What Peter Meant to Paul

(Homily for the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul)

About twenty years ago, I had the opportunity to take a summer course in San Antonio, Texas. On the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul, Archbishop Patrick Flores began his homily with a little humor. He asked why two great saints like Peter and Paul share a single feast day. Then he speculated, “Well, they couldn’t get along here on earth, so God put them together in heaven.”

The joke perhaps contains some truth. In his letter to the Galatians, St. Paul recounts a clash with Peter which happened at Antioch. However, he also makes it evident that he held the fisherman in high esteem. In the same letter he states that he spent fifteen days with “Cephas.” (1:18) This meeting and one fourteen years later (the “Council of Jerusalem”) authenticated Paul’s “gospel”. In what is the earliest recorded profession of faith, Paul again mentions Cephas as the first apostle to see the Risen Jesus. (1 Cor 15:5)

How odd that in writing to Celts (Galatians) and Greeks (Corinthians) Paul uses the Aramaic form of Peter’s name! It is as if I had spent a few weeks with the pope, then came back using some Polish nickname. In my case, it would be name dropping, but Paul certainly had in mind something more significant.

To understand what Peter meant to Paul - and other early Christians - we need to meditate on words like “rock” and “keys.”* Jesus singled Peter out and entrusted him with enormous responsibility, but not on the basis of merit. Just the opposite. Like Adam and many men after him, Peter tried to duck responsibility, but Jesus came back, “Feed my sheep.”

That charge set Peter on a trajectory, first to Antioch (today southern Turkey) then to Rome itself where he would fulfill Jesus’ words, “You will stretch out your hands and another will tie you fast.” (Jn 21:18) Contemporary Christian and non-Christian writers used similar expressions to refer to crucifixion. According to ancient tradition, Peter died in the manner of Jesus – a victim of the emperor Nero.

Others would take Peter’s place. Writing in the second century, St. Irenaeus gives a list of the successors – Linus, Cletus, Clement, etc. Like Paul, subsequent Christians looked to “Peter” (the bishop of Rome) as the touchstone of faith. For example, Cyprian of Carthage, who saw Christian unity threatened by deviant teachings, stated bluntly:

“If someone does not hold fast to this unity of Peter, can he imagine that he still holds the faith?” (The Unity of the Catholic Church 4; 1st edition, A.D. 251)

Early Christian teachers valued the “Petrine ministry.” Even a giant like Augustine turned to Rome. In the controversy with Pelagius (a British monk who denied original sin) Augustine sent their local council proceedings to the Apostolic See.** In the first centuries of Chistianity, many other local churches asked the Roman bishop to help resolve disputes. Clement’s Letter to the Corinthians, (A.D. 95) provides a striking example.

Like St. Paul, the early Christians saw Peter as the touchstone of sound teaching and unity. They knew he was a human with many faults and weaknesses, but that did not blind them to Jesus’ deeper purposes. On today’s Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul can we do less than pray for renewal of such faith - and loyalty?


*Tim Staples has a humorous discussion of the controversy regarding the Greek words petros and petra: Bam! Bam! The "Pebbles" Argument Goes Down

**Referring the council proceeding ("causa") to Rome was the origin of the famous phrase: "Roma locuta est; causa finita est" (Rome has spoken, the case is closed). Augustine wrote (Serm. 131.10) "In this proceeding [causa] two council findings were sent to the Apostolic See, and a report has come back. The proceeding is ended. [causa finita est] I wish the heresy were."

For Latin scholars here is the full quote from Augustine: "Iam enim de hac causa duo concilia missa sunt ad sedem apostolicam: inde etiam rescripta venerunt. causa finita est: utinam aliquando finiatur error!" [Serm. cxxxi,10 in P.L., XXXVIII, 734)

Augustine also stated:

"If the very order of episcopal succession is to be considered, how much more surely, truly, and safely do we number them [the bishops of Rome] from Peter himself, to whom, as to one representing the whole Church, the Lord said, ‘Upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not conquer it.’ Peter was succeeded by Linus, Linus by Clement. . . . In this order of succession a Donatist bishop is not to be found" (Letters 53:1:2 [A.D. 412]). See: Origins of Peter as Pope

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From Archives (Homilies for Peter & Paul):

Did Jesus Found the Church?
Year of St. Paul
What Peter Meant to Paul
Rabbi, Messiah, Cephas
The Two Keys
Jesus Establishes a Sacred Order
I Will Build My Church

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