Fish Eaters: The Whys and Hows of Traditional Catholicism

``Where the Bishop is, there let the multitude of believers be;
even as where Jesus is, there is the Catholic Church'' Ignatius of Antioch, 1st c. A.D

Feast of St. Peter and St. Paul

It's so amazing how Christianity spread by the work of just twelve men, isn't it?
Andrew (Peter's brother) preached in Scythia; Epirus; Achaia; Hellas; Cappadocia, Galatia, and Bithynia, the Scythian deserts, Byzantium; Thrace, Macedonia, Thessaly, and Achaia, where he was crucified. The "Sons of Thunder" -- the brothers James the Greater and John -- split up, with James preaching in Spain, and John in Asia Minor. Philip spread the word in Hieropolis in Asia. Bartholomew traveled to  India, Mesopotamia, Persia, Egypt, Armenia, Lycaonia, and Phrygia. Matthew the Evangelist worked in Persia, Macdeonia, Syria, and in the kingdom of the Parthians. And Thomas, whom we know as the "Doubting Thomas" who put his fingers in Our Lord's wounds, preached in India. But it was Saints Peter and Paul who did the most.

St. Peter went back and forth between Jerusalem and Antioch, and also visited Corinth, Caesarea, and Joppe (modern Jaffa), focusing mostly on converting the Jews. Then he made his great move to Rome, where he  was crucified upside down in the Circus of Nero, the site of the present-day Vatican City, around A.D. 67. He asked to be crucified upside-down because he felt himself unworthy to die in the same manner as Our Lord.

St. Peter was first buried in the Catacombs of St. Sebastian, but his relics were restored to the place he was martyred. The Emperor Constantine then built a basilica over his grave, and this basilica was re-constructed by Michelangelo in the 16th century, becoming the St. Peter's Basilica we know today. Inside the basilica, underneath the great baldacchino -- the huge marble Bernini-designed canopy that stands over the papal altar -- is the site of St. Peter's grave (see a map which shows the layers of the Basilica).1

The baldacchino of St. Peter's Basilica

In the mid-twentieth century, his bones were excavated and identified. They were described as belonging to a healthy, 5'7" tall male between the ages of 60 and 70. His grave had been marked with the Greek words "Petros eni" -- "Peter is within." His bones had been wrapped in purple and gold Roman fabric --  a sign of great honor -- and alongside them were the bones of a rooster, the symbol of his which emphasizes his human frailty (see Matthew 26; Mark 14; Luke 22; and John 13-18). St. Peter's skull, along with that of St. Paul, is kept in the Church of St. John Lateran in Rome.

St. Paul, who worked to convert the gentiles, took three great journeys all over the Middle East before he made his fourth journey, which took him to Rome (see a map of his travels). St. Paul was beheaded at San Paolo alle Tre Fontane (St. Paul at the Three Fountains, once known as Aquae Salviae) in Rome, toward the end of the reign of Nero. Legend has it that his head bounced three times after it was removed from his body, and at each place where his head hit the ground, a fountain miraculously sprang up, hence the name of the place. He was buried, though, at the site of what is now the Church of Saint Paul Outside the Walls (San Paolo fuori le Mura). His sarcophagus is located underneath the altar there, and it, too, was excavated. The bones inside were carbon-dated to the 1st century.

As noted earlier, the skulls of both St. Peter and St. Paul are kept in the Church of St. John Lateran in Rome.


Some may prepare for this feast by praying the Novena to St. Peter and St. Paul beginning on June 20, and ending on June 28. As to prayer on this feast itself, this one is appropriate:

O most glorious Apostles Peter and Paul, who gave over your souls for Christ, and watered His pasture with your blood: hearken unto the prayers and sighing of your children, that are now brought to you with a contrite heart. For behold, we are darkened by our iniquities, and for this cause, we are enveloped by troubles as by a cloud; but we are destitute of the oil of good living, and cannot offer resistance to the predatory wolves that so boldly seek to tear apart the inheritance of God. O ye strong ones! Bear our weaknesses, depart not from us in spirit, lest we be cut off at last from the love of God; but defend us by your powerful intercession, so that the Lord may have mercy on us by all your prayers, and may destroy the handwritten account of our immeasurable sins, and grant us to partake with all the Saints of the blessed Kingdom and the marriage feast of His Lamb, to Whom be honor and glory, thanksgiving and worship, unto ages of ages. Amen.

