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The Way of BeautyTwo Pillars, Two Heroes of the Church

Sts Peter and Paul

Apostles of the Lord—two pillars, two heroes of the Church. June 29th belongs to Saints Peter and Paul.

Of Pillars and Heroes

At the Acropolis, the Parthenon exemplifies beauty of architectural strength.  Through centuries of natural disasters and ravages of war, its pillars have bolstered the upper structure.  Similarly, Peter was considered a pillar of stability in the Community of Jewish Christians, as Paul was of the Gentile converts. The Infant Church began to thrive because their stability was rooted in Christ, and their leadership, buoyed up by the steady hand of Providence.

The heroes Peter and Paul suffered martyrdom in Nero’s persecution (54-68).  The notion of hero is ably described by Raymond Chandler, writer and sleuth, in this way: “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor—by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world” (The Atlantic Monthly, November 1945).

Critics’ Choice?

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If you could suggest someone to lead the Early Church, would Peter be your first choice?  Imagine Mary Magdalene and Paul running as competitors in the party of Jesus. John, the Beloved Disciple, surely an inspiring figure, lacked leadership traits; James the Elder was perhaps too rigid and straight-laced. 

Jesus’ choice to lead the Twelve rested on Peter: ‘”I give you the keys of the kingdom,” he declared, “for on this Rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Mt 28:16-20; Lk 24:36-49; Jn 20:1923; 15-19).  

Apart from Jesus himself, the name most often mentioned in the Gospels is Peter’s. He forms part of the Lord’s inner circle of three.  But before Peter assumed the ministry of service, it was necessary that he become a ‘new man.’

Peter’s Transformation

Peter the fisherman, uneducated and gruff, impetuous and tactless, was gradually transformed into Peter, the chastened leader, the spokesman for the Community.  Failure taught him humility.  Leadership became a ministry of mercy.

Paul

More in The Way of Beauty

Paul was a classic Diaspora Jew from Tarsus in southeastern Turkey.  As a Jew, a Roman citizen, and as a beneficiary of Greek culture, Paul traveled about with ease. He was the right man in the right place at the right time, the Lord’s perfect raw material and perfect setup to work among the Gentiles.  Belonging to three worlds, this urbane man, was first an Orthodox Jew reared in a strict family. He was sent to study with Gamaliel in Jerusalem.   Second, he was the beneficiary of Greek culture, and language.  Paul was never a ghetto Jew.  Finally, Paul was a Roman citizen even though only those born in Rome were considered as such.  His conversion experience on the way to persecute Christians is famous.

Paul was an exceptional thinker and a born leader. As a skilled orator with fire, flair, and persuasive qualities, he knew his audiences and tailored his speeches to them. Using his authority to serve the Gospel, he became all things to all. To the Philippians, he was gentleness personified; to the Galatians and Corinthians, he expressed exasperation. He rebuked them but willingly received their love.

Paul was not one of the original Twelve. Yet, his letters to the various Gentile churches preceded the written record of the Gospel writers, and they form the first canonical writings of the Church’s belief and teaching.  A non-eyewitness evangelized non-eyewitnesses caught up in the love of Christ, the first theologian in the Church and its greatest missionary. 

If Shakespeare’s phrases have entered our daily vocabulary, so too Paul’s many phrases, for example:

“Your body belongs to God.  … Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, and that God’s Spirit lives in you” (1 Cor 3ff)?  “Now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor 13:13).

 “Where sin did abound, grace did more abound. . . . For those who love God, all things work together unto good.  . . . What then shall we say about these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Could oppression, or anguish, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?  . . . Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Rom 5:21; 8:28; 8:31; 8:35; 12:21).

“We are God’s works of art created in Christ Jesus to live the good life as he meant us to live it from the beginning” (Eph 2:10).

Conflict over the Mosaic Law

It was only a matter of time before conflict surfaced over a burning religious question. Does salvation depend on faith in Christ or on faith in Christ with circumcision and the obligations of the Mosaic Law? In order to be saved, must Gentile converts first become Jews? Responding in the affirmative were Peter, the elders, and the small group of Judaizers. 

Paul and Barnabas, his fellow-helper, resisted such a form of Christianity.  After considerable discussion of the problem, Peter changed his position to favor Paul’s.  Paul was able to convince Peter and the others to oppose the obligatory circumcision of these converts and their adherents of the Mosaic Law, but not without heated discussions.

Paul opposed Peter to his face with the attitude of one equal facing another. He had argued convincingly that he no longer saw “a role for the Mosaic Law God himself gave to his chosen people or for the customs and practices included in Jewish tradition for centuries” (Maria Pascuzzi,  Paul: Windows on His Thought and His World 132). Salvation comes through the grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ rather than in assuming heavy burdens of the Mosaic Law that even Jews found excessive.   

The Council of Jerusalem (A.D. 50) eventually adopted this position in the cause of Christian liberty. It was won against the narrow Judaizers and smoothed the way for the conversion of the Gentiles. “The Council thus freed the young Church from its Jewish roots and opened it up to the world apostolate rather than confront it.  Paul’s position was vindicated” (Joseph A. Fitzmyer, “A Life of Paul,” Jerusalem Bible. 46:28-30)

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Office and Charism

Think of Peter and the words Office, structure and stability may come to mind.  Think of Paul and you may think of Bishop Fulton J. Sheen or Billy Graham.  In the fourteenth century when preaching was at a considerably low point, Saints Vincent Ferrer and Bernardine of Siena preached to large crowds to build up their fervor. Today these saints would make the preaching of the two pale in contrast.

The Council of Trent discussed many pressing issues, among which regarded where authentic ministry is attached, to the person or to the Office?  Is it effective by means of the person or the Office?  It was decided that a stable Church cannot exist solely on individual charisms.  

The Catholic Church would never let a charism like Billy Graham’s stray from the Office. Charism, without structure, creates chaos.  Marriage requires passion and charism as well as and commitment and stability, each being open to the other.  

Preface for Today’s Feast 

The Preface for the feast of Saints Peter and Paul reads as follows: 

“For by your providence, the blessed apostles Peter and Paul bring us joy: 

Peter, foremost in confessing the faith, Paul, the 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 Apostles

The Catholic faith is not a lovely museum piece to be admired from outside protective glass. It is a vital force, a thing of truth and beauty to be lived with joy.  This reality is our calling card to the world’s stage.

Image: Sts. Peter and Paul. Thomas Hawk via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

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