Sts. Peter and Paul continue to inspire priests today
The solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul, which falls annually on June 29, is the great feast day of the Church of Rome. It is the feast of two martyrs upon whose blood the Church of Rome is built. Paul was beheaded, and Peter was crucified upside down. Two magnificent basilicas stand in Rome today in their lasting memory and honor. Referring to them, Pope St. Leo the Great once proclaimed, “These are the men who have made Christ’s Gospel shine in you, O Rome, and for whom you, once the teacher of error, have become the school of truth.”
Scripture teaches us that St. Peter was rescued from prison the night before trial by an angel who told him to “get up quickly” (Acts 12:7), and the chains miraculously fell from his wrists. Paul recounts, moreover, that the Lord, through all his suffering and persecution, stood by him personally and gave him strength that through him the “proclamation [of the Gospel] might be completed” (2 Tm 4:17). Peter, although at times irascible and impetuous like us, walked with Jesus. He even denied Jesus three times during that first Lent in the Garden of Gethsemane. He reaffirmed his love for Jesus three times, as if to undo his triple denial in the garden. Afterward, Jesus told Peter to follow him, to feed his sheep. And Jesus said to him: “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 16:18-19). Yes, Peter, the first of the apostles! And there is an unbroken chain until this very day. Today Peter has another face. It is the face of Francis — and Benedict and John Paul before him.
Who is Paul? He was once called Saul, an avid persecutor of Christians. Then he had a miraculous experience on the Damascus road. As a result he became a convert and a tireless evangelizer in the name of Jesus throughout Asia Minor and Greece. He endured many hardships for the Faith. And we hear from Scripture: “I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith” (2 Tm 4:7).
For each of us, in our day, we experience the same faith in the living Lord Jesus that he invited Sts. Peter and Paul to share in their day. It is a faith in a person, the person of Jesus Christ — the same Jesus who asks us each day, as he asked Peter, “Who do you say that I am?” (Mt 16:15). It is a faith that we are challenged to discover anew each and every day of our lives in our suffering and persecution — not unlike that of Paul. At its root, faith — the Faith handed down by these two apostles — is truly a gift from the Lord himself to each of us.
Each of us continues to discover the living Lord Jesus every day of our lives in the breaking of the bread at holy Mass and in our countless works of charity inspired by the challenge to live the Mass. As well, we discover him in the silence of our hearts and in our own experiences of healing forgiveness — the same Jesus about whom Peter testified, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Mt 16:16). In this way our faith also is enriched and strengthened.
This solemnity, celebrated on June 29, is a celebration for each of us who bears the name Roman Catholic. Our faith comes to us directly from the preaching, the writing and witness of the apostles. Sts. Peter and Paul hold a preeminent place.
As a priest, on this my 34th anniversary of ordination, on this solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul, I am conscious more and more of the great privilege it is to serve God’s holy people by offering Mass each day, by leading prayer and sharing prayer with my people, forgiving sins in the name of Jesus and being strengthened in the process. The Lord continues to stand by me, and by countless priests, in this great gift and mystery we call the vocation to ordained priesthood. I write on behalf of so many priests and future priests who daily seek to lead like Peter and preach like Paul.
Sts. Peter and Paul, pray for us!
MSGR. PETER J. VAGHI is the pastor of the Church of the Little Flower in Bethesda, Maryland, and a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington. He has served since 1987 as the chaplain of the John Carroll Society.