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Sinners, Apostles, Martyrs: On the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul

After Jesus, it is Peter and Paul who dominate the New Testament and whose leadership set the course for the early Church.

Saints Peter and Paul (c. 1620, Anonymous/Roman School) [Wikipedia]

Peter’s profession of Christ, whom he declares to be the Holy One of God, fits into the context of the Eucharistic Discourse in which Jesus announces the Day of Reconciliation through the sacrificial offering of himself: “the bread I will give is my flesh, for the life of the world” (Jn 6: 51). So this profession is the background of the priestly mystery of Jesus, his sacrifice for us all. The Church is not holy by herself; in fact, she is made up of sinners – we all know this and it is plain for all to see. Rather, she is made holy ever anew by the Holy One of God, by the purifying love of Christ. God did not only speak, but loved us very realistically; he loved us to the point of the death of his own Son. It is precisely here that we are shown the full grandeur of revelation that has, as it were, inflicted the wounds in the heart of God himself. Then each one of us can say personally, together with St Paul, I live “a life of faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2: 20).— Benedict XVI, Homily on the Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul, June 29, 2005.

• Acts 12:1-11
• Psa 34:2-3, 4-5, 6-7, 8-9
• 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 17-18
• Matthew 16:13-19

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. 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 issue of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)

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About Carl E. Olson 1171 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications.


  1. Theology has it that God doesn’t suffer, neither can any of us augment his happiness. It can’t be refuted. Nonetheless there remains the mystery of love which you reveal in Benedict’s sermon, That the full grandeur of revelation that has inflicted the wounds in the heart of God himself. I omit “as it were” since Benedict speaks analogously, whereas there remains the mystery of divine love radiating from the Son. It’s as if God entered this life as flesh and blood with human emotions to reveal his anguished love. He always loved those who were his own in the world. When the time came for him to be glorified by you, his heavenly Father, he showed the depth of his love (Eucharistic Prayer IV). If the Father cannot be moved emotively he does so in his Son, a singular divine Person a mystery we will never fully fathom. And it seems that mystery is related to sinfulness found in Peter and Paul, and in David who committed adultery with Bathsheba then murdered Uriah her husband. David repented became saintly wrote the Psalms. Then there’s Mary Magdalene 7 demons cast out He appears to her first. Is a mystery being revealed? When he unexpectedly grasps grievous sinners not the righteous to thrust Virgil’s poetry into stark reality, Omnia vincit amor et nos cedamus amori.

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