Homily for the Feast of SS. Peter & Paul, Sunday 29 June 2014

“Father, I have given them the glory you gave to me, that they may be one as we are one. With me in them and you in me, may they be so perfected in unity that the world will recognise that it was you who sent me” (John 17:22-23).

So Christ prayed on the eve of his passion, and today we celebrate the perfect fulfilment of his Prayer in the lives of Saints Peter and Paul. These two men, who were so different from one another, were yet profoundly one in their faith, one in their love for Jesus and his Church, and one in their Apostleship. They were one, too, in their martyrdom in Rome; and now they are forever one in heavenly glory. And the Church stands on their unity, on their witness, on the foundations they laid. The Church stands on Peter, as first among the twelve disciples, centre of unity and visible head of the Church on earth; and she stands on Paul, chosen instrument as Apostle of the gentiles.

The Acts of the Apostles bears witness to the unity of Peter and Paul. That is, the first part of Acts is largely dominated by the figure of St. Peter, and the last part by the figure of St. Paul. More or less in the middle of his book St. Luke brings them together, as he describes the controversy over the question of Gentile Christians, and their relationship to the law of Moses. At a Council meeting in Jerusalem, Peter, with the other leaders of the Church, officially endorses the ministry and preaching of Paul, and declares that it’s in full agreement with their own.

The narrative of Acts breaks off without recording the deaths of Peter and Paul, so it’s often said that the story of their martyrdom is found in tradition but not in Scripture. But there is one passage in Scripture which seems to describe precisely this event. In the 11th Chapter of the Apocalypse, St. John speaks of two witnesses whom God will send. John’s language here is obscure, allusive, symbolic, so we can’t precisely identify whom he is speaking about: but Peter and Paul fit very well indeed, and it’s hard to imagine who else could. The liturgy, anyway, doesn’t hesitate to make this identification, in the Hymns and Antiphons of the Office.

These two witnesses, says John in the Apocalypse, are the two olive trees, and the two lamps in attendance on the Lord, as mentioned in the Prophecy of Zechariah (Apoc 11:3-5; cf. Zech 4:3,13.). While they prophecy they have the power, like Elijah, to lock up the sky so that it doesn’t rain. The authors of our Office texts very neatly take this as a reference to the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven entrusted to St. Peter in today’s Gospel. The Apocalypse narrative goes on to speak of the Beast from the Abyss which rises up and kills these two, once their mission is accomplished. Their corpses, we read, lie in the streets of the Great City for three and a half days, the symbolic period of persecution. But then God breathes life into them, and they are taken up to heaven in a cloud. We naturally understand “the Great City” as a reference to Rome, and the Beast, whose number is 666 (13:18), as a reference to Nero Caesar.

So much for the unity of SS. Peter and Paul as found in holy Scripture. What though, of the apparent confrontation between them in Antioch, as described by St. Paul in his letter to the Galatians (Gal 2:11-14)? There is no doubt that Paul’s language here is impassioned. Some commentators want to use the incident as evidence for radical disagreement between the two Apostles, and for a fundamental lack of any real unity in the early Church.

Unfortunately, it’s impossible for us nowadays to reconstruct the exact details of this incident, or even the exact nature of the point in dispute. At issue somehow was the relationship between Gentile and Jewish Christians, and the continued observance by the latter of traditional eating customs. We might well apply here what is said in the Second Letter of Peter: “Our brother Paul, who is so dear to us... writes passages in his letters which are hard to understand” (2 Pt 3:15-16).

The Catholic Church though has never found in this passage any fundamental division between the two Apostles. On the contrary. Paul explicitly says that Peter behaved here not out of principle, but under social pressure, and contrary to his own usual and well known practice. It would seem too that Peter humbly accepted Paul’s criticism, and stopped what he had been doing. And Paul’s language surely implies he accepted Peter’s superiority of rank within the Church. “I opposed him to his face”, he says. We don’t say that when speaking of someone who is our equal, or inferior. “I opposed him to his face” is what a back bench M.P. would say about the Prime Minister, or a Cardinal about the Pope. This is a case of necessary fraternal correction, which can a notable form of charity, and is perfectly compatible with deep respect, abiding mutual affection, and the unbroken bond of unity.

One little conclusion we could draw from this episode is that informal gestures or chance remarks of the Pope are not to be taken as having binding dogmatic force. Unfortunately the media doesn’t quite understand this point. St. Peter’s current successor, our holy father Pope Francis favours an informal style, and not infrequently this results in screaming headlines, informing us that he is changing Church doctrine, or the moral law. We have to be careful to ignore all this sort of nonsense, which does not at all reflect the faith of the Church regarding the Petrine primacy. Happily, of course, our Pope has no intention whatever of changing either doctrine or morality, even if he had the authority to do so, which he would be the first to proclaim that he doesn’t.

No, no: our faith does not rest on the shifting sands of personal preference or popular opinion. It stands on divine authority. It’s the same faith as that held and taught by SS. Peter and Paul. It is found in Holy Scripture, and mediated by Tradition. It’s the faith of the Church: One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic.

Fr. Benedict Hardy OSB, Prior