June 29 is the Solemnity of SS. Peter and Paul. We celebrate on that day the feast of two men, very different in personality and temperament, who served Christ by building up the Christian community. Simon Peter was a Galilean who accompanied Jesus throughout his public life. Paul was a Jew from the Diaspora who initially persecuted the followers of Christ, but later experienced a dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus.
Simon was a fisherman by trade, and it was on the shore of the Sea of Galilea where he and his brother Andrew received the call from Jesus: “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.” (Mark 1:17) Later, Jesus gave him the name “Rock” (“Kepa” in Aramaic; “Cephas” or “Petros” in Greek; “Petrus” in Latin).
The Gospels highlight Peter’s leadership role among the disciples. Whenever the Twelve are listed in the Gospels, his name is mentioned first. (Matthew 10:2-4) He is the one who asks Jesus questions on behalf of the other disciples. (Luke 12:41) Along with James and John, Peter accompanies the Lord in such significant moments as his Transfiguration and his Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. (Matthew 17:1; Mark 14:33)
The Gospels portray Peter as a bold and impulsive man. When he sees Jesus walking on the water, he tries to do the same and fails. (Matthew 14:28-31) He is the first among the disciples to confess his faith in Jesus as “the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” and yet does not want to accept Jesus’ prediction of his Passion. (Matthew 16:16; 22) When he witnesses the Transfiguration of Jesus and sees Moses and Elijah with him, he is filled with fear and wonderment, and in his bewildered state of mind volunteers to erect three booths for them. (Luke 9:33) Peter is the one who swears that he will remain faithful to Jesus, even if all the others abandon him. (Mark 14:29)
Peter was an enthusiastic disciple, but also a man with weaknesses and flaws. After Jesus’ arrest, Peter denied him three times, just as Jesus had predicted. (Luke 22:54-62) Yet, with all his faults and limitations, Jesus chose Peter to be the Rock upon which he would build his Church. Jesus commissioned Peter to be the leader of the early Christian community. “I say to you, 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.” (Matthew 16:18-19a)
After the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, Peter and the other Apostles received the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, and Peter immediately went forth into the streets of Jerusalem to preach the Good News of Jesus, who died to set us free from our sins and rose again, bringing us new life.
According to tradition, Peter spent his last years in Rome, and was martyred during the persecutions of Nero, crucified upside down, because he did not feel worthy to die in the same way as his Lord did. The symbols for St. Peter found in religious art are the keys of the kingdom of heaven and the inverted cross, on which he died.
Paul’s birth name was “Saul.” Saul was a Jew from Tarsus in Cilicia, and a very learned man. In the Acts of the Apostles, Paul states that he studied in Jerusalem at the feet of the great rabbi, Gamaliel. (Acts 22:3) Saul was also a Roman citizen, indicating that he likely was from a well-to-do family. Despite his background, he was not afraid of hard work, and later earned his living as a tentmaker. Saul, in his zeal for his faith, persecuted the Christians in Jerusalem and consented to the stoning of St. Stephen. As people gathered to stone Stephen, they laid their cloaks at the feet of Saul. (Acts 7:54-8:1)
Saul’s conversion took place on the road to Damascus. He was on his way to persecute the Christians there. According to the scriptural narrative, a bright light blinded him and he heard the words, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:3-4)
The Christians in Damascus received the blind and confused Saul, helping him until he recovered his sight. He was baptized and changed his name to Paul. Returning to Jerusalem, he was met with opposition since he had previously persecuted Christians, but one good man believed that Paul had undergone a true conversion. That man’s name was Barnabas, and he brought Paul to the Apostles. Paul moved freely with the Apostles and proclaimed the risen Lord in Jerusalem until he had to leave due to opposition from the Hellenist Christians.
(Acts 9:10-30) Barnabas eventually accompanied Paul on his first missionary journey.
Paul took the Good News of Jesus Christ to the eastern Mediterranean, visiting the growing Churches of Asia Minor, and continued to instruct, encourage and admonish them by means of his letters. The Acts of the Apostles describes his three great missionary journeys.
Paul ended his travels in Rome. We know that he was arrested and was kept under house arrest for two years. Evidently, he was arrested again, and tradition has it that he was martyred in Rome during the persecutions of Nero. As a Roman citizen, he would have been beheaded rather than suffer some crueler form of execution. The symbols for St. Paul found in religious art are the book and the sword. The origin of these symbols is a line from the Letter to the Ephesians, which says, “Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God.” (Ephesians 6:17)
These two great Apostles, SS. Peter and Paul, are a source of inspiration for us as we strive to live our Christian lives. The stories of both men remind us of the need for conversion. Peter denied Christ three times, but, later, thrice professed his love and service to him. (John 21:15-19) Paul persecuted Christians, but later put his faith in Christ and set out to bring the Good News to the world. The example of Peter teaches us of the need to ground our faith in the Church’s rock-solid foundation of Scripture and Tradition. The example of Paul teaches us our call to spread to Good News of Christ to everyone and to evangelize with missionary zeal. May their stories inspire us to deeper love and service of God and neighbor.