Saints Peter and Paul, Apostles

Commentary on Acts 12:1-11; 2 Timothy 4:6-8,17-18; Matthew 16:13-19

On this day we celebrate a special feast of the Church, symbolised by the two great apostles, Peter and Paul. They were the two men around whom the mission of Jesus to establish the Kingdom was centred, and from whom it grew and spread to every corner of the world. As the preface for today’s Mass puts it:

“Peter raised up the church from the faithful flock of Israel. Paul brought your call to the nations, and became the teacher of the world. Each in his chosen way gathered into unity the one family of Christ. Both shared a martyr’s death and are praised throughout the world.

Peter and Paul represent two very distinct roles of the Church in its mission to the world.

Source of stability
Peter represents that part of the Church which gives it stability:

  • its traditions handed down in an unbroken way from the very beginnings,
  • the structures which help to preserve and conserve those traditions,
  • the structure which also gives consistency and unity to the Church, spread as it is through so many races, cultures, traditions, and geographical diversity.
  • Peter today is represented by the pope, who is the great symbol of unity and continuity. Without his role, we would see the Church break up and disintegrate, which has happened to a large extent with those parts of the Church that broke away from the central body. A number of the mainline non-Catholic Christian churches realise today the importance of that central role of Peter and they are trying to find ways by which we could all become one Church again, ways by which diversity could be recognised, but divisions removed, that all who believe in Christ might find and express that unity (but not uniformity) for which Christ prayed during the Last Supper.

    Prophetic role
    Paul, on the other hand, represents another key role, the prophetic and missionary role. It is that part of the Church which constantly works on the edge, pushing the boundaries of the Church further out, not only in a geographical sense, but also pushing the concerns of the Church into neglected areas of social concern and creatively developing new ways of communicating the Christian message. This is the Church which is semper reformanda, a Church which needs to be constantly renewed.

    This renewal is spurred on by the Church’s contact with the surrounding world. This world is itself changing and, in our own times, changing with bewildering speed. Not only new technologies, but new knowledge, new ideas and new thinking continue to surface. Our rapidly changing societies call on us to express the core of our faith in new ways.

    As a theologian once said, “The world writes the agenda for the Church.” That does not mean that the Church is to conform to the ways of the world – quite the contrary. What it does mean is that the Church’s evangelising work has to be in response to where people actually are. It is no good just handing out the same old things in the same old way. If the Church is to remain relevant, if it is to continue speaking in a meaningful way to rapidly changing world, if it is to keep up with the new knowledge and ideas which change our ways of understanding the world in which we live, it has to renew itself constantly:

  • in the way it expresses its message,
  • in the way it structures itself,
  • in the way it communicates its message,
  • in the way it dialogues with the world.
  • The world may not like what the Church has to say, but it should be able to understand it and be stimulated by it.

    New challenges
    A changing world involves new challenges of what is right and wrong, a changing world brings about new social problems, new forms of poverty, of injustice, of exploitation and discrimination, of lack of freedom and the absence of peace.

    Hence there have to be new ways of preaching and witnessing to the Gospel of truth, of love, of justice, of freedom, of peace. For this we need the prophetic role of the Church, built on the foundations of tradition and continuity. We have to avoid the two tendencies either of digging in and looking only to the past, or of neglecting the traditions and bringing in innovations with no foundations.

    When faced with difficult situations, Catholics tend either to dig in and become fundamentalist, or to throw in the towel completely. Neither is helpful either to the Church or to society.

    God’s accompanying presence
    The readings today emphasise the presence of God in the work of his Church. Peter’s faith and acknowledgment of Jesus as the Messiah-Christ and Saviour-King are rewarded by his being made the foundation on which Christ will build his Church. Through Peter, Jesus gives his Church a guarantee of never-ending protection. And he gives to Peter, as his representative, the powers, which he himself had received from the Father, the “keys of the Kingdom”.

    Through the centuries, the Church has been battered and countless efforts made to wipe it out, but it continues to benefit from Christ’s promise and overall to grow in numbers. And as long as it remains faithful to the principles it received from Christ, principles which are of the very nature of God, and consonant with the deepest longings of human nature, it cannot fail. Truth and love cannot be suppressed.

    Doing the only thing possible
    We see that in the First Reading where Peter is thrown into jail for preaching the message of Christ and the Kingdom. As Paul, who was himself in prison more than once, will say later, the word of God cannot be bound. Peter finds release and then goes back to the only thing he can do – proclaiming the message of his beloved Master. The miraculous release from prison symbolises that protection over his Church which Jesus had promised in the Gospel. It is significant too that Peter’s imprisonment occurred during Passover week, the same week in which Jesus himself was arrested and suffered.

    A well-spent life
    Paul in the Second Reading speaks first with gratitude of how his life has been spent in the service of his Lord:

    I have fought the good fight; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.

    May we be able to say the same as we approach the end of our life.

    Paul also speaks of how God continued to protect him through all kinds of trials and persecutions:

    …the Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the gentiles might hear it.

    He too knows that the Lord will continue to protect him but he also knows that when his time comes, he is ready to go.

    Paul’s love for Jesus is so intense that he finds it difficult to choose between staying alive and working for the Kingdom, or dying and being reunited with Jesus, his beloved Lord. As he said once in a memorable phrase:

    For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. (Phil 1:21)

    In either case, he is with his beloved Lord.

    Ever old, ever new
    As we celebrate this feast today, let us both remain faithful to the traditions which have come down to us over 2,000 years ago, but at the same time, be ever ready to make the necessary changes and adaptations by which the message of Christ can be effectively communicated to all those who still have a hunger for that truth and love which over the centuries never changes.

    Let us pray today:

  • for the whole Church all over the world,
  • for our pope as the focus of unity for Christians everywhere,
  • for those who, while remaining faithful to the core traditions, are creatively finding new ways to proclaim the message of the Kingdom to people everywhere,
  • for those places where the Church is working under great difficulties,
  • for our own parish community that it may truly be both loyal to the faith of our fathers,
  • and to have a true missionary spirit, effectively to proclaim Christ to all those among whom we live.
  • In other words, what agenda is our local society writing for our local church?

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