Freedom from the Chains that Threaten the Church
During the days of the early Church, the authorities constantly demanded that the Apostles cease preaching about Jesus Christ and stop performing the good works they were doing. When they persisted, they were thrown into prison in an effort to stop the Church from pursuing her mission.
On one of many such occasions, Peter and the Apostles explained to the authorities, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). Another time, after James was martyred, Peter was imprisoned in Jerusalem and bound in chains while the Church prayed for him. Suddenly, an angel appeared and released him (Acts 12:6-11). Peter next traveled to Rome to proclaim the Good News, but there too the Church came under persecution. Peter was held in chains in the Mamertine Prison, adjacent to the Forum, and later executed by crucifixion. But the Church did not go away – instead, she grew.
The chains that bound Peter in Jerusalem and Rome can be seen today in a reliquary at the Basilica of Saint Peter in Chains, which is my titular church in Rome. They provide a visible testimony to the role of Peter in Rome and his ministry and death there. They also offer an important lesson to Christians – discipleship is never easy and witness to the faith can bear great consequence, but we can take hope in knowing that God will deliver us from evil.
In addition to the chains fastened by earthly powers were the chains Peter placed on himself. When he had faith in Jesus and allowed the Holy Spirit to work through him, Peter could walk on water and boldly proclaim the good news of the Risen Lord as he did at Pentecost and for the rest of his days (Matthew 14:29; Acts 2:14 et seq.). But when he clung to the chains of undue attachment to the worldly way of things, he sank into the sea and, later, was so fearful that he denied even knowing Christ (Matthew 14:30, 26:69-75). Here is the lesson that when we trust in God and cooperate with the grace of the Spirit, we can be freed of the chains that weigh us down and keep us from building up the kingdom of God.
This grace is needed today not only to throw off the bonds of oppression and worldly attachment, but also the chains of iniquity that we sometimes create for ourselves. Like Marley’s ghost, these are fetters that we make link by link and yard by yard through a lack of charity, mercy, forbearance, and kindness in our lives (Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol). These chains are particularly damaging because if we are wrapped in self-interest, we might not realize that we are even carrying them and, thus, never seek to be freed of them.
Today’s feast day of Saint Peter in Chains reminds us that we must continually look to the Lord for the wisdom to recognize when we are threatened with chains, whether fastened by others who would seek to deter us from obeying God or bound to us by our own doing. By trusting in God, we can obtain his grace of liberation and fortitude, freeing us to fulfill the mission he has set for our lives.