• Acts 3:1-10
• Psa 19:2-3, 4-5
• Gal 1:11-20
• Jn 21:15-19
One denied Christ after having been chosen by him. The other was chosen by Christ after he had spent much time and energy persecuting Christians. One was a businessman with a large, impetuous personality. The other was a rabbi whose emotional passion was equaled by his stunning intellect.
Both men were flawed; both were transformed by encountering Christ. Both were martyred for their faith in Christ. Both, according to tradition, died in the city of Rome nearly forty years after the Resurrection of their Lord.
After Jesus, it is Peter and Paul who dominate the New Testament and whose leadership set the course for the early Church. Peter is mentioned well over two hundred times in the New Testament, while close to half of the books in the New Testament are attributed to Paul. The Acts of the Apostles, an account written by Luke of key events in the early Church, is essentially divided between what might be called the “acts of Peter” (chapters 1-12) and the “acts of Paul” (chapters 13-28).
Each of today’s three readings reveals something of how the hearts and lives of these two great Apostles were met, filled, and transformed by Jesus Christ. The reading from the Gospel of Matthew is well known, describing the dramatic conversation that took place in the region of Caesarea Philippi. Standing in front of a massive one-hundred-foot high wall of rock marked with shrines and statues of pagan gods, Jesus asked two questions of his disciples: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” and “But who do you say that I am?” Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, did not come from superior intellect or human cleverness, but from faith and the revelation of the Father: “For flesh and blood have not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father” (cf., Catechism, par. 552).
Peter, of course, struggled with faith, eventually denying Jesus on the cusp of the Crucifixion. But after being reaffirmed as head apostle by the Risen Lord (cf., Jn 21), Peter emerged as a man both humble and assured, his confidence placed fully in Christ, not himself. Pope Benedict XVI, reflecting on this change, said, “From the naïve enthusiasm of acceptance, passing through the sorrowful experience of denial and the weeping of conversion, Peter succeeded in entrusting himself to that Jesus who adapted himself to his poor capacity of love” (General Audience, May 24, 2006). This journey was possible for Peter because “he was constantly open to the action of the Spirit of Jesus.”
That openness is readily evident in the account, found in Acts 12, of Peter’s miraculous escape from prison. Like Jesus, he was arrested and imprisoned during the time of the Passover. And although Peter escaped death on that occasion, the episode described by Luke is evidently meant to “echo” the death and resurrection of Jesus, for Peter is delivered from the darkness of prison and certain death by an angel of Lord.
Prior to his encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, Paul was a zealous persecutor of the Church. Blinded and lying on the road, the stunned Paul asked, “Who are you, Lord?” (Act 9:5). Given an answer and directives, he spent the rest of his life preaching the Gospel, competing in “the race,” one of his favorite metaphors for the Christian life. “His existence,” stated Benedict XVI, “would become that of an Apostle who wants to ‘become all things to all men’ (1 Cor 9:22) without reserve” (General Audience, Oct 25, 2006).
Both Peter and Paul are key witnesses to the reality and veracity of Jesus Christ. Their witness was two-fold: through living, first-hand encounters with the Lord and through their acceptance of martyrdom. “By martyrdom,” the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council explained, “a disciple is transformed into an image of his Master…” (Lumen Gentium, 42). May their bold witness encourage us to be likewise transformed by and for the Savior.
(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the June 29, 2008, edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)