Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Rome's Apostles

According to tradition, the city of Rome was founded on April 21, 753 BC, by twin brothers, Romulus and Remus, whose father was Mars, the god of war. But the two argued about which hill to build on; and, when Romulus began building his city wall, Remus ridiculed his work by jumping over the wall. Romulus responded by killing him - thus determining which one Rome would be named after! In time, Rome would become the greatest city in the world, the capital of the greatest empire the world had ever yet known.

To that same city, some 8 centuries later, came two men, Peter and Paul, brothers not by blood, but by their common faith in Jesus Christ, who had called them to be apostles. The Christian community they found in Rome was small, socially and politically insignificant - an easy target when the Emperor needed scapegoats to blame for a destructive fire. Among those martyred in that 1st Roman persecution of the Church were the apostles Peter and Paul.

One story recounts how Peter started to flee but returned to Rome and embraced his martyrdom after meeting Jesus on the road. “Lord, where are you going,” Peter asked. “I am going to Rome to be crucified again,” Jesus responded. 

If the Christians of Rome required encouragement and confidence to persevere in their new faith, what more powerful reinforcement could they have had than the witness offered by the martyrdom of those two illustrious apostles, who were the Church’s link back to the Risen Lord himself  - Peter, crucified on the Vatican Hill, and Paul, beheaded on the Ostian Way.

At the west end of the south aisle of the Paulist Fathers' "Mother Church" in New York, over a simple but impressive altar dedicated to Saint Paul, is Robert Reid’s evocative, early 20th-century painting depicting Saint Paul kneeling calmly and confidently awaiting his imminent martyrdom. Above and below the picture are the famous words we just heard from Saint. Paul’s 2nd Letter to Timothy: “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course. I have kept the faith!” [2 Timothy 4:7]

Which brings us back to where we started. The old Rome of Romulus – proud, powerful, pagan Rome, based on the murder of one brother by another – was, for all its accomplishments and authentic grandeur, a human state like any other, a warring conqueror, conquered in turn by other warring conquerors. The new Christian Rome of Peter and Paul conquered that old Rome, but in a new way. Proud, powerful, pagan Rome, founded on the murder of one brother by another, was in turn conquered by the faith that empowered Peter and Paul as brothers-in-Christ to evangelize an empire and die together as witnesses to a new way of life.

As we celebrate this great feast recalling the mission and martyrdom of Rome's great Apostles Peter and Paul, let us likewise – as Saint Augustine once recommended on this feast – “embrace what they believed, their life, their labors, their sufferings, their preaching, and their confession of faith” [Sermon 295, 8].

Homily for the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, June 29, 2016.

(Photo: Papal Altar, Archbasilica of Saint John Lateran, with its 14th-century baldachino and reliquaries of the heads of the Apostles Peter and Paul)

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