Reflection for the Solemnity of SS Peter and Paul

I came across an interesting motto below a coat of arms and it read ‘Unity is strength’. In a way, this summarises the main thought on our minds as we come together today to give God thanks for the two great apostles, Peter and Paul.

In their lifetime Peter and Paul did not work so closely together. Tradition has it that they never really got on with one another. Peter was called directly by Jesus and given “the keys of the kingdom” as we heard from our Gospel today He is portrayed in art holding the keys. Paul, on the other hand, probably never met Jesus face to face. Once a persecutor of the church, his conversion came about through a vision on the road to Damascus. His inspiration and his style of presenting the gospel came from visions and charismatic experiences. He is portrayed in Christian art carrying either a sword or a book.

Peter and Paul were so different that Peter was surnamed the Apostle of the Jews and Paul the Apostle of the Gentiles. Paul once had a public disagreement with Peter on whether Jewish Christians could eat together with Gentile Christians. (Galatians 2).

If Peter and Paul did not agree in life, they did agree in death. Both suffered the same kind of death, martyrdom, in the same city, Rome, at about the same time, around 64-67 AD. The early church recognized Peter and Paul as the two pillars of the church of Christ. This is depicted in an ancient icon with Peter on the right and Paul on the left, each extending a hand with which they bear up the church.

By placing two of them together in one icon, united in lifting up the church, the church is sending a message to all her children that they all likewise should be united, in spite of individual and local differences, in building up the one church of God.

In the early church there was a tendency to splinter into various factions, each faction claiming to follow the leadership of one of the chief apostles or missionaries. This was one of the reasons why Paul wrote the first letter to the Corinthians. The Corinthians were breaking up into followers of Paul, followers of Peter, and followers of Apollos. Paul reminds them strongly that these human leaders are all equally servants of the one Christ. Christ, therefore, should be their focus and not the human leaders.

If division among believers was a problem in the days of Paul, it is even more so today. Like the Christians of Corinth, Christians today are divided, variously recognizing the absolute authority of John Calvin, John Wesley or Francis. Disunity of Christians is a scandal that weakens the Christian witness to the world. How can Christian churches preach love and unity, forgiveness and reconciliation to the world when they themselves are living in disunity, unable to forgive and reconcile themselves?

Even within the walls of the same church, there are visible cracks of disunity. Today, the faithful are quick to label themselves either as conservatives or liberals. Conservatives, who often identify with the institutional authority of Peter, wage war against liberals; and liberals, who identify with the charismatic vision of Paul, wage war against conservatives. By combining the feasts of the apostles Peter and Paul, the church is inviting all her children to look beyond the conservative-liberal divide and discover a deeper level of unity in Christ.

The church of Christ needs the rock of Peter’s institutional leadership as well as the vitality of Paul’s charismatic vision. Christian unity, like the unity of Peter and Paul, is not a unity in uniformity but a unity in diversity. Today the church reminds us that, even though as individuals and local communities some will prefer the style of Peter and others that of Paul, we should not let that divide us since we are all, first and foremost, followers of the one Lord Jesus Christ and children of one Father, God.

As we look at the personalities of Peter and Paul, we see that God called them to use their personalities to spread the Gospel, Peter to use his impetuous love to look after the flock, and Paul to use his training as a Pharisee and his strength of character to ensure that the non-Jews would be welcomed into the church. It is a reminder to us that our talents and our weaknesses too can become God’s means of helping others, if we allow. We do not have to be perfect for God to work through us, God can work through us, faults and all, as he did with Peter and Paul. God believes in each one of us, and through us, despite how limited we may be,  uses us to bring about his kingdom.

Today the Church also invites us to pray for Peter’s successor, Pope Francis. Jesus is the foundation stone on which the Church is founded, but Our Holy Father, the Pope, is the visible human head of the Church on earth, an office and vocation founded by Jesus to guide the Church. We ask God to bless him in his Petrine Ministry, whereby he affirms our faith, in communion with visible Church here on earth.