Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The Twin-Engine Mission of Peter and Paul

On November 18 the Church recalls the dedication of the Basilicas of St. Peter in the Vatican and St. Paul Outside-the-Walls. Last week we celebrated the feast of St. John Lateran, Rome’s cathedral. What is it with these buildings? What can two old Roman churches mean for anyone across the Atlantic?

Romulus and Remus may not be household names anywhere but in Italy, but to Romans, these twin boys are the numero uno reason– at least historically speaking – that the Eternal City exists at all. According to a cherished legend, they were abandoned at birth and suckled by a she-wolf until they were discovered and raised by a shepherd. The recent excavation of the Palatine Wall from the mid-eighth century B.C., said to have encircled a furrow that Romulus plowed, lends tentative support to the story that the twins founded Rome in 753. In a sorry twist, Romulus rose to power, not insignificantly, by killing his brother. Still, both are remembered as the founders of one of the world’s most influential empires.

The basilicas of Peter and Paul house the tombs of two very different founders of Rome – Christian Rome – “brothers” in the faith, formed by Christ the Shepherd and destined to sow the seeds of his kingdom all over the world. They didn’t always see eye-to-eye, but their real quarrel was with a culture hostile to the Gospel they lived and preached. It cost them their lives, as Jesus said it would. In a blessed twist, however, their sacrifice was so fruitful that we can’t imagine Christianity, or even the world, without them.

They’re also the patron saints of Rome. Since the mid-third century, the Church has honored them together on the same day, June 29. But I’ve seen a phenomenon here that I don’t see in the U.S. or Canada: People in the know might talk about their basilicas separately, but when they talk about them, their names come out in the same breath. Like Romulus and Remus. The Church’s mission has always been powered by the twin engine propulsion of Peter and Paul. In places like North America, however, the two have been disassociated in popular sentiment – an unwanted side effect of the Protestant Reformation – with Protestants pledging allegiance to Paul, to the exclusion of Peter, and Catholics rallying around Peter, with a grudging nod to Paul.

Rome has always considered herself the axis around which the Catholic world rotates. Understandably, that might be annoying to many outside of Rome, but it’s not far off the mark. Without the See of Peter and its bishop, the pope, who is the successor of Peter, the Catholic Church wouldn’t exist.

Yet the pope himself sees his ministry in the Peter-Paul duo. If we were to walk into the Anticamera, or entrance room, of the Vatican’s Secretariat of State, we would see directly in front of us a large fresco of the two Apostles, flanked by two massive maps of the eastern and western hemispheres. The message is clear. Both Peter and Paul are icons of the papal ministry (and that of the Secretariat of State): Peter in his governance of the Church, Paul in his mission to the world.

In June 1931, the bulletin, The Union of Pauline Cooperators, published an article that, even in its old-fashioned lyricism, can encourage us to entrust ourselves to Peter and Paul today:
From the earliest times, “the Church and the world have looked up to the two holy Apostles Peter and Paul. Upon entering Rome, the sacred River Tiber, as the Romans used to call it, salutes the tomb and the basilica of St. Peter on its right. Upon leaving Rome, it salutes the tomb and basilica of St. Paul on its left. The road leading the nations to Rome looks up to St. Peter, and the sea looks up to St. Paul. Land and sea, Christianity and humanity, all peoples have turned to Rome, and Rome, the image of the heavenly city, has been watched over by Sts. Peter and Paul….”

Prayer: I bless you, O Jesus Good Shepherd, because you crowned the lives of the holy Apostles Peter and Paul with the glory of martyrdom. And you, our guardians, obtain for me the grace to carry out the apostolate of prayer, good example, suffering and pastoral action and to attain the reward prepared for good apostles (Prayers of the Pauline Family, “Chaplet of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul,” n. 5).

Photos: Sr. Margaret J. Obrovac, FSP; Wikimedia Commons (Peter and Paul)


Margaret J. Obrovac, FSP, originally from San Francisco, has been a Pauline evangelizer since 1973 and has worked in various phases of the mission of the Daughters of St. Paul. She attended the nine-month Charism Course in Rome in 2012-2013 and is, for now, living and working in the Eternal City.

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