St Peter and St. Paul

Saints Peter and Paul 2019

Acts 12:1-11; 2Tim 4:6-8, 17-18; Mt 16:13-19

Throughout the Catholic world, there are many churches dedicated to St. Peter. The first which comes to mind is obviously St. Peter’s Rome, but we shouldn’t forget our own Cathedral in Lancaster. I love the humorous conceit of one of the smaller stained glass windows in the Cathedral, which depicts St. Peter holding, in one hand, St.Peter’s, Rome, and in the other, St.Peter’s , Lancaster.

I am not sure that there are as many Catholic churches dedicated to St. Paul. There is the Roman basilica of St. Paul’s-outside-the-walls, but are there many others? I decided to run a check of this diocese by way of the Diocesan Directory, but didn’t learn a great deal, as it scored two and a half to a half. In addition to the Cathedral, there are St. Peter’s, Lytham, and Ss. Peter and Paul, Preston, so not much either way.

If, however, my hunch is correct, why might it be so? Clearly, there is considerable Catholic devotion to St. Peter, who is claimed as the first Pope. Why might there be less devotion to St. Paul?

Perhaps Paul suffers in the Catholic mind because Martin Luther was such an enthusiast for him, and it has been said with some justification (if you will pardon the pun) that there is an element in extreme evangelicalism which seems to attach more weight to Paul’s words than to those of Jesus. Certainly, Luther drew heavily on Paul in insisting on justification by faith, but properly understood this is sound Catholic doctrine, and there is enough in St. Paul’s writings to show that for him, as for the Church, love is of the greatest significance: that, in effect, as the Prayer for England expresses it, we are justified by “faith, fruitful in good works”. Nonetheless, it is possible that, in the Catholic mind, Luther has, to an extent, tainted our view of Paul.

Another factor may be the personalities of the two saints. Peter comes across as the struggling sinner, almost as a lovable rogue, constantly getting things wrong and needing to seek forgiveness. Paul, on the other hand, may sometimes appear insufferably arrogant, proud of his own virtue (despite his protestations to the contrary) and intolerant of the shortcomings of others.

One of the antiphons in the Offices for this feast claims “they loved each other in life” a statement which never fails to raise eyebrows. There are times when Paul seems almost contemptuous of Peter’s standing in the Church, and there is Paul’s cringeworthy description, in the Letter to the Galatians, of his dressing down of Peter for the latter’s moral cowardice in bowing to pressure from the Jewish Christians and withdrawing from table fellowship with the Gentiles. Certainly Peter was in the wrong, but it was a very human failure, and less reprehensible than Paul’s behaviour in publicising it in direct contradiction of the Lord’s instructions on fraternal correction. Given Peter’s fairly robust personality, it is to his credit that he didn’t respond by giving Paul a good crack in the mouth: it is tempting to wish that he had.

These were two towering individuals, with huge virtues and huge failings. Peter had that touch of cowardice which, in addition to his fall out with Paul, led to his threefold denial of Jesus, again a failing of which any of us might have been guilty. He also had a tendency to promise more than he could deliver, as when he vowed to die for Christ, and in his attempt to walk across the water. Yet there was an openness and honesty about him, a genuine contrition, a profound love of His Master, and in the end, the courage to die a martyr’s death.

Paul was touchy to the point of paranoia, prone to boast while denying that he was doing so, and lacking in social skills to the extent that, sooner or later, he fell out with everyone. Yet he had immeasurable courage, could write sublimely about love and about our Eucharistic unity in the Body of Christ, and almost singlehandedly spread the Gospel throughout the then known world. Like Peter, he was in love with the Lord.

These were two giants, with both the strengths and weaknesses of giants. It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that we owe the existence and survival of the Church to them. Rightly are they honoured.

Posted on June 30, 2019 .