Fr Billy Swan
Dear friends, today's feast gives us an opportunity to reflect on the lives of two giant figures of Christianity, Saints Peter and Paul. In old pagan Rome, today was the feast of the foundation of the city with the founders Romulus and Remus honoured and celebrated. Today in Rome and around the world, the twin founders of the Christian Church are also celebrated and honoured, Peter and Paul, who both died for their faith in Christ in the eternal city at the end of the first century. Yet it is not because they are the successors of Romulus and Remus that Peter and Paul share the same feast day. By keeping together the lives of Peter and Paul, the Church is bringing something important to our attention: namely the need to hold together what Peter and Paul represent in the Christian life and the necessity of both structure and spirit in every life, parish and the wider Church.
First we take the example of St Peter. He was uneducated, worked with his hands, was impetuous and fearful. Despite this and despite his denial of the Lord three times, Peter was chosen by Jesus to be the foundation of his Church: ‘You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church’. Despite his weakness, Peter’s faith in Jesus would be the rock on which the Church would be built. After Jesus had asked the question ‘Who do people say I am?’ it was Peter who spoke up. After he had received the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, Peter was changed into a man of courage and leadership. When he was imprisoned, the whole of the Church prayed to God for him unceasingly. He escaped on that occasion but later would die in Rome in the circus of Nero, sentenced to death by crucifixion like his Master and asking to be crucified upside down because he was not worthy to die in the same way as Jesus did. Peter was the first leader of the Church, the first pope and represents order, structure, unity and stability. His role in the early Church is like that of his successor Pope Francis in modern times. He takes the lead, sets the tone and inspires the rest of us. Without this stability and leadership, the family of the Church would fall apart and descend into chaos.
Yet we all know that this focus on order and structure is not enough and here is where the figure of St Paul becomes important. Paul was educated, zealous for the Jewish faith and was prepared to kill for it. Yet despite his dark past, Paul was also called by Jesus to be a witness to his mercy to the ends of the earth. For Paul, what was important was not structure or the law but the spirit, mission, evangelization and the great movement of the Church beyond itself to preach the good news. Paul was a fearless missionary who founded Churches in Corinth, Ephesus, Galatia and finally in Rome where he was beheaded. As we can see from his letters to these communities that we hear in the second reading every Sunday, Paul was passionate about mission, unity and most of all the love of Jesus Christ for humanity that he had come to know first-hand. Here was a man who was so driven by the love of Christ to the extent that he would say ‘the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me’ (Gal. 2:20). This was the love that moved Paul to travel, to take risks and to give his entire life in service of others. This too is the spirit of the Gospel that continues in the Church without which it could not survive. Structure and order are not enough on their own. Structure must be accompanied by creativity; maintenance must be accompanied by mission and continuity accompanied by newness. In this sense Peter and Paul represent what is needed to keep the Church alive and healthy.
Of course this is true for every vibrant parish. We all need structure and stability. We all look to leaders with courage to confess the faith that we too share. We all need security and the assurance that the Church will be there for us. We look to our priests, bishops and pope for guidance and leadership. This is the spirit of Peter. But we also need the spirit of Paul. Every healthy parish must not go stale but must adapt itself to take risks, to reach out and to go beyond itself. In the words of Pope Francis ‘the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channelled for the evangelisation of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation’ (Evangelii Gaudium, 27). It is about what the pope calls an effort to ‘to recover the original freshness of the Gospel’. Whenever we make that effort ‘new avenues arise, new paths of creativity open up’ (Evangelii Gaudium, 11).
So on this feast of Peter and Paul, let us thank God for the example of their lives as people of faith. Both men were very different characters but both were united by a powerful bond: their deep love for Jesus Christ for whom they gave their lives in martyrdom. It is this love for the Lord and their faith in him that unites them and unites us to them. May our parishes be filled with the spirit of both Peter and Paul: on one hand strong, reliable and courageous in faith like Peter. Yet on the other hand may we be bold proclaimers of the good news, leaving our comfort zones and taking the risk of reaching out to new people and in new ways. Saints Peter and Paul, pray for us.