The Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul, which is celebrated on June 29 is, for all intents and purposes, the feast of the Church’s Catholicity.
But what does it mean when we profess, in the Creed, that the Church is Catholic? The Church is Catholic because it is universal. As a matter of fact, there are two ways through which the Church is Catholic, meaning universal.
First, the Church is universal inasmuch as Christ is present in her. From Christ, her Lord, Saviour and Founder, the Church receives the completeness of the means of salvation. Thus, the Church started being Catholic on the day of Pentecost and, by Christ at her side, she will always be so until his second coming.
Secondly, the Church is universal, therefore Catholic, because she has been entrusted by her Lord, Saviour and Founder, a worldwide mission. The Church, as the new People of God, has the mission of being spread all over the world for the sake of the Gospel. Thanks to this gift of universality, the Church labours as in travail to attract humanity under Christ the Head.
These two aspects of being sent and being gathered under Christ’s authority are very much reflected in today’s solemnity. Both Peter and Paul had been commissioned by Christ to proclaim the Good News of salvation. They were martyred in Rome, the heart of the Roman Empire. In that way they can be referred to as the main patrons of the Church of Rome, the principle of unity. St. Peter underwent his martyrdom under the emperor Nero in 66 or 67 AD. He was buried on the Vatican hill wherein excavations brought to light its tomb on the same site of St. Peter’s Basilica. On the other hand, St. Paul, the Apostle of the Gentiles, was beheaded in the Via Ostia, precisely on the same spot where now lies the basilica that carries his name.
In these two great Apostles the Church sees her apostolicity and the strength of her true teaching. In the collect prayer for the Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul Apostles we, as Church, pray to the Father: “Grant, we pray, O Lord our God, that we may be sustained by the intercession of the blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, that, as through them you gave your Church the foundations of her heavenly office, so through them you may help her to eternal salvation”.
Peter and Paul are the foundation of the Church’s heavenly office of transmitting the Gospel in all the four corners of the earth. In the second reading taken from the Office of Readings for this Solemnity, St. Augustine writes the following in his sermon for the feast: “This day has been made holy by the passion of the blessed apostles Peter and Paul. We are, therefore, not talking about some obscure martyrs. For their voice has gone forth to all the world, and to the ends of the earth their message. These martyrs realized what they taught: they pursued justice, they confessed the truth, they died for it… Both apostles share the same feast day, for these two were one; and even though they suffered on different days, they were as one. Peter went first, and Paul followed. And so we celebrate this day made holy for us by the apostles’ blood. Let us embrace what they believed, their life, their labors, their sufferings, their preaching and their confession of faith”.
Hence, Peter and Paul were one in what they preached. The two apostles preached the one true faith stemming from the One Lord who commissioned them to do so. Both of them followed Him till the end of the world and lived what they ardently taught. Both Peter and Paul were one with each other as real brothers within the same faith. Even if this meant, like what Paul himself confessed in his Second letter to the Corinthians, extreme suffering.
“Five times I have received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I have been beaten with rods; once I was stoned. Three times I have been shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brethren; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure upon me of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant? If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness” (2 Cor 11:24-30).
You and me, as part of the Church, are called, like Peter and Paul to be Catholic in today’s world. That entails from us to take part in the sacramental life of the Church so as to be fortified in giving our Christian witness in the enviroments we are living in. To be Catholic means to share with those who cross our paths the goodness of Our Heavenly Father and of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Finally, to be Catholic means to work for the Church’s unity weaved through adherence to her teachings and the upkeeping of the fraternal bonds of the faith. Other people need to see and experience us as one united Church.
“How do I live in the Church? How do I receive the gifts she offers me, to grow, to mature as a Christian? Do I take part in community life or do a shut myself in my problems?” May these pivotal questions asked by Pope Francis on October 9 2013 challenge us to be Christians as much as we are Catholic and Catholic as much as we are Christians.
Fr Mario Attard OFM Cap