Editor’s note: The following homily was preached on the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul (June 29, 2018) by the Reverend Peter M. J. Stravinskas, Ph.D., S.T.D., at the Church of the Holy Innocents in New York City.
June 29 has been observed as the solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul at least since the days of Saint Augustine, as we know from his homily for the occasion, now part of the Office of Readings in the Liturgy of the Hours. Aside from this being my name-day, I have had a predilection for this feast for years as it brings to mind the many happy memories of celebrating this day in Rome for many years: attending Solemn Vespers in Saint Peter’s Basilica on the vigil when the pallia to be blessed and imposed the next day were brought to the confessio for an overnight rest over the relics of the Prince of the Apostles; hearing the thrilling O Felix Roma rendered by the Sistine Chapel Choir; watching the Holy Father place the preeminent symbol of the archepiscopal office on the year’s new metropolitans from the Universal Church.
Two years ago, I had the pleasure of preaching here on this same feast. This evening, I would like to take a page out of Julius Caesar’s De Bello Gallico, wherein he informed us that “Gallia omnis est divisa in partes tres” (All Gaul is divided into three parts). Similarly, this homily will be divisa in partes tres: a consideration of the two Apostles we honor today; a reflection on the Petrine office in the Church; and a challenge to live the implications of the solemnity.
Why are these two Apostles so important? Saint Luke’s Acts of the Apostles ends with the notice that Paul was headed to Rome for trial before the Emperor. Luke saw in this event the Hand of Providence, for Rome was the center of the world. With Paul in Rome, the Lord’s desire for the Gospel to be preached to the very ends of the earth would be fulfilled for “omnes viae Romam ducunt” (all roads lead to Rome). Beyond that, Peter’s first epistle is written, we are told in that letter, “from Babylon,” a code-word for Rome.
Both Peter and Paul sealed their preaching and ministry with their blood. Their martyrdom was part of what would become a long procession of disciples who were so convinced of the truth of Christ and His Gospel that they gave the ultimate witness of their lives. If something is worth dying for, it must be worth living for – so concluded thousands of pagans and Jews and atheists in those first years of the Christian Dispensation. Hence, the adage: Sanguis martyrum semen Christianorum (The blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians).
In that inestimable O Felix Roma, our apostolic martyrs are hymned thus:
Janitor caeli, doctor orbis pariter,
Judices saecli, vera mundi lumina:
Per crucem alter, alter ense triumphans,
Vitae senatum laureati possident.
O felix Roma, quae tantorum principum
es purpurata pretioso sanguine,
non laude tua, sed ipsorum meritis
excellis omnem mundi pulchritudinem.
In a lovely but less-than-literal translation, we hear:
The heavens’ porter, and earth’s sage,
The world’s bright lights who judge the age.
One wins by cross, and one by sword,
And life on high is their reward.
These are your princes, happy Rome!
Their precious blood clothes you, their home.
We praise not you, but praise their worth,,
Beyond all beauty of the earth.
The viciousness of the persecutors and the holy courage of the persecuted did indeed become the source of growth for the early Church. For centuries on end, enemies of the Cross of Christ have followed the unholy example of the first persecutors, seemingly never learning the lesson of history that their efforts would be counter-productive. Eventually, the Soviets did learn that lesson – although many others still have not as we hear day after day of our brothers and sisters in the faith in places like China and the Middle East who become worthy of the praise of the Te Deum, where we sing of that “white-robed army of martyrs.” And their blood continues to water the earth, bringing forth new life. Is it an accident that pagan Chinese are added to the number of the redeemed with amazing frequency, let alone the even more amazing conversions of Muslims? Truly, today’s martyrs are worthy sons and daughters of Peter and Paul.
Let us now proceed to our second point of meditation Of course, a Catholic mind and heart goes today to thoughts of the papacy in general and of the current successor of Peter. Which would obviously have us begin with Peter himself.
Would we be deemed irreverent by suggesting that Peter – my very lovable but weak patron – was really nothing much to write home about? The “rock” on which Christ willed to build His Church crumbled in fear into a denier. Fortunately, the converting look of Jesus during His kangaroo court trial led Simon Peter on to tears of repentance (cf. Lk 22:62), an event memorialized on the Holy Door of St. Peter’s Basilica. The Risen Lord completed the rehabilitation of “the Rock” by gently and lovingly coaxing him to undo his three-fold denial by a three-fold affirmation of love (cf. Jn 21). If legend is accurate, Peter was a “recidivist,” for we read that while in Rome and being apprised of his imminent execution, he beat a trail for the Via Appia to hightail it out of town. En route, he is encountered by the Lord Jesus heading into Rome. Pope Peter asks: Quo vadis, Domine? (Where are you going, Lord?). Comes the response, “To Rome, to be crucified again since you refuse.” Peter gets the grace, once again, to do the right thing, finally. (The site of that apparition is marked by a charming little chapel to this day – the Quo Vadis church.) Peter began a long line of martyr-popes; in fact, it was not until the fourth century that a pope died in his bed!