In order to explain one of the most well-known traditions of the day, I have to first tell you about certain lambs: At the Trappist abbey associated with the church San Paolo alle Tre Fontane in Rome -- the grotto of which being the place where St. Paul was beheaded -- lambs are raised by the monks. Those lambs are brought by nuns to the altar at the church of Saint Agnes Outside the Walls (Sant'Agnese fuori le mura), where they are blessed by the Pope on the Feast of St. Agnes (January 21). Then, Benedictine nuns who have charge over the church of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere weave these lambs' wool into pallia, which are given by the Pope to metropolitan archbishops in St. Peter's Basilica on the eve of the Feast of SS. Peter and Paul. Pallia (the singular of the word is "pallium") are stole-like vestments that were formerly only worn by Popes, but are now worn by metropolitans as well. They're worn looped around the neck, over the chasuble, such that the ends drape down in the front and in the back.

It used to be that, after their wool was harvested, the blessed lambs would be slaughtered just before Easter and have a final duty of feeding the Pope.

I can't leave this topic without telling you another story about San Paolo alle Tre Fontane where St. Paul was beheaded: In 1947, a Catholicism-hating, Seventh Day Adventist-style Protestant named Bruno Cornacchiola was at the grotto with his children. Bruno's wife followed him into Protestantism, but with great reluctance: she begged her husband to make the Nine First Fridays devotion, and only after it hadn't seemed to work to convert him did she follow him out of the barque of Peter. Now, while his children played in the grotto, he was preparing an anti-Marian speech to deliver to his Protestant friends -- and fine-tuning his plans to murder Pope Pius XII (he'd even purchased a dagger which he had inscribed with the words "Death to the Pope"). While going about his evil plans, he heard his children yell that the ball they'd been playing with had been lost, and went to help them find it. But by the time he reached them, he found them kneeling in ecstasy, repeating the words "Beautiful lady!" Then he, too, saw the Blessed Virgin, adorned in a green mantle over a white gown, with a pink sash around her waist. In her hands she held the Bible. She said to him, "I am the Virgin of the Revelation. You persecute me. Enough now! Return to the Holy Fold on earth!" She gave him a message to deliver to the Pope, who had yet to formalize the dogma of the Assumption: she said to tell him that "my body could not decay and did not decay. My Son and the angels took me to heaven." She revealed to him that his practice of the Nine First Fridays devotion that his wife begged him to undertake had saved him. And then she told him to go to priests and say "Father, I must talk to you" -- and pay attention to the priest who responds with "Hail Mary, my son, what do you want?" She then turned toward St. Peter's Basilica, took two steps, and disappeared. Bruno went to priest after priest trying to find the one who'd respond as Mary indicated, but had no "luck" until his wife recommended he go to the local parish. He did, and found the priest he sought, who formally reconciled him with the Church. He went on to deliver the message to Pope Pius XII, and the dogma of the Assumption was formally declared a few years later, in 1950. Since this apparition, the grotto has become a place of miracles...

Now, back to the Feast of SS. Peter and Paul: On the morning of this feast, a great fishing net is hanged on the gates of Vatican City. Inside St. Peter's Basilica, the ancient bronze statue of St. Peter is adorned with the vestments of a Pope, complete with the triple tiara. The present Pope kisses the statue's foot -- something millions of pilgrims have done over the centuries, along with touching it -- so much so that the bronze of the foot is worn down and more resembles a stump.

