In the Preface to the Eucharistic Prayer for the feast of an Apostle, we read these meaningful words, “And from their place in heaven they guide us still.”
And today’s Solemnity of the Martyrdom of Saints Peter and Paul gives us perhaps the best example of the truth of this statement that the Apostles do in fact continue their mission in the Church from their place in heaven. This very ancient feast, going back to the earliest days of the Church, commemorates the founding of the Church at Rome by the preaching, authority, and, ultimately, by the martyrdom of these two great saints, one the first Vicar of Christ and head of the Church, and the other the great instrument of the Holy Spirit and Apostle to the gentiles. It is not by mere chance that Paul will finish his missionary call in the same city where Peter has settled as Bishop of Rome.
Peter and Paul, by the will and providence of God, end their lives in the same city of Rome, and they are honored as the co-founders of the one Church that Christ has pre-ordained to be first among the Apostolic Churches, possessing a primacy and an authority that extends over the rest of the universal Church. How telling that the first church in honor and authority among all churches should have two such blessed founders, Peter, representing the supreme authority of Christ on earth, and Paul, representing the power of the Word of God to bring all men and nations into the one Kingdom of God.
Peter was personally given the power of the keys, a power which belongs first to Christ and by his gift alone belongs to the Church in the office of Peter. Paul was given the special charism of prophecy to proclaim the riches of Christ to the nations by inspired letters which have become a substantial part of the New Testament. The blood of martyrs has often been shed for the foundation of local churches, and the blood of these two martyrs, Peter and Paul, is above all what makes them the co-founders of the Roman Church, the church of the Popes to the end of time.
What we are celebrating today, however, is not some kind of boasting like that empty boast of athletic teams to be number one. Indeed, it is a strange feast in that regard, because we do not belong immediately to the Diocese of Rome, but to our own diocese. Catholics in Rome might boast that their Church is number one if they care to, but not the rest of the Catholic world. What we are celebrating is the gift that God has given to us in Peter and Paul, and in the service they continue to provide for us today, Peter through his Successor the Bishop of Rome, and Paul through the Word of God which he transmits to us through the Holy Scriptures. The authority of Peter and the inspired teaching of St. Paul are indeed two great gifts to the Church universal, provided to us through the founders of the Church of Rome, then, and now, for we can truly say that “from their place in heaven they guide us still.”
This is true because the Church has a sacramental character that enables the Lord and His saints in heaven to continue their mission in the Church here on earth. There is a real interconnectedness between heaven and earth, between the Church in Heaven and the Church on earth. Mary, for instance, continues to nurture and protect her children in the Church on earth from her place in Heaven just as The Lord Jesus continues his mission from Heaven through his sacred ministers and sacred laity on earth. So too Peter and Paul continue their mission through the Office of Peter and through the preaching of the New Testament Letters of St. Paul. Peter now acts through his Successors who exercise the power given to Peter by Christ. Paul provides the sacred text that is a source for the Church’s meditation and reflection and preaching through the centuries.
However, there also is, in fact, a certain hierarchy in this dual mission of the great Apostles of Rome, with Peter coming first and Paul second, in a clear recognition of the primacy of Peter over the whole Church. The divine liturgy for this day gives more attention to Peter because of this unique role in the life of the Church of Rome and thereby in the Universal Church. Peter, as Bishop of Rome possesses always the fullness of authority to teach and to govern, in the name of Christ, not only the Church founded at Rome, but the whole Church of Christ. Jesus said to Peter on Holy Thursday evening, “I have prayed for thee Peter, that thy faith shall never fail, and thou in thy turn must strengthen thy brothers.”
Likewise, Jesus had earlier given to Peter the power of the keys, that supreme Authority which transcends all earthly authority, by which power what Peter binds on earth is bound in Heaven, and what he absolves on earth is absolved in heaven. And on Holy Thursday, and again after the resurrection when Jesus told Peter three times to care for His sheep, we see the purpose of this extraordinary sharing in the authority of Christ. The power and authority are given to Peter solely to care for the saving unity of the whole of Christ’s people by ever safeguarding their faith. Peter’s authority is given to him for our sake, to secure at all times the faith that we profess, the truth that we believe, and the truth that alone directs how we must live to truly be children of God and heirs of the kingdom in and with Christ.
Paul’s role, great as it truly is, is different, at least in relation to Rome. Whereas he has real episcopal authority elsewhere, over the local churches that he alone founded, in Rome Peter alone has this authority. Still, Paul is a co-founder of this Church, and this fact points us once again to the truth that authority is always to be exercised in service of the Truth. And when it comes to the teaching of Truth, Paul is empowered by the Holy Spirit with a gift that enables him to communicate the Truth of Christ which Peter serves, and preserves, by His gift of authority. Peter himself refers to this gift of Paul in his own 2nd Epistle:
So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him,
speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures.
What Paul was speaking about in His letters was the mystery of Christ, the mystery of our salvation, which Peter served by the special gifts given to him by the same Lord. Peter supports the teaching of Paul, even the things that are difficult to understand. We are the beneficiaries of these great gifts of Christ and the Spirit, not just Peter and Paul, not just the communities they originally served. They continue to guide us today, Paul through his inspired letters showing us the way of Christ, Peter through his successors, the popes, through whom he continues to safeguard our faith. Peter is the Rock upon whom we stand when the winds of destruction and confusion blow through the Church, so that we can cling to the greater foundation rock, which is Christ Himself, and continue on our way to His kingdom. Today we give thanks for these great apostles service to the Church, when they founded the See of Rome, today, and until the end of time.