Until one visits St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome it is difficult to realize just how immense it truly is. I remember the first time I saw the Bernini colonnade on either side of the massive structure. It was as if the entire square was embracing me. Equally impressive, however, are the two enormous statues of Saints Peter and Paul, one on either side of the stairs leading up to the main entrance of the basilica. Peter is carrying the keys to the Kingdom, given to him by Jesus, and Paul is carrying a sword, the two edged sword of the Word of God, the truth by which he evangelized many Gentiles. The size of these statues seems to remind us that these men were the two most important pillars of the early Church. It is as if they are welcoming us into the Kingdom established by Jesus and nurtured by their efforts in evangelization and teaching, giving their entire lives to this end. They remind us that we are not alone in our efforts to live lives of faith, witnessing to others of the love and mercy of God.
On June 29th the Church celebrated the solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul. These men are paired together because they were the two most foundational leaders in the early Church. Peter was the first head of the Christian Church, chosen by Jesus who said He would build His church upon ‘this rock’ (a play on the name Peter); and Paul, called to bring the faith to the Gentile world, spread the faith in word and deed, leaving a legacy of many writings which continue to educate us in our theological understanding. These two men could not have been more different in background and temperament, yet together they laid the foundations of the Church as we know it today. Perhaps this is why their statues are on either side of the great basilica in Rome; they are ushering us, their spiritual descendants, into our home, the Church founded by Jesus Christ.
There are many ways that one can compare and contrast the lives and subsequent missions of these two heroic saints, but I would like to highlight how God worked with Peter and Paul to aid them in their efforts at building the Kingdom. Because they were teaching new things which challenged the dominant religions of the day they were subjected to a fair amount of suffering. Both had numerous imprisonments and had to endure considerable hardship; for example, Paul was beaten to the point of near death on more than one occasion. These men met with skepticism and sometimes violence from the crowds to whom they spoke, and they were exposed to many dangers in their travels. Yet both were kept safe by God during their respective missions until such time that they had done all they could and they were martyred, giving witness to the Lord in the most complete way possible. There are a few incidents recorded in the Acts of the Apostles in which each one received a miraculous intervention at a time when danger was most imminent. The Psalm in the liturgy for their shared solemnity reflects their experience: “The angel of the Lord will rescue those who fear him and he saves them.” (Psalm 34:8) An angel freed each of them from prison by literally opening wide the gates and unchaining them, (Peter, Acts 5:17-21 and Acts 12:1-19; Paul, Acts 16:25-40). When they were in any terrible situation, the Lord made sure they were protected or comforted by His presence. Their release not only helped them to continue their respective ministries, but it also bolstered the spirits of the fledgling Christian community who could see the hand of God with them and were subsequently encouraged in their own efforts. Even though Peter and Paul were finally martyred when their journeys were at an end, there is no doubt that the Holy Spirit comforted them as they awaited death.
As Christians in this day and age we are no different; we are also given God’s protection. Sometimes we know that we were literally protected from physical harm, or that we have been unchained from that which holds us captive, such as fear, anxiety, guilt, regret, remorse, or behaviors which cause us harm. Most of the time, however, we are unaware of the presence of the angel of the Lord (our guardian angel) or of the presence of the Holy Spirit. But the fact remains that we are indeed protected whether we know it or not. Prison doors have been opened that we never knew were closed and dangers were averted that we never even knew lurked. Just as God kept Peter and Paul safe while they were carrying out their mission, the Lord keeps us safe while we do what it is we were put on this earth to do. But lest we are mistaken, this does not mean there is a promise that we will be free of any suffering along the way. When the inevitable occurs, we rely upon our faith that Jesus is with us always and we remember that what He is protecting is our spirit, comforting us so that we do not give up faith in times of trial.
It is easy to fall prey to fear and anxiety or to be held captive by regrets, guilt, or uncertainty. In addition to that which we wrestle with in personal decisions or from memories of the past, we can be plagued by fear due to the dangers surrounding us in the world. These things – (fear, regret, guilt) – are not from God, and they are meant to distract us from our journey toward holiness and to incapacitate us in our desire to minister to others. It is equally easy to want to keep from ‘rocking the boat,’ or to hope we are not noticed lest we call undue attention to ourselves. It can be wise at times to keep our mouths shut or to know when to ‘shake the dust from our feet’ and move on. Therefore, what is most needed in all of the situations of our lives is the gift of discernment. If we were to stop discerning when we should say or do something in defense of our Christian values or to know what helps another come to know the love and mercy of Jesus, then where would our faith be? Who would pass on the ‘pearl of great price’ which countless martyrs have given their lives to entrust to us? To follow in the footsteps of Peter and Paul means we must continually pray for the gift of discernment. We always have access to the graces we have been given, especially the gifts we received at Confirmation. Perhaps what we really need is to pray for the grace of memory so that we remember to use them! We have immense power at our disposal, that is, we have been given many graces and must not allow them to lie fallow. Claim them with the boldness of Peter and Paul and know that with God’s power and presence we are never without the means to live the Christian life to which we have been called and gifted.
