The Great Apostles: Saints Peter and Paul
When Jesus was arrested and delivered up to death, most of his followers scattered and Peter denied even knowing him. The story of the Church should have ended then, with Jesus being placed in the tomb. But it was only the beginning. Filled with the power of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, Peter then went out into the street to tell people that Jesus had risen from the dead – and the new faith spread.
Most of those who had looked upon the face of the Lord died far from the familiar sights of Judea and Galilee. As the Apostles and disciples moved, helped by a network of Roman highways, they carried the faith, preached the word, and founded communities like Antioch, where Peter stayed for a time and followers of “the Way” came to be known as “Christians.”
Many were converted, including Saul, the great persecutor of the Church. By his conversion, he became the channel for the revelation that the Church and Jesus are one when, in response to encountering a bright light and voice from the sky, he asked, “Who are you?” and the voice replied to him, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.” He then took the name Paul and traveled all around what is now Greece and Turkey, proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ.
The roads followed by Peter and Paul eventually led to Rome. The historian Eusebius describes the arrival of Peter in the heart, soul and mind of the Empire, bringing “the costly merchandise of the light of the understanding from the East to those who dwelt in the West, proclaiming the light itself, and the word which brings salvation to souls, and preaching the kingdom of heaven” (Book II, Chapter 14).
The young Church at Rome could not hear enough of what Peter had to say. They wished to conserve every memory of this man who had looked upon the face of the Lord, so they persuaded his assistant to write it down. The result was the Gospel according to Mark.
In 64 A.D., a great fire broke out in Rome. To deflect accusations that he was responsible for starting the fire, the Emperor Nero “fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace,” reports the Roman historian Tacitus. During this persecution of the early Church in Rome,
Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired. Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or stood aloft on a car. Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man’s cruelty, that they were being destroyed. (Annals 15:44)
Among these protomartyrs of the Church were Peter and Paul, who were first imprisoned and then executed – Peter was crucified on the Vatican hill and Paul was beheaded outside the city walls (Eusebius, Book II, Chapter 25). Still, even in the face of this persecution, the Church grew.
It is important that the message of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection are connected to real men, whose resting places are known and can be visited – the Basilica of Saint Peter and the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls. The Gospel is not mere myth. The graves of Saints Peter and Paul are a reminder of just how real the faith is, how historical it is.
Another meaning of today’s Solemnity of Peter and Paul is how the Lord made major saints out of two unlikely personalities, a rustic, impetuous fisherman and a tentmaker by trade who had once persecuted the Church with zeal. This is the way the Lord works.
The first Christians were a small band with no great resources and they were repeatedly persecuted, often brutally. Yet they managed to conquer the world for Christ. They had received the Holy Spirit and thus were able to achieve the impossible, incrementally, at God’s pace, with God’s power. So it is with the Church today.
We have the same calling to serve Jesus that Peter and Paul had. Every one of us has within us the ability to do what Peter and Paul did. As new evangelizers, we look to their examples in urgently and boldly going out to spread the faith of the Church, the joyous Good News of the Risen Lord.