The city of Rome, which has SS. Peter and Paul as its patrons, goes very quiet on this day in terms of business and everyday activities. The Via della Conciliazione, which leads to St. Peter's Square, is lavishly decorated, especially with lots of flowers (this is called the "infiorata"). After the day's Masses and a regatta, "la girandola" takes place -- a great fireworks display at the Castel Sant'Angelo. La girandola -- which means "pinwheel" -- was made into the especially elaborate display it still is today by the great Michelangelo.

A fun folk tradition for this feast begins on its eve: In Italy (especially in the northern regions), on the night between June 28 and June 29, children fill a large, clear glass jar full of cold water and gently drop into it the white of a very fresh egg. Without stirring or shaking the jar, they leave it uncovered outside in the grass, in an open field, or under a tree to "absorb the dew." In the morning they'll find "la barca (or barchetta) di San Pietro" --  St. Peter's fishing boat. The egg's albumen takes the shape of a ship's sails, you see, which the children are told happens because St. Peter blows into the jar. Upon seeing the ship, the children say, "È vero, è vero, è arrivato San Piero!" ("It's true, it's true, Saint Peter has arrived!"). Legend says that if the sails are open, the weather will be nice and placid, but if the sails are closed, rain is imminent.

Storms are common during this time, and they're explained away by a rather terrible legend. As told in the late 19th c. "Italian Popular Tales" by Thomas Frederick Crane:

St. Peter's mother is the subject of a story which has given rise to a wide-spread proverb. She was, so runs the story, an avaricious woman, who never was known to do good to any one. In fact, during her whole life she never gave anything away, except the top of an onion to a beggar woman. After her death St. Peter's mother went to hell, and the saint begged our Lord to release her. In consideration of her one charitable act, an angel was sent to draw her from hell with an onion-top. The other lost spirits clutched hold of her skirts, in order to escape with her, but the selfish woman tried to shake them off, and in her efforts to do so broke the onion-top, and fell back into hell. This story has given rise to the saying, "Like St. Peter's mamma," which is found, with slight variations, all over Italy.

A curious version of this story is given in Bernoni (Leggende fant. No. 8): After the onion-top was broken and St. Peter's mother had fallen back into hell, the story continues: "Out of regard, however, for St. Peter, the Lord permitted her once a year, on St. Peter's day, to leave hell and wander about the earth a week; and, indeed, she does so every year, and during this week she plays all sorts of pranks and causes great trouble.

The "pranks" and "great trouble" are manifest in those thunderstorms -- about which Italians (at least the Venetians) say, "ven fora la vecia" ("the old woman comes out"). The story of the old woman and the onion is also told in Dostoevsky's "The Brothers Karamazov." In this work, it omits any mention of St. Peter's poor mother, and reads like this:

Once upon a time there was a peasant woman and a very wicked woman she was. And she died and did not leave a single good deed behind. The devils caught her and plunged her into the lake of fire. So her guardian angel stood and wondered what good deed of hers he could remember to tell to God; ‘She once pulled up an onion in her garden,’ said he, ‘and gave it to a beggar woman.’ And God answered: ‘You take that onion then, hold it out to her in the lake, and let her take hold and be pulled out. And if you can pull her out of the lake, let her come to Paradise, but if the onion breaks, then the woman must stay where she is.’ The angel ran to the woman and held out the onion to her. ‘Come,’ said he, ‘catch hold and I’ll pull you out.’ And he began cautiously pulling her out. He had just pulled her right out, when the other sinners in the lake, seeing how she was being drawn out, began catching hold of her so as to be pulled out with her. But she was a very wicked woman and she began kicking them. ‘I’m to be pulled out, not you. It’s my onion, not yours.’ As soon as she said that, the onion broke. And the woman fell into the lake and she is burning there to this day. So the angel wept and went away.

Many towns that rely on fishing honor this feast in a big way. In Italy, boats are decorated by the fishermen of whom St. Peter is the patron. Boats get new coats of paint and are decorated to look especially beautiful on this feast.