We do not have to stand up and speak in public squares or try to evangelize the masses to spread our faith. All we need to do is take the opportunities which present themselves in our daily lives, the ones which invite us to reach out in compassion, to offer an act of mercy, (feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, counseling the doubtful, giving comfort to one who is suffering, etc.), or to forgive an offense. Some might be called to more encompassing missionary work which requires travel to a far-off land; we definitely need those people to respond. But others of us are called to live the faith quietly, yet firmly within our communities, families, and occupations. We live the faith through our witness: through kindness, peacefulness, fairness, sharing, bolstering up friends in need, and not letting go of our respect for the gift of all life (from conception to natural death). And when we can barely get by because we are reminded of the dangers around us, when we have crushing burdens to carry or decisions to make, when we are overwhelmed by the uncertainties abounding or the seeming magnitude of evil, we need to remember what the Psalmist said: “I sought the Lord and He answered me.” (Psalm 34:5) Regardless of whether we perceive that God is with us, and regardless of whether we perceive an answer to our prayer, He has heard and He is answering. We are as Peter and Paul were, called to be missionaries to those who are searching for God even if it is simply to help them to see that He is really here. Therefore let us call on Saints Peter and Paul, the giants of the faith, to intercede for us and to guide us into the arms of Jesus where we always have a home.
May we call upon Saints Peter and Paul to lead us to Jesus, our true rock and our strength! May we turn to Saints Peter and Paul to guide, inspire, and teach us how to be strong in our faith! May we seek the gift of discernment, calling upon the Holy Spirit to enliven that grace! May we have the courage to live the gospel in an ever intensifying climate of attack upon our values! May we recognize that our efforts, small or large, are important to helping to build the Kingdom established by Jesus and nurtured by the apostles! And may we continue to rely upon the mercy and love of Jesus, who is always with us, indeed until the end of time! Let us continue to meet in the Heart of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
All the photos are my own. The first was taken from the top of the dome of St. Peter's in Rome. This 'bird's eye' view captures the enormity of St. Peter's Square as one looks outward at the city of Rome. This is what we do as Christians: we look outward to see how we might bring our faith, mercy, and love to those who do not know the love of God.
The next two photos are Saints Peter and Paul, respectively, as they stand in front of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. As mentioned in my text, St. Peter holds the keys to the Kingdom and St. Paul is holding a sword as a defender of the faith. These photos really do not capture the size of the statues, but they are impossible to miss when standing in front of the Basilica.
The fourth photo is the famous (or infamous) Tower of London. I chose this photo because many Christians were held there and many met their deaths either within these walls or just outside of them after having been imprisoned within. God was with those brave men and women; many attested to having a sense of peace as they awaited their fate. There were some, however, who did not die there, but who were set free.
Next is a painting called Cliff Walk at Pourville by Claude Monet. I chose this because it depicts the enjoyment of a beautiful vista shared by the two women seen on the cliff. The puffy clouds float freely in the sky, the grass sways in the gentle breeze, the sailboats in the distance appear to glide upon the water, and the figures on the cliff seem carefree. I invite you to use this painting as a meditation to soothe any anxieties you might have at the moment.
Following the Monet is an icon by Fr. William Hart McNichols called St. Paul the Apostle. I chose it because Paul is holding a book of the Scriptures which today include many letters he wrote to help some of the early church communities have a better understanding of the faith. I also like the mountains in the background and the hill with the tree upon it in the foreground which remind me of the many difficult travels of Paul. The cloud seems to indicate the presence of the Holy Spirit with him. This icon can be found at http://fineartamerica.com/featured/st-paul-the-apostle-196-william-hart-mcnichols.html.
Last is a photo I took at sunset on a rooftop in the Trastevere neighborhood in Rome. In the distance (to the right) is the dome of St. Peter's Basilica. I have always loved this photo because it seems to blend the everyday life of ordinary neighborhoods and ordinary people with the Church, our spiritual home-away-from-home (Heaven). I love the colors of the sunset, which speak of the variety of beauty created by God and of His presence everywhere.
Heart Speaks to Heart