Which is why June 29, the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, is a good day to consider this legend and this masterpiece.
St. Peter was himself martyred some 200 years before Agatha and is shown here to the faithful as a source of comfort and the bearer of God’s healing for the suffering young Christian. As the first of Christ’s vicars, he is an image of the whole Church and thus comes to offer both fatherly and motherly consolation to the agonizing Agatha.
Peter’s 266th successor, Pope Francis, invites us to feel something of what Agatha must have felt at seeing Peter come to her in prison.
“Let us ask ourselves if, deep in our hearts,” the pope said in last year's Feb. 16 general audience, “we love the Church as she is … all the goodness and holiness that are present in the Church, starting precisely with Jesus and Mary. Loving the Church, safeguarding the Church, and walking with the Church.”
St. Peter naturally calls to mind the pope’s teaching role and how the magisterium is the source of unity for the Church; but it also reminds us that he is, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church points out, the “shepherd of the whole flock” (No. 881) and “pastor of the entire Church” (No. 882). In other words, his teaching office is meant to be combined — as it was in Christ — with the fatherly, caring role of one who accompanies, especially in suffering.
Pope Francis often emphasizes the importance of this role. In speaking of priestly identity, he urges pastors to be close to their sheep, accompanying them both with prayer and presence in the realities they face.
“I am convinced that, for a renewed understanding of the identity of the priesthood, it is important nowadays to be closely involved in people’s real lives, to live alongside them, without escape routes,” he said in a Feb. 17 address at a symposium on the priesthood.
Certainly, Peter’s presence beside Agatha in prison gives us a vision of just such an accompaniment.
As we celebrate the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, let us allow our hearts to fill with gratitude for the splendor of the Church’s art and history; for the many saints who are our friends in heaven; for the Church herself, our mother; and for Peter’s successors down through the ages, bringing us Christ’s comfort and closeness.
This story was originally published June 22, 2022, and was updated June 28, 2023.