In Galatina, Puglia, in Italy's heel, the "tarantate" dance a strange, frenzied, ecstatic sort of dance that looks like something one would see in charismatic circles or in cases of hysteria, epilepsy, or demonic possession. The "dance" originated in the 11th century and came about because the belief was that a tarantata -- someone who's been bitten by a tarantula (likely actually the Mediterranean Black Widow, Latrodectus tredecimguttatus) -- needs to hear music and to dance -- and keep dancing to the point of exhaustion -- so she wouldn't die from tarantism. This custom became associated with our Saints because of the legend that SS. Peter and Paul stopped in Galatina during their travels through Italy, and, in gratitude for the hospitality they received, St. Paul blessed a well, whose waters became curative. Those who were bitten by the "tarantulas" would visit the well, pray, and drink its waters as a cure for the spiders' bites. Today, the well is still visited, and the strange, frenzied dance continues on this feast. (Note that a much more sedate, orderly form of the "tarantella" dance is seen elsewhere in Italy, and at other times in Galatina).

That's on the more folk-custom side of things; on the more formally Catholic side, there's, of course, a procession:

In Malta, the feast begins when the Novena to SS. Peter and Paul does, so it lasts for nine days. It's filled with music, food, fireworks, and, especially light -- so much so that the feast is known there as " L'Imnarja" (the Maltese word for luminaria).

As to music, there is Decora lux aeternitatis, which can be chanted or sung polyphonically. One version:

Decora lux æternitatis, auream
Diem beatis irrigavit ignibus,
Apostolorum quæ coronat Principes,
Reisque in astra liberam pandit viam.

Mundi Magister, atque coeli Janitor,
Romæ parentes, arbitrique Gentium,
Per ensis ille, hic per crucis victor necem
Vitæ senatum laureati possident.

O Roma felix, quæ duorum Principum
Es consecrata glorioso ceteras
Horum cruore purpurata ceteras
Excellis orbis una pulchritudines.

Sit Trinitati sempiterna gloria,
Honor, potestas, atque jubilatio,
In unitate gubernat omnia,
Per universa sæculorum sæcula.
The beauteous light of God's eternal Majesty
Streams down in golden rays to grace this holy day
Which crowned the princes of the Apostles' glorious choir,
And unto guilty mortals showed the heavenward way.

The teacher of the world and keeper of heaven's gate,
Rome's founders twain and rulers too of every land,
Triumphant over death by sword and shameful cross,
With laurel crowned are gathered to the eternal band.

O happy Rome! Who in thy martyr princes' blood,
A twofold stream, art washed and doubly sanctified.
All earthly beauty thou alone outshinest far,
Empurpled by their ourpoured life-blood's glorious tide.

All hone, power, and everlasting jubilee
To Him who all things made and governs here below,
To God is essence One, and yet in persons Three,
Both now and ever, while unending ages flow.

As to foods eaten especially on this day, I don't know of any aside from St. Peter's Fish, otherwise known as the John Dory, and known to scientists as Zeus faber. It's an ugly fish, but said to be delicious. It's also said to be a fish that St. Peter pulled out of the sea of Galilee, and then threw back, leaving his thumbprint on its sides, which now appear as dark spots.


Sermon 295
by St. Augustine

This day has been consecrated for us by the martyrdom of the blessed apostles Peter and Paul. It is not some obscure martyrs we are talking about. Their sound has gone out into all the earth, and their words to the ends of the world (Psalm 19:3-4 LXX). These martyrs had seen what they proclaimed; they pursued justice by confessing the truth, by dying for the truth.

The blessed Peter, the first of the Apostles, the ardent lover of Christ, who was found worthy to hear, "And I say to you, that you are Peter" (Mat 16:13-20). He himself, you see, had just said, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God."  Christ said to him, "And I say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church."  Upon this rock I will build the faith you have just confessed. Upon your words, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God," I will build my Church; because you are Peter. Peter comes from petra, meaning a rock. Peter, "Rocky", from "rock"; not "rock" from "Rocky". Peter comes from the word for a rock in exactly the same way as the name Christian comes from Christ.

