June 29th marks the Catholic Feast of St. Peter and St. Paul. Since these two men are usually considered the most important Christians of the apostolic age, you would think that they would each have their own Feast day. However the Church, in its wisdom, has always celebrated these two men together. We can learn a great deal about living as a Christian, and about Church structure, by looking at these two fascinating men and their relationship to each other. They both died in Rome and their bodies remain there to this day.
According to Roman legend, Rome was founded by twin brothers, Romulus and Remus. Their background and early raising was quite tumultuous and their decision to found together a new city proved fatal for Remus. Ambition and sibling rivalry reared its ugly head, but the city of Rome was founded. Rome became one of the most powerful cities (and Empire) in the world, but it lost its worldly power about 400 years after Jesus was born. About 25 years after Jesus died and resurrected, two new brothers (in the Lord) founded a new spiritual city of Rome which to this very day maintains its spiritual power throughout the world. St. Peter and St. Paul have been considered the new co-founders of this spiritual city of Rome. Early Christian writers made this comparison many times. We know St. Peter as being the first Pope and St. Paul as being the greatest evangelist, and scripture writer. Let us take a look at their relationship.
St. Peter was hand chosen by Jesus to lead the Church. Peter had known Jesus and followed Jesus for many years. He was a true disciple of Jesus. St. Paul, on the other hand, never met Jesus until after Jesus died and rose again. In actuality, St. Paul was an arch enemy of the early Christians because of his zeal to remove the followers of the Jesus sect from his most loved Judaism. St. Paul was even there for the first martyrdom of St. Stephen. St. Peter fervently loved Jesus, and St. Paul fervently loved Judaism. When St. Paul met the Resurrected Jesus, on his way to Damascus to persecute Christians, St. Paul was literally knocked to the ground. This one time meeting with the resurrected Jesus was enough to totally change St. Paul from persecutor of the Church to evangelizer for the Church. The early Christians, including St. Peter, were quite skeptical but came to see the change in St. Paul and his zeal for building the Church.
We don’t know for certain how many times St. Peter and St. Paul met, but scriptures tell us of three incidents. The first one seems to occur around the year 51 when in Galatians 1:18 Paul tells us that he went to visit St. Peter in Jerusalem for 15 days. The interesting part of this is that the word that St. Paul uses for the visit is historeō which has a very rich meaning. It implies meeting to gather data, to learn, observe and inquire. Our word history comes from that root. That must have been an interesting meeting. St. Peter was probably still somewhat skeptical of St. Paul, and St. Paul was probably trying to learn as much as possible about Jesus and His followers.
In Galatians 2:1 St. Paul tells us of another meeting he had with St. Peter 14 years after the first meeting. St. Paul came to Peter and James and John, the pillars of the Jerusalem Church, to present to them his form of evangelization and to verify the fruits of his evangelization. He seems to have been checking with them to make sure he was doing it well. St. Paul records that they found nothing to add to what he had been preaching and that they recognized him as being the evangelizer to the Gentiles. They gave him their right hand of fellowship and encouraged him to keep preaching to the Gentiles while they preached to the Jews. He ended by saying, “They only asked us to remember the poor– the very thing I also was eager to do.”
The third time that scriptures (again Galatians) mention the two meeting is at Antioch. This some people play up as a confrontation between the two. However, it appears that it is a great example of collegiality, and fraternal correction. The background for this meeting goes back to the Council of Jerusalem where St. Peter made the judgment that Gentile converts to Christianity did not have to observe the Jewish kosher laws. Now when St. Peter was in Antioch, he was staying with many Jewish Christians who felt that new Gentile converts should keep the kosher laws. Peter even followed the kosher laws when he was with them. St. Paul brought to the attention of St. Peter that he was being hypocritical. It appears that St. Paul really did this out of love and for fraternal correction and that the bond of love that they each had for Jesus triumphed. Later scriptures and tradition show that these two men kept their fraternal love for each other.
We know that towards the end of their lives, both St. Peter and St. Paul move to Rome. All of the early Christian writers talk about them being the new brothers who formed the new Rome. This time, however, there was no ambition or rivalry to separate them; quite the contrary. Tertullian, an early Christian writer born in 155 tells how both St. Peter and St. Paul were imprisoned together during Nero’s persecution and both were martyred by Nero. He recalls that they spent many hours together in jail sharing their stories of spreading the Gospel and he added that they blessed each other for their upcoming martyrdom. St. Peter was crucified upside down (he said he was not good enough to die the same way as Jesus) in the Vatican square and immediately buried in a nearby cemetery, now below St. Peter’s in Rome. St. Paul was beheaded with a sword. He was a Roman citizen and due a quick death. He was beheaded at quae Salviae, which is now known as Tre Fontane (three fountains). According to legend, when the sword cut off St. Paul’s head, it bounced three times and at each spot where it landed, a spring of water sprung forth from the ground. His body was taken away and buried nearby. The beautiful Church of St. Paul’s Outside the Walls stands over his burial place. It is interesting to note that the Tiber River flows through Rome. St. Peter was martyred and was buried on one side of the Tiber, and St. Paul was martyred and buried on the other side. Early Christian writers see this as both “founders” having given their blood to bless both sides of the city. Though these two dynamic men were individuals, they were seen as a major force of a unified two.
St. Peter was a simple Jewish fisherman with probably little education. St. Paul was well educated (taught by the best rabbi in the land) and a Roman citizen. They both were good Jews. St. Peter was married and St. Paul was a celibate. St. Peter was impulsive and St. Paul was enthusiastic. They certainly had their differences. They both have in common that when they met Jesus their lives were totally changed. They both loved Jesus and His Church. Even though both were quite dynamic men with great leadership skills, they learned how to work with each other for the good of the Church.
For us today, we should see that when we truly love Jesus, we change for the good. When we truly love the Church that Jesus founded, we learn to work together with each other, even when we don’t always agree with each other. It is almost incomprehensible to understand how these two men accomplished so much in such a short time. The only way we can understand that is to see them as lovers of Jesus, filled with the Holy Spirit, who respond to “go forth” and spread the good news and build up the body of Christ. I can only imagine the great time the two of them are having with Jesus right now. I look forward to meeting them some day. St. Peter and St. Paul pray that we too can love Jesus with all that we are.