Every June 29 the Catholic Church celebrates the feast day of St. Peter and St. Paul. Some early Christian witnesses claim that these two illustrious Apostles were martyred under the Roman emperor Nero on the same day: St. Peter being crucified upside down and St. Paul being beheaded. Interestingly, their calling to martyrdom seemed to have been traced out by the crucifixion of our Lord and the beheading of St. John the Baptist. Also noteworthy is the pagan legend that two twin brothers, Romulus and Remus, founded the city of Rome between 758 and 728 B.C. And it would seem providential that two brothers in Christ, Peter and Paul, would help bring about a new Rome through the shedding of their blood.
One early Christian account, Liberianus (354 A.D.), records that St. Peter had presided in Rome as bishop for 25 years, 1 month and 9 days. As for St. Paul, he eventually made his way to Rome after having preached the Gospel to the Mediterranean world. These two pillars of the Church, the former an icon of authority and the latter representing the prophetic voice of Christ, would serve as the epicenter of Christianity. St. Ireneaus (180 A.D.), bishop and Father of the Church, attested to this “by indicating that tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul; as also (by pointing out) the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops.”
Yet the sacred authority of St. Peter and St. Paul would not go uncontested. In fact, it was the Roman emperor Nero, a mad man to be sure, who inaugurated the era of Christian martyrdom by using Christians as a scapegoat for setting fire to a district of Rome. Having sensed a political backlash to his arson, he immediately blamed the Christians. Tacitus, a non-Christian historian in the first century, had this to say about one of the first great persecutions of the Church: “Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus…” Indeed, the tortures consisted of wrapping the Christians in animal skins and setting them on fire for all to see.
It was during this wave of persecutions that St. Peter and St. Paul were put to death in 64 A.D. About forty years earlier, Christ foretold the kind of death St. Peter would “glorify God.” He said, “Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” This wouldn’t be the last time a Roman emperor would see the pope as a rival to his throne and seek to have him eliminated. One source has it that out of the first 30 popes, 29 died a martyr’s death. As you can see, the first several popes had to be willing to suffer a martyr’s death in order to sit on Peter’s chair. Indeed, for a successor of St. Peter, dying a natural death wasn’t likely in those early years.
During the first centuries, being a Christian in Rome was a health hazard. As such, it begs the question: Why did the Spirit of the Lord lead St. Peter and St. Paul to Rome, the very center of moral and spiritual darkness? Gladiator games, infanticide, and slavery were just a few vices on display there. In fact, St. Peter concluded his first epistle by saying, “Babylon sends you greetings…” First century Jews and Christians referred to Rome as Babylon for two reasons: First, Babylon was a place of exile for the Old Testament Jews when Temple and Jerusalem was destroyed (586 B.C.). Rome was a dwelling place for Jews and Christians away from Jerusalem. Second, as with the construction of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11, Rome was an epicenter of godlessness. Yet, St. Peter and St. Paul threw themselves right in the middle of this darkness so as to emit the Light of Christ. They were set apart from the world but ministered in the world. The Catholic Church took it for granted that if Rome could be transformed through the preaching of the Gospel, the light of Christ would be diffused throughout the world.
Retreating from ungodly cities, therefore, was not on the early Christian agenda. In fact, the Apostles and the Church Fathers – most of whom were bishops – took to the streets, exposing themselves to ridicule and persecution. This is a missionary tactic that ought to be revived in our cities. As Fulton Sheen said (and here I am paraphrasing), “Christ did not get crucified between two candles in a cathedral. Rather, died out there in the jungle; that’s where we need to take our message.”
The strength to carry this daunting task out was none other than the grace that came from Christ-crucified. Having the Passion of our Lord burned in their hearts, these two great Apostles saw that God was glorified through setbacks, humiliations, persecutions and martyrdom itself. As such, they did not wince from bearing witness in those places most hostile to the Gospel of Christ. From Rome, St. Peter encouraged those Christians undergoing trials to adopt the same attitude: “In this you rejoice, although now for a little while you may have to suffer through various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold that is perishable even though tested by fire, may prove to be for praise, glory, and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” (I Peter 1:6-7) For St. Peter, suffering was an opportunity to break with sin. He said, “Therefore, since Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same attitude (for whoever suffers in the flesh has broken with sin), so as not to spend what remains of one's life in the flesh on human desires, but on the will of God.” (I Peter 4:1-2)
The foundation these two Apostles laid bore much fruit. In the year 313 A.D. Christianity was legalized. Nearly 80 years later, in 392 A.D., it was made the official religion of the Roman Empire. When the Church’s mission was allowed to flourish, gladiator games were banned, infanticide and abortion were declared illegal and the institution of slavery collapsed. Indeed, the world was introduced to the Culture of Life all because the Gospel of Life was preached on enemy territory by men who were willing to endure its hazards.
St. Peter and St. Paul, founders of the New Rome, pray for us.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.