The Mission of Saints Peter and Paul

The liturgical celebration of Saints Peter and Paul on June 29, is of great significance to Catholics throughout the world as well as to those of us here in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, where our Cathedral bears their names. These two followers of Jesus are often spoken of together, just as their liturgical celebration takes place jointly. Concerning this joint celebration, Saint Augustine said: “One day is assigned for the celebration of the martyrdom of the two Apostles. But those two were one. Although their martyrdom occurred on different days, they were one. Peter went first, Paul followed. We celebrate this feast day which is made sacred for us by the blood of these Apostles” (Sermon 295, 7, 8).

Peter and Paul and those who come after them are “sent forth”

The very word “mission,” which we have used in this week’s title in connection with these men, helps to explain their function in the divine plan. “Mission” comes from a Latin word which means “to send” or “sent.” Since Jesus wanted His work on earth to continue until the end of time, He founded a Church, which He would continue to guide through the presence of the Holy Spirit. He also chose individuals, who along with their successors would cooperate in His saving mission and share in His authority. These individuals were sent forth to preach and teach in the name of Jesus. Although they, as human beings, would die, their mission would not die. This is why it is very important that we do not merely see the Church as an institution or a bureaucracy but as a living instrument in the world, called to transmit the message of Jesus. As an organized society, there will always be a need for leaders, according to God’s plan, and there will always be a certain structure in order to organize the works of the Church. However, her primary mission is to teach in the name of Jesus, transmit the grace of the sacraments and carry on works of charity in His name.

Beginning with the Apostles, we see the Church living out her mission in the present. Many Religious Congregations, especially those that do missionary work, have ceremonies of commissioning, in which they send forth their members to bring the message of Jesus, following the command of Jesus, who commissioned and sent the first missionaries. When I have the privilege of ordaining new priests, I know that I am continuing the work of the Apostles as I send forth the latest in a long line of those who will preach and teach the faith and transmit the graces of the sacraments.

Special role of Peter and Paul

We know that Jesus sent forth all twelve of His Apostles. In fact, the true Church of Christ is present only where there is an unbroken succession and identification with the spirit of the Apostles. However, among all the apostles, Peter and Paul have always occupied a special place in the life and liturgy of the Church. “Peter professed his faith in Christ first; Paul obtained as a gift the ability to deepen its riches. Peter founded the first community of Christians, who came from the Chosen People; Paul became the Apostle to the Gentiles. With different charisms they worked for one and the same cause: the building of Christ’s Church” (Pope Benedict XVI, Homily, Celebration of First Vespers of Solemnity of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, 28 June 2007). Saint Leo the Great (440‑461) speaks of the fact that they are always considered and honored as a unit. He wrote: “About their merits and virtues, which surpass all power of speech, we must not make distinctions, because they were equal in their election, alike in their toils, undivided in their death” (In natali apostolorum, 69).

Of all the places throughout the world where Peter and Paul are honored, they receive the greatest veneration in the City of Rome. An ancient Christian tradition claims that their last meeting before their martyrdom took place near the site of the present Saint Peter’s Basilica. It is said that they greeted and blessed each other before going to their respective deaths for the faith and for preaching the Gospel according to the command of Jesus. When this Solemnity of Peter and Paul is celebrated in Rome, it does not have the characteristic of a historical recollection or mere celebration of the past but the celebration of a living reality. You may have seen photographs of the famous bronze statue of Saint Peter in the Basilica, which has a foot worn down by being kissed in veneration by the faithful. This statue is vested on June 29, complete with Papal cope and tiara, to indicate our belief that although Peter was put to death on this very spot two thousand years ago, the office of Peter lives in his successor.

There is another ceremony which takes place on this day which reminds us of the living mission of the Church, which will be fulfilled until the end of time. Several years ago, I wrote about the pallium in this column. The pallium is a wide band made from the wool of lambs blessed on the feast of Saint Agnes. These pallia are placed under the main Altar of Saint Peter’s, at the place believed to be the actual burial site of Saint Peter. On or near June 29, the Pope bestows them upon all those who have been named archbishops in the previous year because the pallium is the sign of the jurisdiction of an archbishop. I have had the privilege of receiving the pallium twice: once after becoming the Archbishop of St. Louis and then again when I became the Archbishop of Philadelphia. This ceremony is a wonderful sign of the continuity of the mission of the apostles, as the archbishops go throughout the world to preach, teach and sanctify in the name of Jesus.

Our Cathedral Basilica

Saints Peter and Paul also have a special significance for us here in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia because our cathedral bears their names. It is wonderful to note that here in what was referred to as the “New World,” the Gospel was planted in union with Peter and Paul. Eighteen‑hundred years after their martyrdom, the principal church of what would become the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, was given the names of those who first went forth to preach the Gospel in obedience to Jesus’ command. You may know that the word cathedral comes from the Latin word “cathedra,” meaning chair. This is because the principal Church of a diocese contains the Chair of the Bishop of that diocese. It reminds us that from the bishop, a successor of the Apostles appointed by the successor of Saint Peter, others are sent to aid him in the preaching of the Gospel. A reminder of this fact may be found in the Holy Oils that are used in the administration of certain sacraments. There are three different kinds and they are blessed by the bishop of a diocese, usually on Holy Thursday morning. Then they are distributed to all the parishes of the diocese to be used throughout the year. In this way, I can be spiritually present to all of you as the priests and deacons who assist me in my mission bring the sacraments to you.

Among the many beautiful works of art in our Cathedral are two fine mosaics placed on the wall behind the main Altar. One depicts an image of Saint Peter and the other of Saint Paul. Behind the image of Saint Peter, we see Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome and behind the image of Saint Paul the image of the Roman Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls is found. What a marvelous reminder that we share in the faith preached by Peter and Paul! Not only has Rome been sanctified by their preaching and martyrdom, the faith they preached has also been preached to us.

I hope that we can all use our celebration of the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul as a way to give thanks for the gift of the faith, entrusted to Peter and Paul and handed on to us.

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