Presidency of Love

Presidency of Love

Solemnity of Saint Peter and Saint Paul  |  Fr Fergus Kerr focuses on the gift of charity given to the Church in Rome through the witness of two great apostles. 

Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch by c.69, wrote seven wonderful letters to various Christian communities on his way to martyrdom in Rome.  Of Syrian origin, condemned to death during the Emperor Trajan’s haphazard campaign to curb the advance of the Christian religion, Ignatius was to be thrown to the lions in the Coliseum in c.107 (he died almost at once).

These letters, with allusions to the Eucharist and the episcopal office as well as to the Divinity of Christ and the Resurrection, tell us a good deal about the shape of the Church in these very early years.  In the letter addressed to the Christian community in Rome, Ignatius refers to them as the church ‘which presides in charity’, a beautiful phrase, grounding the privilege explicitly in the martyrdom of the two apostles Peter and Paul.  People must all have known, as he did, that it was at most only about thirty years since the apostles were martyred (in the mid 60s).

Since Rome was by far the greatest city in the world at the time, the centre of commerce and culture as well as of the imperial government, it might have seemed a good enough reason for the local Christian community to play a special role in the expanding network of churches.   In the perspective of Christian history, on the other hand, it might have seemed more appropriate to regard the original Christian community in Jerusalem as uniquely privileged, the site after all of the Crucifixion, the Resurrection and of Pentecost. But no focus group or eminent person was ever summoned to consider the matter and decide.  It is just that, from very early in the second century, and with Ignatius already late in the first, the local church in Rome had precedence, a ‘presidency of love’, within the communion of all the churches, something that a bishop from Syria like Ignatius took for granted, unchallenged. In due course, this would be how, under God’s providence, the leader of that community in Rome, as custodian of the tombs of the martyred apostles Peter and Paul,  became the Patriarch of the Western Church.

About the year 180 Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons in Gaul, wrote of ‘the greatest, most ancient and well-known church, founded and established by the two most glorious apostles Peter and Paul, at Rome’, the church ‘where that which is the tradition from the apostles has been preserved always by those who are from all parts’.   A Greek speaking native of what is now south western Turkey, educated for the priesthood in Rome, appointed Bishop of Lyons about 178 when his predecessor and mentor Pothinus was martyred, Irenaeus bears testimony (like St Ignatius, even more so) to the shape of the Church expanding across the Mediterranean, from east to west, but again always already centred in Rome.

For most of us Catholics, when we go on pilgrimage to Rome, it is of course the tomb of St Peter that we visit.  The fact is that St Paul is quite overshadowed by St Peter, very understandably, in Catholic piety.  The Scripture readings for this day’s liturgy, no doubt quite unintentionally, confirm this overshadowing  of St Paul.

In contrast with St Peter, for whom we have the great ‘Thou art Peter’ text (Matthew 16: 13-19), we have a mere five verses in honour of St Paul, featuring the well loved ‘I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith’ (2 Timothy 4: 6-8, 17-18), and omitting nine verses of intensely personal matter in these final words to Timothy, naming half a dozen disciples who have deserted him (apparently under house arrest in Ephesus), and quite movingly, even desperately,  making requests (“Bring the cloak that I left …and the books, especially the parchments” etc.)   On the other hand,  “the Lord stood by me and strengthened me in order that through me … all the Gentiles might hear” — thus reminding us of Paul’s vocation beyond the Jewish world.

As for St Peter, however, as well as the ‘Thou art Peter’ gospel text, we also have the highly dramatic (even rather comical) story of the miraculous deliverance of Peter (Acts 12: 1-11), imprisoned in Jerusalem, in which God’s support on this occasion is exercised by an angel — while Peter himself is fast asleep, contributing nothing to what happens more than sheer incredulity. When he disappears elsewhere (verse 17), we are not told exactly where, the narrative moves from Peter to Paul, the unfolding of whose story occupies the rest of the Acts of the Apostles. It begins in Antioch, as it happens, in the mid 40s, in the local church, where (with Barnabas) he is set apart for the Lord and sent on his way (Acts 13: 1-3).

Where Paul’s way will go, we of course know; and his martyrdom, like Peter’s, will grant the local church in Rome the ‘presidency of love’, a wonderful and awesome gift, which it falls to us today to celebrate and commemorate.

Readings: Acts 3:1-10  |  Gal 1:11-20  |  John 21:15-19

Photograph by Fr Lawrence Lew OP of a 4th-century glass medallion, from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

fr. Fergus Kerr is a member of the Dominican community in Edinburgh, where he teaches theology. He is the editor of New Blackfriars, the theological and philosophical review of the English Dominicans.