Some popes were exceptionally bad men: Formosus was dug up by his nutty successor, Stephen VI, and put on trial for heresy. Saint Charles Borromeo dubs Benedict IX “the nadir of the papacy.” Needless to say, the Borgias were not models of sanctity (although, thankfully, they never diluted Catholic teaching on faith or morals). Truth be told, most popes have been rather mediocre. Just read Ludwig Pastor’s monumental history of the papacy. In modern times, Pius IX had become such a concern and disappointment to Cardinal Newman that he urged people to pray for an end to the pontificate – and, in those days, we know what that meant!
The twentieth century was perhaps unique in papal history as the Church had a succession of talented, brilliant and even holy men sitting on the Chair of Peter. However, none of them was perfect, either. This year we mark the fortieth anniversary of “The Year of the Three Popes” – with the death of Paul VI, the accession and rapid death of John Paul I, and the election of John Paul II.
Pope Paul was, to say the least, an enigmatic figure; the Italians (who have a way with nick-names, often brutally accurate) called him “Amleto” (Hamlet), due to his propensity for vacillation. Next month marks the fiftieth anniversary of his watershed encyclical, Humanae Vitae. Against all odds and counter to his proclivity to avoid conflict, Paul VI did the right thing, for which he suffered immeasurably – although he failed tragically in not enforcing the document, thus setting in motion a whole trajectory of dissent and disunity.
How many of us long for the halcyon days of the John Paul II years as he sought to right the course of the Bark of Peter, causing not a few of us to revive that very triumphalistic hymn of our youth, “Long Live the Pope!” His magisterium was incalculable, and his persona was magnetic. Yet he had flaws, too, particularly in regard to issues of governance. The appreciation for his long-time first associate, Cardinal Ratzinger, who became Benedict XVI, was more measured but also real and deserved.
Now we find ourselves in the Francis era, which even the most objective assessment would have to call “confusing.” Being “critical” of the Pope – if done in sincerity and charity – is not wrong; indeed, Aquinas and the Code of Canon Law even speak of its necessity at times, and Francis himself has indicated on several occasions that he welcomes such criticism. We should take him at his word. Let me reflect on this point for a bit.
I have lived through seven pontificates and must say that I have never seen the Church (or even the world-at-large) so fixated on the personality of a pope. And this for a man who famously urged his first audience not to focus on him but on Jesus! Let’s be clear about this: The Pope is not the Church; he is a member of the Church and her premier servant (servus servorum Dei, as Gregory the Great put it), whose task is to safeguard ecclesial unity and, minimally, never to teach heresy.
Note well, the via negativa in the second charge: He need not constantly teach Catholic doctrine, but he may never teach the opposite. Because of Francis’ less-than-precise mode of writing and speaking, his lack of philosophical and theological depth, and his penchant for off-the-cuff remarks, we find ourselves awash in near-daily confusion. As a result, conversations about him have the effect of sucking all the oxygen out of the Church. Interestingly, to use the political categories, the hard-left and the hard-right in the Church use Francis to perpetuate their perceptions or agendas: The Left ignores his orthodox statements on the ordination of women, abortion, gay marriage, birth control, and gender theory, while getting onboard his “mercy train”; the Right gives currency to his questionable or silly statements and fails to highlight his orthodox ones.
Every papal burp is reported in the blogosphere, leaving us all with indigestion. In the Middle Ages, the Church advanced the cause of tranquillity in a bellicose era by establishing the Truce of God and the Peace of God. I would like to propose a moratorium on reporting on “every word that proceeds from the mouth” (Mt 4:4), not of God, but of the Pope! With all due respect, one could also wish that the Pope would observe a holier silence. Maybe we might then get on with the business of being Catholic and the work of the new evangelization.
One last pet peeve about things papal. Can we call a halt to the papal canonization mania. Admittedly, I said a few minutes ago that the popes of the last century were worthy successors of Peter, but that doesn’t mean that they thereby automatically qualify for the conferral of a halo. No, they probably would (or should) echo Christ’s encouragement for the laborers to respond: “We are only unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty” (Lk 17:10). It is beyond strange that if all the popes of the twentieth century declared venerable, blessed, or saint are added up, according to my calculation, it would surpass the total number of such for the preceding nineteen centuries. Can we say that the coin of the realm has been terribly diminished? Poor Pius XI and Pius XII have the distinct honor of being relegated to the outer darkness.
