Saints Peter and Paul

Saints Peter and Paul, Apostles
First Century

June 29—Solemnity
Liturgical Color: Red
Patron Saints of the city of Rome

Like the sun, Peter and Paul rose in the East but set in the West

Jesus Christ is the head of the Church. The Pope is the head of the churches. The invisible, heavenly Church, mystically depicted by the Book of Revelation and described by Saint Paul as “our mother,” is the “Jerusalem above” (Galatians 4:26). This perfect, inner, Church of God has theological priority over all earthly churches, which are its shadow. The first Christian congregation, in Jerusalem, anticipated and grew into the universal Church. For a short period, the Jerusalem Church was the universal church. And from this original whole, smaller parts formed, until the one Church became present throughout the world. Unity exists, then spreads. The children do not create the parents. The many dioceses throughout the world are not stitched together into a patchwork quilt called the universal Church. Catholicism is not an international federation of dioceses or the end result of its own geographic stretch. The one Church precedes the many churches. It gives them birth. The progression is from God outward, from spirit to flesh, from ontological to historical, from Jerusalem to Rome, and from Rome to the world.

All dioceses are sisters to one another. So Manila, Philippines, is a sister diocese to that of Vilnius, Lithuania; and Lagos, Nigeria, is a sister diocese to that of La Paz, Bolivia. But the universal Church is not herself a diocese. She has no sisters, lest her oneness be compromised by having a mirror church. The universal Church is a mother, not a sister. And the Mother Church was established in Rome by Saints Peter and Paul, whose feast  we celebrate today. This feast also implicitly commemorates Rome’s position as head of all the churches. Rome’s particular vocation is to preserve the unity of God’s Church on earth. This vocation is not an accidental historical addition to the Church’s original nature. Unity is intrinsic to the Church’s theology, and so there must be a practical force or power, internal to the Church, to preserve her unity. God’s Son, after all, has only one bride, with whom he celebrates only one heavenly banquet for only one eternal, mystical wedding.  

In Matthew’s Gospel, Christ states in unmistakably clear language that He will build His Church on Saint Peter (Mt 16:17–19). This was not a claim from Peter but a statement of fact from Christ Himself. For many centuries, this text has been cited in support of both Roman primacy and papal infallibility. Yet an even more fundamental historical, not biblical, fact originally supported Roman primacy. The great Saint Irenaeus in the late second century clarifies that Rome is “the greatest and most ancient Church, founded by the two glorious Apostles, Peter and Paul.” No other city could claim to be the seat of two martyred Apostles. Not Jerusalem, not Antioch, and not Alexandria. Even Constantinople, the “New Rome,” could not claim even one Apostle. Rome’s headship over all the churches is rooted most deeply in the martyrdoms in the eternal city of Saints Peter and Paul, the Christian counterparts of Rome’s twin pagan founders Romulus and Remus.

Rome, the two-Apostle city, continues to draw pilgrims. If a plumb line were dropped hundreds of feet from the apex of the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica it would come to rest directly over the tomb of the Apostle himself in the necropolis below the Basilica’s main altar. A few miles away, under the main altar of the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, lies the mortal remains of the great Apostle to the Gentiles. The inscription naming Saint Paul on an ancient marble cover for his tomb leaves no doubt whose bones were placed there. The cover even has small holes through which pilgrims could lower ribbons to touch Saint Paul’s bones and thus complete their pilgrimage to Rome with a third class relic. It is a recent phenomenon to go to Rome to see the reigning pope. Traditionally, pilgrims went specifically to pray at the tombs of Saints Peter and Paul.

Our beautiful Church is a miracle. Theologically perfect but humanly flawed. Mystical and historical. All soul and all body. The Church reflects mankind. Capable of so much, yet limited by her imperfections. The Church is founded upon a perfect God and two very different, great, and imperfect men whom God chose—Peter and Paul.

Saints Peter and Paul, deepen our filial devotion to our Mother the Church, who gives us life through the sacraments and who preserves our hope of attending the eternal banquet of God in heaven. Protect our Mother from corruption to be a more perfect spouse of Christ.