From Heart to Heart

From Heart to Heart

Solemnity of Ss Peter and Paul. Fr John Orme Mills draws some lessons from the different personalities of Saints Peter and Paul.

Why is it that two individuals so immensely important in the history of the Church as Saints Peter and Paul and yet so extraordinarily different from each other are coupled together so closely in the Church’s calendar — frankly, as if they were hardly-known saints, second-class riff-raff? This is a question that has mildly troubled me for a long time.

St Clement of Rome, who was, it seems, either the second or third bishop of Rome after St Peter, and did a lot to reform the Church, was possibly the earliest person to write about the joint role of Peter and Paul and about the fact that Peter and Paul each suffered martyrdom. During the subsequent centuries many prominent speakers and writers in the Roman Church wrote about their achievement. St Irenaeus, writing in the second century, stated that the Church at Rome was ‘the greatest and most ancient Church, founded by the two glorious apostles, Peter and Paul.’

And it was not only rich and famous people who were saying this. Archaeological investigations in the twentieth century revealed throngs of inscriptions dating from about the year 250 — inscriptions like ‘Paul and Peter, make intercession for Victor’ and ‘Peter and Paul, do not forget Antonius Bassus.’

St Peter was probably martyred during the massive persecution of AD 64. His tomb now lies under the great basilica which bears his name. St Paul was executed in Rome at Tre Fontana probably in the year 65, and was buried where the basilica of St Paul Without the Walls now stands. Yes, the Emperor Nero in the span of a few months martyred both of them. In fact, however, by the times of their deaths the relationship between those two ‘glorious founders of the greatest and most ancient Church’ had sometimes been decidedly chilly.

Admittedly, their personalities, like their roles, were very different.

After Jesus’s Ascension Peter immediately took the lead of the Apostles, responding to the Lord’s promise ‘You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church’. He was a no-nonsense man, taking the lead at all the crucial decisions of the early Church, yet who nevertheless could capture people’s hearts and was the greatest miracle-worker among the Apostles.

Very different was Paul, ‘the Apostle of the Gentiles’, whose conversion around AD 33 from bitter hostility to Christianity to deep devotion was one of the most remarkable events in the Church’s history. He did much to spread Christianity through the Mediterranean world, bringing it to Gentiles as well as Jews and stressing that the human being who had been baptized ‘into’ Christ had already received the Spirit — that there was no need to submit Gentile converts to circumcision.

Furthermore, Paul was an outsider to the tight little knot of apostles. He was a Jew himself, but he was also a Roman citizen. He was much misunderstood. He believed that, like Jesus, he had come not to abolish the law but to fulfil it, and so in his travels he would always start by going to the local synagogue to explain his mission. However, though Peter agreed with Paul on the need to take the Gospel to the Gentiles, on at least one occasion the conservatism of some made Peter avoid eating with the Gentiles, and this led to a huge row between Paul and Peter.

In due time, of course, the Church in Rome, led by its Bbishop, came to be seen by other Christians as the preserver of the message of the Apostles. As the preserver of the faith, in other words. All the same, it is still quite reasonable to ask the question: Why did God put the leadership of his church in the hands of difficult people like those two, Peter and Paul?

The fact is that when we are talking about the setting up of the Church we are talking about the truth that makes us free. The core of the Christian message can only be communicated really effectively from heart to heart, by people who have a lively faith themselves. In other words, by people like St Peter and St Paul!

Readings: Acts 12:1-11 | 2 Tim 4:6-8,17-18 | Matt 16:13-19

fr. John Orme Mills O.P. was a former journalist who, after joining the Order, edited New Blackfriars and was at one time Assistant to the Master of the Order in Rome. He died on 6th December 2010. May he rest in peace.