Well, enough about popes. Let’s bring this feast down to its significance for the Catholic in the pew. Reading the cultural and political tea leaves, I think it safe to say that we are embarking upon a new age of martyrs. Professor Robert Royal documented this phenomenon in his landmark book, The Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century. The late-archbishop of Chicago, Cardinal Francis George, opined: “I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison, and his successor will die a martyr in the public square.”
The privilege to die for the faith will not be limited to clerics; it will be visited upon any true, loyal Catholic. The question of today’s feast is aptly directed to us all: Quo vadis, Ecclesia? Quo vadis, Christiane? (Where are you going, Church? Where are you going, Christian?). It may not get so bad for us in the United States in our lifetime, but a “soft” martyrdom is here in spades – and has been for a long time, for any who have ears to hear and eyes to see. It is the martyrdom of ridicule and marginalization. Back in 1977, Billy Joel taunted: “You Catholic girls start way too late,” as he mocked virginity. The Obama Administration tried to force the Little Sisters of the Poor to pay for contraceptives. Believers who stand by the moral standards of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, which is the say, the foundational principles of western civilization and thus oppose abortion and same-sex marriage are classified as “haters,” to be consigned to Hilary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” and as unwelcome in New York State according to Governor Andrew Cuomo.
How shall we prepare properly to withstand the assaults of the enemies of Christ and His Church? First of all, by fervent prayer and reliance on divine grace: “I can do all things in him who strengthens me” (Ph 4:13). Second, knowing well the truths of our holy faith and by being able to represent them and defend them in the public forum – which means in one’s workplace, in one’s neighborhood, in one’s municipality, in responding to attacks on Christian principles found in the print and electronic media. Sadly, we must often nowadays include the members of our own families among those who need fraternal correction. Third, it is important to stand apart from the lunacy being promoted by all the “beautiful people,” like those who applauded Robert DeNiro’s foul-mouthed screed at the Tony Awards ceremony. Not only to stand apart – but to critique the insanity. Can we forget the admonition of Edmund Burke: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”? Fourth, we need to pose the real, bottom-line question to those within our sphere of influence who have bought into the pagan lifestyle: “Are you really any happier, more fulfilled as a result of your attachment to these patterns of life?” The dramatic rise in suicide would seem to offer a convincing response. Last, but by no means least of all, we must train our youngsters to be comfortable living in a counter-cultural mode. Which is why our Catholic schools – authentically and unabashedly Catholic schools – are more needed than ever. We need educational institutions where children are given an environment in which to grow in truly human ways, which are likewise truly Christian ways.
When I was in third grade, I made an oral book report to the class on the North American martyrs. At its conclusion, Sister Vera asked: “Now, Peter, did you learn anything from the book?” “Yes, Sister, I learned that I want to be a martyr!” Sister smiled and suggested, “Well, maybe just a confessor!” It is good to recall that in the Church’s tradition being a confessor is considered “green” martyrdom. Perhaps a resolution we can all make today is to assume the mantle of confessor.
Cardinal George added a sentence to his gruesome prediction, one which is not often cited. He said that the successor to the bishop executed in the public square “will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the Church has done so often in human history.” Therein lies our reason to hope. Evil and insanity do not have staying power. As John Paul II reminded us so often, the mysterium iniquitatis will be overcome by the mysterium pietatis, which is all that is good and true and beautiful in the Catholic faith. As our Blessed Lord was preparing for His own martyrdom, he likewise prepared His chosen apostles for the same. His assurance should buoy us up for the battle: “Be of good cheer. I have overcome the world” (Jn 16:33).
Saint Augustine ends his homily for this solemnity with these words of encouragement:
Both apostles share the same feast day, for these two were one; and even though they suffered on different days, they were as one. Peter went first, and Paul followed. And so we celebrate this day made holy for us by the apostles’ blood. Let us embrace what they believed, their life, their labors, their sufferings, their preaching and their confession of faith.
With great confidence – even in the face of impending death, Saint Paul could declare to Timothy, his son in the priesthood: “The Lord will rescue me from every evil and save me for his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory for ever and ever. Amen” (2 Tm 4:18). For a similar sense of holy assurance, we plead: Saints Peter and Paul, pray for Christ’s holy Church, our holy Church; pray for us.