.
Both men were to eventually suffer death in Rome for their
faith. St Peter crucified upside down and St Paul beheaded. These two very
different men were united in purpose by Christ. By His grace they built the
Church and it is upon their courageous endeavours that it took root and spread
throughout the world. Theirs was a unity that transcended all material difference
and together they teach us about the depth of true Christian commitment. Above
all they show us what is meant by our confession of faith in the One, Holy and Apostolic Church.