…to Blessed Mary, ever Virgin, to St Michael the Archangel, to blessed John the Baptist, to the blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and to all the saints…that I have sinned…”
This is how the “old form” of the Confiteor (“I confess”) began. Back then, we touched every base! But on this great solemnity weekend (needless to say, celebrated with real gusto in Rome!), what can we say about these two pivotal saints? I want to offer some thoughts that will in part be “controversial,” not because I’m being dissident or offensive, but simply because there is no scholarly agreement in some of my points. So I will “pay my money and take my choice.”
We know that Peter, James (the “brother of the Lord”), and John were the “pillars” of the Church in Jerusalem (James son of Zebedee was already martyred by Herod Agrippa). We know that Barnabas convinced them that Saul was a bona fide convert and preacher. And we know that Saul’s early ministry was primarily in Antioch. We know that Peter did some traveling, too: it was while he was in Joppa that he had the vision leading to the conversion of the God-fearing (but still Gentile) household of Cornelius.
When controversy over this issue of Gentile conversions arose, it was Paul and Barnabas who conferred with the above-mentioned “pillars,” along with all the presbyters, and they came to an agreement in the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Peter’s (Simeon’s) comments about himself and Cornelius were major “selling points” in this decision.
Trouble came in Antioch when it seemed to Paul that Peter and even Barnabas were unfaithful to the fullness of the Gospel. They had sharp words. But this is not “the rest of the story.” The practice of Peter opposed by Paul, as it seems, was later embraced by Paul in his writing to the Corinthians. And though Paul stated he never wanted to preach the Gospel where someone else had already evangelized, it seems Peter (Cephas) had no such qualms—he is mentioned in I Corinthians as having a faction, and Paul affirms the value of Peter’s ministry.
When Paul wrote the Letter to the Romans, it was to serve as an introduction to the already-formed Christian Church there (he didn’t want to evangelize there, only use Rome as a base camp to travel to Spain). But he never mentioned Peter in his final (very long) list of greetings, so it seems he was not in Rome at that time. But sooner or later, he did get there.
There has never been a tradition of the martyrdoms of Peter and Paul (and their burials) in any other place than Rome, on the Vatican Hill and along the Ostian Way. These are the locales of the great basilicas of today, originally built on orders of the Emperor Constantine. Excavations demonstrate the virtual certainty of these claims. I’ve been to 2 of the 3 graves of St Patrick; there is only one grave each for Peter and Paul.
Peter is symbolized by the “keys of the Kingdom”; Paul by the sword. It’s the sword of his martyrdom, yes, but also the “2-edged sword” of the Word of God that he proclaimed. Both lived and ultimately died for love of the Lord. And so “let us praise these famous men” (Sirach 44:1) this weekend, and let us thank God for the Church founded upon the Apostles.