Peter and Paul have always been the pride of the Church at Rome, where both of them died for Christ after having openly proclaimed His Gospel there, in what was the then centre of the whole world.
We learnt, from the second reading, with what good reason the Church at Rome could glory in St. Paul, when he was able to declare near the end of his life:
I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing.
The Lord stood with me and strengthened me, so that the message might be preached fully through me, and that all the Gentiles might hear.
Paul was both deeply learned and extremely courageous: he could dispute with any adversary of Christ; and was quite prepared to endure bodily privations and dangers, as well as sustain all the physical assaults of his enemies:
I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. (Philippians 4:12)
From the Jews five times I received forty stripes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren. (2 Corinthians 11:24-27)
Having heard the Gospel proclaimed and expounded to them by an Apostle able to give and willing to suffer so much in order to bring them the authentic Good News of Christ, the Christians at Rome were not only privileged to have received the offer of salvation, but also understandably proud of the messenger who after having so fully, faithfully, and fearlessly proclaimed it to them, finally sealed his witness by suffering martyrdom in their midst.
The glory and significance of Peter for Rome and the Church as a whole, however, is of another sort. He would, like Paul, win the crown of martyrdom for Jesus and the Gospel at Rome. However, the real glory and significance of Peter lay in the fact that he had been uniquely and most sublimely chosen: first by the Father to proclaim Jesus as the Christ, and then by Jesus to receive the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven and supreme authority in the Church of Christ on earth....
Simon Peter answered and said, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ Jesus answered and said to him: ‘Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father Who is in heaven. And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.
Later on, Jesus confirmed Peter as the rock for His Church saying:
I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers. (Luke 22:32)
However, Jesus’ ultimate and possibly His most solemn deployment and confirmation of Peter as supreme shepherd for the Church occurred when Our Lord, after His Resurrection, appeared by the Sea of Tiberius to Peter and six other disciples as they were fishing. Jesus gave them a wondrous catch of fish, foreshadowing their future mission and work in and for the Church He was committing to them; moreover, He had made preparations for breakfast after they had managed to land their catch. And then, in front of them all:
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter (notice the solemn use of his full name), ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to Him, ‘Yes Lord, You know that I love you.’ He said to him, ‘Feed My lambs.’ (John 21: 15-17)
This was repeated for a second and for a third time, thus comprising what a modern scholar has described as, according to ancient oriental custom, a most solemn conferral of absolutely valid authority.
Why did the Father choose Peter first of all? We do not know. But Jesus recognized, accepted and confirmed His Father’s choice; and so, Peter, though we know of no mystical experiences like that of Paul, nevertheless he is for us, essentially, the man of mystery and grace: specially chosen by the Father to recognize Jesus first of all as the Christ of God and love Him more than all as the Son of Man; and then by Jesus Himself to serve as the earthly rock of His Church and chief shepherd of His people.
Paul was outstanding for his wisdom and understanding (2 Corinthians 11:5):
I consider that I am not at all inferior to the most eminent apostles;
while in his tireless endeavours and great sufferings for Christ he was incomparable:
I ought to have been commended by you; for in nothing was I behind the most eminent apostles, though I am nothing. Truly the signs of an apostle were accomplished among you with all perseverance, in signs and wonders and mighty deeds. (2 Corinthians 12:11-12)
There can be no doubt that St. Paul was, and remains, the most profound and dynamic man of Christian understanding and apostolic endeavour the Church has ever known.
But that is not the whole of Paul, for he tells us of his sublime mystical experience:
I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago—whether in the body I do not know, or whether out of the body I do not know, God knows—such a one was caught up to the third heaven. And I know such a man—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows—how he was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter. Of such a one I will boast; yet of myself I will not boast except in my infirmities. (2 Corinthians 12:2)
The leading Churches in the burgeoning universal Church gloried in those apostles and evangelists they regarded as founding fathers, or martyrs, in their midst: Alexandria rejoiced in Mark the evangelist and disciple of Peter, Ephesus in John, James the Less was the pride of Jerusalem, while Constantinople tried unsuccessfully to claim St. Andrew. Therefore today, People of God, we rightly rejoice with the Church at Rome, our Mother Church and head of the Universal Catholic Church; we rejoice in Peter and Paul, both great apostles of Rome: one, the foundation Rock of the Church, the other, Doctor of the nations. In Peter and Paul we can see both aspects of the life of Mother Church -- the active and the mystic -- distinct but not separated, each complementary to and provocative of the other. Moreover, behind, over-and-above so to speak, the human personalities of Peter and Paul, we recognize the divine consortium manifested at the very origins of the Church of Rome: the Father who had first chosen Peter; the Son Who appointed and commissioned both Peter and Paul; and the Holy Spirit Who called Paul from the church at Antioch to go forth and preach the Gospel before the Emperor in Rome and to all nations.
