We celebrate this feast of Saints Peter and Paul because they were the two greatest leaders of the early church and heroic witnesses of what they believed.
Paul’s conversion is the most remarkable in the New Testament. He was a zealot of Judaism and persecuted the Church – trying to destroy it. One day the Lord’s presence knocked him to the ground and changed his life forever. It was Jesus Christ Himself who taught the Christian faith to Paul and used his zeal to spread the faith to the Gentiles.
The conversion of Peter happened over a period of time as he witnessed the teachings and miracles of Jesus. Peter was a fisherman and Jesus told him and his brother Andrew that he would make them fishers of men, when he saw them on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Peter was the first to confess that Jesus was “the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus said to him in reply, “Blessed are you Simon, son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. And, so I say to you, you are Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and what ever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” We look to Peter as the first Pope because he was the first bishop of Rome, granted the status of leader by Jesus Christ.
Paul’s primary purpose in life was not to be a Pharisee zealot, nor was Peter’s to be a fisherman. They were both called to be witnesses to the Gospel, even to the shedding of their blood. Along with the other apostles, they are included in our profession of faith. I have seen where the remains of both of them have been entombed in Rome. The tomb of St. Peter is of course under the altar dedicated to him in St. Peter’s Basilica. The tomb of St. Paul is under the main altar in the Basilica of St. Paul.
Another church of St. Peter that has a special significance for me is a church built over what was the house of St Peter in the town of Capernaum on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. The first time we went to the Holy Land in 1984, my wife Mary Jane and I met a young widow from Italy who was staying at the same place we were. Her husband had recently died and she came on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. She was so moved by her experience that she decided to stay there and devote her life to prayer. It was a few years later that she decided to use her inheritance to build a church over the archeological ruins of the house of St Peter. That church is built in the shape of a boat and part of the floor is Plexiglas so that you can look down into the ruins of St. Peters house.
Since then, millions of pilgrims have entered that church and prayed there, and thousands Masses have been celebrated there. What she did was a great thing for the mystical body of Christ. We may not be able to do such a profound thing as she did, but we are all called to be generous with what we have for the sake of others, as a testimony of our trust in God’s providence.
When we think of the deaths of Saints Peter and Paul we may be reminded of the age of martyrs in the early years of the Church, but we also must know that we are living in the age of martyrs right now. There have been more martyrs in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries than in all the years before. This century looks to be the worst ever with what is happening in the Middle East. Young men are being crucified in Syria among the other atrocities that are happening to Christians in that region and parts of Africa, and yet for many people in this country life goes on as if God does not exist.
There has been turmoil in every age. However, we know from Church history that the course of events have been when changed when people turn back to God and pray with great fervor and tend to the needs of others. Let us hope that history will show that the challenges we are now facing will be conquered by a collective turning to God and fervent prayer.
This feast day is not for Saints Peter and Paul, who now live in the glory of God; it is for us – to remind us of the price that these saints and millions of others have paid to keep the Faith alive for us. No matter what our career is, that is not our first purpose. Like Peter and Paul and all the saints, we also are all called to be witnesses of our faith for our own good and the good of others. We are charged with carrying the Faith into the future. There is nothing we do during the course of the day that is more important than spending time in prayer, and yet we have heard many people say they do not have time for prayer. If we do not pray we will not discover God’s plan that would allow us to reach our potential for happiness, and we will not be contributing to the wellbeing of our society and the world.
God’s plan for humanity will only be realized when our relationship with him is more important than our careers, our possessions and our politics.