Before his passion the Lord Jesus, as you know, chose those disciples of his whom he called apostles. Among these it was only Peter who almost everywhere was given the privilege of representing the whole Church. It was in the person of the whole Church, which he alone represented, that he was privileged to hear, To you will I give the keys of the kingdom of heaven. After all, it is not just one man that received these keys, but the Church in its unity. So this is the reason for Peter's acknowledged pre-eminence, that he stood for the Church's universality and unity, when he was told, To you I am entrusting, what has in fact been entrusted to all. To show you that it is the Church which has received the keys of the kingdom of heaven, listen to what the Lord says in another place to all his apostles: "Receive the Holy Spirit; and immediately afterwards, Whose sins you forgive, they will be forgiven them; whose sins you retain, they will be retained (John 20:22-23).

Quite rightly, too, did the Lord after his resurrection entrust his sheep to Peter to be fed (John 21: 15-19). It is not, you see, that he alone among the disciples was fit to feed the Lord's sheep; but when Christ speaks to one man, unity is being commended to us. And he first speaks to Peter, because Peter is the first among the apostles. Do not be sad, Apostle. Answer once, answer again, answer a third time. Let confession conquer three times with love, because self-assurance was conquered three times by fear. What you had bound three times must be loosed three times. Loose through love what you had bound through fear. And for all that, the Lord once, and again, and a third time, entrusted his sheep to Peter.

There is one day for the passion of two apostles. But these two also were as one; although they suffered on different days, they were as one. Peter went first, Paul followed. We are celebrating a feast day, consecrated for us by the blood of the apostles. Let us love their faith, their lives, their labors, their sufferings, their confession of faith, their preaching.

Feast of Saints Peter and Paul
From "The Liturgical Year"
By Dom Prosper Gueranger

After the great solemnities of Easter and Pentecost and the Feast of St. John the Baptist, none is more ancient, nor more universal in the Church, than that of the two Princes of the Apostles. From the beginning Rome celebrated their triumph on the day which saw them go up from earth to Heaven, June 29. Her practice prevailed, at a very early date, over the custom of several other countries, which put the Apostles' feast toward the close of December. It was a beautiful thought which inspired the placing of these fathers of the Christian people in the cortege of Emmanuel at His entry into this world. But today's teachings have intrinsically an important preponderance in the economy of Christian dogma; they are the completion of the whole work of the Son of God; the cross of Peter fixes the Church in Her stability, and marks out for the Divine Spirit the immutable center of His operations. Rome was well inspired when, leaving to the beloved disciple, St. John, the honor of presiding over his brethren at the crib of the Infant God, She maintained the solemn memory of the princes of the Apostles upon the day chosen by God Himself to consummate their labors and to crown both their life and the whole cycle of mysteries.

But we must not forget, on so great a day, those other messengers sent forth by the divine householder, who watered earth's highways with their sweat and with their blood while they hastened the triumph and the gathering in of the guests invited to the marriage feast (Matt. 22: 8-10). It is due to them that the law of grace is now definitely promulgated throughout all nations, and that in every language and upon every shore the good tidings have been sounded (Ps. 18: 4, 5). Thus the festival of St. Peter, completed by the more special memory of St. Paul, his comrade in death, has been from earliest times regarded as the festival likewise of the whole apostolic college. In primitive times it seemed impossible to dream of separating from their glorious leader any of those whom Our Lord had so intimately joined together in the responsibility of one common work. In course of time, however, particular solemnities were successively consecrated to each one of the Apostles, and so the Feast of June 29 was more exclusively attributed to the two Princes whose martyrdom rendered this day illustrious. The feast of every Apostle during the year was formerly a holyday of obligation. The Holy See, in many instances having removed this precept, wished to compensate for it by ordering a commemoration to be made of all the Holy Apostles, in the Mass and Office of the Feast of Ss. Peter and Paul. Eventually this commemoration was omitted. Moreover, the Roman Church, thinking it impossible fittingly to honor both of these on the same day, deferred till the morrow her more explicit praises of the Doctor of the Gentiles.

