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June 26, 2013
The Church’s two pillars
By Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J. *

By Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J. *

They could not have been more different – Peter and Paul. One was a simple, uneducated Jew, a fisherman of limited horizon; the other, a complex combination of orthodox Jewry and Roman citizenry emerging from a Hellenic culture.

One was called to discipleship while fishing; the other, on his way with intent to persecute disciples. One betrayed Jesus, and for this act, repented his whole life. The other persecuted him in others before his own repentance. 

One led like a conciliator; the other, like a zealot. One was known among the Jews, the other among the Gentiles. In the end, they converged in their intense and irrevocable love of the Master, even to martyrdom.

They are the Church’s two pillars, and on June 29, the Church celebrates their feast with great solemnity.

Peter

The Church was founded on Peter who represents permanence, stability, order, and law. From him has descended the papacy, our only link with Christ. Its physical symbol: the Chair of St. Peter. Peter, the Rock, enjoys a special status and role in the early Church but is perhaps known as much for his failures as for his great love for the Lord. Impetuous, brash, and boastful at first, he learned the master’s way the hard way later on. The early Church describes his role as the Lord’s chief witness who preaches the good news to large crowds and defends it in the courts. Two Letters are credited to him.  In the second, he speaks of the Lord’s disciple as “a partaker of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). Men and women are called to become God’s works of art – beautiful.

The Washing of the Feet

The washing of the feet is a central part of the Lord’s Supper and pivotal in Peter’s life. The meal becomes a lasting memorial of Jesus’ love and the context for a lesson he and the other disciples will not forget. Why, Peter asks, does the Master insist on washing his feet? Isn’t the washing of feet the typical task of a slave?  He recoils, but Jesus admonishes him: “If I do not wash you, you will have no part in me” (Jn 13:8). Peter is free to refuse, but Jesus presses for his consent. If he wants to unite himself with his Master, then he must renounce status and all that is associated with status – glory, pomp, power, and prestige. The Lord will choose a servile but loving act to give the example. Peter realizes that what Jesus has done for and to him, he Peter must repeat to and for others. He must share as well in the Lord’s redemptive work for the sake of others. Henceforth, the mandate given to Peter will be the loving service that marks Christian discipleship, and especially church leaders. This charge is so explicit that it can’t be misunderstood or misinterpreted. The Eucharist opens the door that leads to unselfish love, and the mandate given to Peter will be a loving service in Christian discipleship. (The Von Balthasar Reader, 286).

On the Papacy

Through the centuries, the fact of the papacy has been challenged. It has been a sticking point for many who were on the verge of conversion.

Two prominent Catholic writers have commented on the role of the papacy in vivid parlance.  The convert and profoundly intellectual Flannery O’Connor plainly notes that “if the papacy is only a symbol, to hell with it.”  And Walker Percy: “It’s not that we Catholics are the only religion with a Pope. Every person, every religion has a pope. It’s just that, for a Catholic, the ‘pope’ is not me. For a Catholic, I am not the definitive voice in faith; someone else is, and we call him ‘Our Holy Father.’ Take away Rome, and what we’re left with is Berkeley.”

Paul of Tarsus

When you think of Paul, you think of a charismatic leader like Billy Graham or Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen.  Dynamism coupled with elegant, soaring prose characterizes their style. Paul uses incomplete sentences – a broken style, adapts and adjusts it which is rhetorical in matters of dogma but also poetic, as in 1 Corinthians 13, a masterpiece of the human condition. He uses the intimate language of the people, koine Greek, for pastoral purposes. Paul the evangelist is the Church’s greatest missionary and first theologian, a gift to Gentile Christians.

Paul is urbane, and his references are from the city, but he enjoys the rare ability to be all things to all men. He can proselytize, engage pastorally, and argue theologically for a spiritual or ascetical viewpoint as the fulfillment of God's promise. He is the right man at the right place at the right time. His Letters are the first corpus of explanation of what the Church believes, for he is evangelizing to non-eyewitnesses.

If Peter’s personality is fatherly, Paul’s is intensely single-minded, indefatigable, irrepressible, unflinching, and decisive. Not everyone is enamored of him. He doesn’t speak what is congenial to the listener, especially when he talks about incest to the Corinthians. Paul adapts to hardship and goes to synagogue when the mob is there to lynch him. Of his inner life, he says little except for 2 Corinthians 12:1: He is caught up in the third world. His memorable expressions can engage in difficult paradoxes, such as, “when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:10). 

Peter and Paul in Dialogue

At Antioch, a dispute arose as to whether the Gentiles were required to become Jews before becoming followers of the Lord. Paul and Barnabas brought the matter before the elders. Arguing in the affirmative, the new-converted Pharisees used the Mosaic Law as their defense.  In the role of conciliator, Peter stood with Paul and Barnabas arguing that the Gentiles, like the Jews, were given the Holy Spirit and purified hearts of faith. God had worked wonderful signs through these new converts, the Gentiles (Acts 15:12). The face of Christianity would have sounded a different tone without the harmony of Peter and Paul to resolve this controversy.

Preface of Peter and Paul

In the preface of the Mass celebrated for the solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul, special mention is given to them in their twofold mission in the Church. The preface reads in part:

“Peter raised up the Church from the faithful flock of Israel.
Paul brought your call to the nations and became the teacher of the world.
Each in his chosen ways gathered into unity the one family of Christ.
Both shared a martyr’s death and are praised throughout the world.
Now, with the apostles and all the angels and men, we praise you, Father, forever.”

Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph, Brentwood, NY, holds degrees in philosophy (Ph.L), musicology (Ph.D.), theology (M.A.), and liturgical studies (Ph.D). She has taught at all levels of Catholic education and writes with a particular focus on a theology of beauty and the sacred arts. Her e-mail address is [email protected].
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