Blessed Alfredo Ildefonso Schuster(1880-1954), the Benedictine monk and liturgical scholar, who served as Cardinal Archbishop of Milan during World War II, the celebration of today's festival of Saints Peter and Paul was almost like a second Easter. As Pius Parsch put it: "it was the birthday of Christian Rome and marked the triumph of Christ's victory over paganism. Rome's provincial bishops came to the Eternal City to celebrate the feast together with the Pope. As at Christmas three services were held, at the graves of the two apostles and at their temporary depository in times of persecution. The two apostles weer never separated; they were the two eyes of the Church's virgin-face."
All that is left of that ancient splendor is the traditional blessing of the pallia and the modern tradition of a representative of the Ecumenical Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople's attendance at the papal Mass. (Since there was a Consistory for the Creation of new Cardinal yesterday, there was also a good turnout of Cardinals at the papal mass today.)
On this feast, as I do every year, I preached about Peter and Paul as the second founders of Rome - brothers in faith rather than by blood, who founded the new Christian Rome, that replaced the pagan power of ancient imperial Rome. Here is this year's somewhat shortened version of my standard Saints Peter and Paul homily:
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 on his preferred hill, Remus ridiculed his work by jumping over its wall, thus belittling his brother’s accomplishment. Romulus responded by killing him - thus determining which one the city would be named after! In time, Rome became the greatest city in the world, the capital of the greatest empire the world had 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 Nero 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. For centuries ever since, pilgrims from all over the world have flocked to the two great basilicas that rise above the apostles’ tombs - St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican and the Basilica of St. Paul’s Outside the Walls.
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 itself 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.
At the west end of the south aisle of the Paulist “Mother Church” in New York, over the simple but impressive altar dedicated to St. Paul, is an evocative painting depicting St. Paul kneeling calmly and confidently awaiting his imminent martyrdom. Above and below the picture are the famous words from St. 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]
As we celebrate this great feast recalling the mission and martyrdom of the Apostles Peter and Paul, here in this Paulist parish here in East Tennessee, let us also – 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].
(Photo: Saint Peter's Basilica, as phtographed by me at sundown from the roof of the Pontificia Università Urbaniana, 2012)