Since the terrible persecution of the year 64, Rome had become for St. Peter a sojourn fraught with peril, and he remembered how his Master had said to him, when appointing him shepherd of both lambs and sheep: "Follow thou Me" (John 16). The Apostle, therefore, awaited the day when he must mingle his blood with that of so many thousands of Christians, whom he had initiated into the Faith and whose spiritual father he truly was. But before quitting earth, St. Peter must triumph over Simon the magician, his base antagonist. This heresiarch did not content himself with seducing souls by his perverse doctrines; he sought even to mimic St. Peter in the prodigies operated by him. He proclaimed that on a certain day he would fly in the air. The report of this novelty quickly spread through Rome, and the people were full of the prospect of such a marvelous sight. The historian Dion Chrysostom states that Nero entertained the magician at his court, and moreover decided to honor the spectacle with his presence. Accordingly, the royal lodge was erected upon the via sacra. Here the attempted flight was to take place. The imposter's pride, however, was doomed to suffer. "Scarcely had this Icarus begun to poise his flight," says Suetonius, "than he fell close to Nero's lodge, which was bathed in his blood" (In Neron. 12). The Samaritan juggler had set himself up, in Rome itself, as the rival of Christ's Vicar, and writers of Christian antiquity agree in attributing his downfall to the prayers of St. Peter.

The failure of the heresiarch was in the eyes of the people a stain upon the emperor's character, and if ill-will were united to curiosity, attention would be attracted toward St. Peter in a way that might prove disastrous. Also there was the peril of "false brethren" mentioned by St. Paul. This is a danger inevitable in a society as large as that of the Christians, where the association of widely differing characters is bound to cause friction, and discontent is aroused in the minds of the less educated on account of the choice of those placed in positions of trust or special confidence. This accounts for certain statements made by St. Clement in a letter to the Corinthians. He was an eye-witness of St. Peter's martyrdom, and says that rivalries and jealousies contributed largely to bring about his condemnation by the authorities, whose suspicions concerning "this Jew" had been steadily increasing.

The filial devotedness of the Christians of Rome took alarm, and they implored St. Peter to elude the danger for a while by instant flight. Although he would have much preferred to suffer, says St. Ambrose (Contra Auxent.), St. Peter set out along the Appian Way. Just as he reached the Capuan gate, Christ suddenly appeared to him as if about to enter the city. "Lord, whither goest Thou (Domine, quo vadis)?" cried out the Apostle. "To Rome," Christ replied, "there to be crucified again." The Disciple understood his Master; he at once retraced his steps, having now no thought but to await his hour of martyrdom. This Gospel-like scene expresses the sequel of Our Lord's designs upon the venerable old man. With a view to founding the Christian Church in unity, He had extended to his Disciple his own prophetic name of the rock or stone—Petrus; now he was about to make him His participator even unto the cross itself. Rome, having replaced Jerusalem, must likewise have her Calvary.

In his flight St. Peter dropped from his leg a bandlet, which a disciple picked up with much respect. A monument was afterwards raised on the spot where the incident occurred: it is now the Church of Ss. Nereus and Achilles, anciently called Titulus Fasciolae, the Title of the Bandlet. According to the designs of Providence, the humble Fasciola was to recall the memory of that momentous meeting at the gates of Rome, where Christ in person stood face to face with His Apostle, the visible Head of His Church, and announced that the hour of his sacrifice on the cross was at hand. (There is also a small church called "Domine quo vadis" erected near the spot where the apparition is believed to have taken place.)

