Not Just Apostles?
By Br Bede Mullens, O.P | History does not relate whacky interests or peculiar pursuits of the apostles, but we do know a bit about their pre-apostolic careers.
When, in the Acts of the Apostles, St Paul meets Priscilla and Aquila (Acts 8.2-3), he strikes up a collaboration with them not only as fellow disciples. “Because they practised the same trade, he lodged with them and began to work; for they were tent-makers by trade.” Tent-making sounds a narrow industry, but I am reliably informed that the business comprised a variety of services in leatherwork besides. In any case, Paul himself was keen to trade in several senses on his practice of a professional craft. As the arrangement with Priscilla and Aquila makes clear, it allowed him to establish himself in those places where he preached. We easily form the impression that Paul was constantly on the move; and he seems to have conceived his mission as a peripatetic affair – he didn’t want to settle permanently anywhere. But he was not averse to taking his time in a place: he spent a year and a half to ‘teach the word of God’ in Corinth, where he met Priscilla and Aquila; he had spent extended periods in Antioch before, and was to take two years in Ephesus after. Paul’s preaching was not a matter of working a few miracles and dropping a few slogans and moving on: it was a patient teaching of the word of God – not only proclaiming Christ’s death and Resurrection, but re-interpreting for his hearers the Old Testament in the light of that new mystery and showing them how to live under the new dispensation.
So the practice of a craft offered Paul a foothold in these towns and cities, as well as allowing him to support himself and give an example of honest labour. “You yourselves know,” he would write to the Thessalonians, “that we ought to be imitated, because we were not idle among you, nor did we eat our bread as a free gift from anyone, but in toil and labour night and day we worked so as not to be a burden to any of you” (2 Thess. 3.7-8). What this means, of course, is that for Paul it wasn’t a matter of being an Apostle and being a tentmaker; his tent-making was pressed into the service of the Gospel, as a means to effect his apostolate. One could even make the case that tent-making was a most fitting profession for this prince among Apostles. What is the work of evangelisation, if not a bringing the Gospel to dwell among all the peoples of the earth, just as the Word of God pitched his tent among us?
The case of St Peter looks rather different. Although his profession had its own symbolic resonance (‘I shall make you a fisher of men!’), in no uncertain terms he had to leave it behind. ‘They left their nets’, the Gospels say; simple as that. Toward the end of St John’s Gospel, the apostles return to their fishing before the final appearance of the Risen Lord; but this is traditionally viewed as a regression, the plain result of not really knowing what to do in that strange between-time when the Spirit had not yet come. Throughout Acts, there is no indication that Peter ever thought of taking again to his boat on the sea by Galilee. Indeed, early in the book (Acts 6.1-6) the apostles appoint deacons to carry out practical works of charity so that they may dedicate themselves more exclusively to the work of serving the Word.
At one level the discrepancy between Peter and Paul on this point is more apparent than real. Both men were dedicated through and through to the work of being apostles. It so happened that Paul’s profession was, more than simply compatible with his preaching, even practically advantageous. I am put in mind of a more general difference between these two apostles, however. A Benedictine monk once remarked to me, on the subject of the ‘Year of Paul’ proclaimed over 2008-2009 by Pope Benedict XVI, that ‘you couldn’t imagine them dedicating a year like that to St Peter: there’d be nothing to say!’. We have a much more intimate acquaintance with Paul, and we feel in that acquaintance that he is a man of flesh and blood. He didn’t just work night and day like a machine – he was proud of it, and indignant at the fecklessness of others; he writes for all of us in describing the war between our well-meaning spirits and our weak-willed bodies; he suffers, but gladly because he is ablaze with passion for Christ. In Peter, at least Peter after Pentecost, we see comparatively little of this human detail.
We might press the point, and come up with a suitable explanation: Paul shows us the Church more in its charismatic aspect, perhaps, and Peter the institutional side of things; or Paul is the archetype of missionaries, Peter of bishops. Those dichotomies can’t be pushed too far without quickly collapsing or requiring drastic qualification. What I think we can say, is this. These two individuals were appointed to carry out a work that really was and is God’s doing. Perhaps they were quite unlike one another; history relates too little to say. We do know that they both were martyred, and that we owe the Church in no small measure to their efforts: we know that they were apostles. In all essentials, ‘by their fruits you shall know them’.