The Church is built on the foundation stones of the Apostles. With today’s Solemnity the Church honors the two greatest Apostles, Peter and Paul. These two men, very different from each other, were personally chosen by the Lord, each for a special role in the life of the Church: Peter, the “rock,” represents the stability of the Church, built on an unshakable foundation; Paul, the “Apostle to the Gentiles,” represents the continual growth of the Church to the ends of the earth. The Preface for today’s Mass sums up their unparalleled significance: “Peter, foremost in confessing the faith, Paul, its outstanding preacher; Peter, who established the early Church from the remnant of Israel, Paul, master and teacher of the Gentiles that you call. And so, each in a different way gathered together the one family of Christ; and revered together throughout the world, they share one Martyr’s crown.”
Today’s first reading focuses on Peter; the second reading focuses on Paul. In both readings, we see an Apostle in prison, yet still free to proclaim the Gospel. Peter’s imprisonment is due to the persecution of King Herod, who has recently had the Apostle James beheaded. Given Herod’s intention to use Peter’s death as a way to win the favor of the Jews, it is clearly a life-threatening situation, and there is no hope of escape. Peter is in a maximum-security cell, with sixteen soldiers guarding him. He is secured with double chains between two of them. In the midst of this impossible situation, God intervenes. He sends an angel who frees Peter from the chains and leads him out of the prison.
Peter’s freedom is a symbol of the Church’s freedom, and our freedom. Jesus promised him when he gave him the name Peter, “upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” There is no chaining the word of God (cf. 2 Tm 2:9). There is no chaining the Church. There will be storms and trials and persecutions, but nothing is impossible for God! Even if popes and preachers are martyred, the Church prevails.
This was not the only time Peter was saved from a crisis. Previously he had been saved from prisons and from stormy seas. But his greatest experience of liberation was when he was saved from his sin of denying Christ three times. Ever since he experienced mercy from the risen Lord, Peter’s proclamation of the faith was as solid as rock because he knew with certainty that sinners can find freedom through the mercy and saving power of Jesus Christ. We too have been saved from the prison of sin; we can proclaim the same Good News as Peter does.
In the second reading, Paul too is in prison. After many years of preaching the Gospel, he writes to Timothy from his cell in a Roman jail. He describes himself as being “poured out like a libation.” He has already fought the good fight; he has run his race. Paul senses that death is near. He does not expect to be released and he does not expect a miracle – but it does not matter to him. As he looks toward the future with the same rock-solid faith as Peter, he expresses his confidence and his hope in the Lord. “From now on the crown of righteousness awaits me, which the Lord, the just judge, will award to me…. The Lord will rescue me from every evil threat and will bring me safe to his heavenly kingdom. To him be glory forever and ever. Amen.”
Paul knows with certainty that he will be rescued – maybe not from prison, maybe not from martyrdom, but he will be rescued and brought safely to the heavenly kingdom. This is exactly what happens. Paul, like Peter, was martyred in Rome. In the end God did not save either one of them from martyrdom, but in the midst of their sufferings they put their faith in Jesus Christ and they were saved. This rock-solid faith, on which the Church of Rome was built, continues in the whole Church throughout the world today.
This is our faith. We believe what Peter believes, what has been taught by the popes who have succeeded him, right down to today’s Pope Francis. We believe the Gospel that Paul preaches, what every true missionary has preached through the ages, the same Gospel the Church proclaims today. If we have Peter and Paul, we have the Church. If we have the Church, we have Christ. Today’s feast is an opportunity for us to give thanks for the gift of our Catholic faith and to rededicate ourselves to running the same race as these two Apostles, with the same hope of victory.
Like Peter and Paul, do I declare with courage that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God? How have I experienced freedom through the mercy and saving power of Jesus after sinning? Is giving thanks to God for the gift of my Catholic faith part of my daily prayer?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 17, no. 5. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.