St. Irenaeus, martyr bishop of Lyons, who had been brought up under the influence of St. Polycarp, himself a disciple of St. John the apostle, bears witness to the early standing of the church of Rome in the Universal Catholic Church:
The apostolic tradition and faith announced to mankind has been brought down to our time by successions of bishops in the greatest, most ancient and well-known church, founded and established by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul, at Rome... With this church, because of its more powerful pre-eminence, all other churches in all other places must be in agreement, since in it Christians of all places have the apostolic tradition preserved.
Today, therefore, let us recall and put into practice the words of the Psalmist:
It is good to give thanks to the LORD, and to sing praises to the name of the Most High. (Psalm 92:1-2)
On this great feast, however, let us not forget that we do not just celebrate the wondrous vocations of two great apostles, we celebrate Mother Church herself, and, above all, we give thanks for and rejoice in the Gift of God’s Spirit, Who first established, and now sustains and guides, her.
One noted Catholic biblical scholar recently asked himself, in a Catholic newspaper, ‘What really happened at Gethsemane? How do we know the words of Jesus’ prayer?’ And he came up with the answer: ‘(The disciples) made it up!’ They projected onto Jesus – so he tells us -- the emotions that they imagined they themselves would have experienced had they suddenly realised their death by torture was imminent. Moreover, our author’s research also led him to come up with the idea that one of Mark’s sources told of Jesus having a ‘brief nervous breakdown’: ‘When realising the imminence of his own demise, Jesus was deeply distraught and troubled, out of control.’
What are we to think of such ‘scholarship’ above all what are we to think about such supposedly catholic scholarship’?
Let us look closely at our Catholic faith. Jesus said quite clearly (John 16:13):
When He, the Spirit of Truth, has come He will guide you into all truth. He will glorify Me, for He will take of what is Mine and declare it to you. All things that the Father has are Mine.
Our author seems to disregard truth in favour of words: he wants a verbatim report of any and all words used! Jesus went three times to pray alone to His Father during His agony in the Garden. Why? Surely to lay before His Father His human agony, so that, with His Father’s grace and blessing, He might understand, then master and make use of such emotions for His Father’s glory and our salvation: ‘Father, not My will, but Yours be done.’ Did the Father just let Him suffer a nervous breakdown? Since the Son of God could not -- so we are told -- face up to His, admittedly immense, earthly trials, how then can ordinary weak and sinful human beings of today be expected to endure, let alone overcome, their life-troubles and spirit-trials?
The Holy Spirit infallibly guides Mother Church into all truth, Jesus says …. Surely such truth is necessary and required above all for the Gospel proclamation of Our Blessed Lord’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection! Our author can himself imagine and proudly proclaim what he thinks did or did not happen in the Garden, but the Evangelists ... one of whom, John, was close at hand, and, on being awakened by Jesus just come from the Garden, was addressed by Him minutes after the event … are reduced to pure ‘imagination’ as to what had just happened to their Lord and Saviour! Did Jesus’ general bearing, His eyes, His face, speak nothing? Did those disciples ask Him nothing? Or if they did ask Him, did He manage to answer them absolutely nothing, so that they had not the slightest inkling about His traumatic experience, and were left with only their individual imaginations about what they themselves might have felt if….
Our author wanted words, a verbatim account, without which -- according to him -- what we have in the Gospel are merely the unsubstantial imaginations of evangelists; which, of course, cannot be compared with his own scholarly fancies!
Mother Church believes Jesus’ word and promise that we have Gospel TRUTH; truth -- concerning Jesus’ prayer and suffering in the Garden -- that was probably learned by Mark from Peter who was close to Our Lord at the time and was most passionately and lovingly concerned about such truth; truth that was gathered by John from his own personal experience and by what he learned from Mary -- now his mother living in his own house with him -- after long, intimate, discussions together about what had happened to and with their beloved Lord, her Son. In other words, I believe, not a proud old man carried away with his own scholarly intuitions, imaginations, and vanities, but a Spirit-guided Church; I believe the truth, expressed and written down under the inspiration of God’s Holy Spirit Who, on the day of Pentecost, established our Catholic Church and still, most assuredly guides her to, and confirms her in, all TRUTH, as Jesus Himself promised and as Mother Church teaches.