From that moment St. Peter set everything in order, with a view to his approaching end. It was at this time he wrote his Second Epistle, which is his last testament and loving farewell to the Church. Therein he declares that the close of his life is near, and compares his body to a temporary shelter, a tent which one takes down to journey farther on. "The laying away of this my tabernacle is at hand, according as Our Lord Jesus Christ also hath signified to me" (2 Peter 1: 14). These words are evidently an allusion to the apparition on the Appian Way. But before quitting this world St. Peter provided for the transmission of his pastoral charge and for the needs of Holy Church, now about to be widowed of Her visible Head. To this he refers in these words: "And I will do my endeavor, that after my decease, you may also often have whereby you may keep a memory of these things" (Ibid. 15).

The best historical evidence confirms that it was into the hands of St. Linus that the keys were passed, which St. Peter had received from Christ as a sign of his dominion over the whole flock. St. Linus had been for more than ten years the auxiliary of the Holy Apostle in the midst of the Christians of Rome. The quality of Bishop of Rome entailed that of universal pastor; and St. Peter must needs leave the heritage of the divine keys to him who should next occupy the See which he held at the moment of death. So had Christ ordained; and a heavenly inspiration had led St. Peter to choose Rome for his last station, that long before had been prepared by Providence for universal empire. Hence, at the moment when the supremacy of Peter passed to one of his disciples, no astonishment was manifested in the Church. It was well known that the Primacy was and must necessarily be a local heritage, and none ignored the fact that Rome herself was that spot chosen by St. Peter long years before. Nor after Peter's death did it ever occur to the mind of any of the Christians to seek the center of Holy Church either at Jerusalem, or at Alexandria, or at Antioch, or elsewhere.

The Christians in Rome made great account of the paternal devotedness he had lavished on their city. Hence their alarms, to which the Apostle once consented to yield. St. Peter's Epistles, so redolent of affection, bear witness to the tenderness of soul with which he was gifted to a very high degree. He is ever the shepherd devoted to his sheep, fearing, above all else, a domineering tone; he is ever a Vicar offering himself, so that nothing may transpire save the dignity and rights of Him Whom he represents. This exquisite modesty was further increased in St. Peter, by the remembrance which haunts his whole life, as ancient writers say, of the sin he once committed, and which he continued to deplore up to the closing days of extreme old age. Faithful ever to that transcending love of which his Divine Master had required him to make a triple affirmation before confiding to him the care of His flock, he endured unflinchingly the immense labors of his office of fisher of men. One circumstance of his life, which relates to this its closing period, reveals most touchingly the devotedness wherewith he clung to Him who had vouchsafed both to call him to follow Him and to pardon his inconstancy. Clement of Alexandria has preserved the details as follows.

Before being called to the apostolate, St. Peter had lived in the conjugal state: from that time forth his wife became his "sister;" she nevertheless continued in his company, following him about from place to place, in his various journeys, in order to render him service (1 Cor. 9). She was in Rome while Nero's persecution was raging, and the honor of martyrdom thus sought her out. St. Peter watched her as she stepped forth on her way to triumph, and at that moment his solicitude broke out in this one exclamation: "Oh, think of the Lord!" These two Galileans had seen the Lord, had received Him into their house, had made Him their guest at table. Since then the Divine Pastor had suffered on the Cross, had risen again, had ascended into Heaven, leaving the care of His flock to the fisherman of Lake Genesareth. What else, then, would St. Peter have his wife do at this moment but recall such sweet memories, and run forward to Him Whom she had known here below in His human features, and Who was now about to crown her hidden life with immortal glory!

The moment for entering into this same glory came at last for St. Peter himself. "When thou shalt be old," his Master had mysteriously said to him, "thou shalt stretch forth thy hands and another shall bind thee, and lead thee whither thou wouldst not" (John 20). So St. Peter was to attain an advanced age; like his Master, he must stretch forth his arms upon a cross; he must know captivity and the weight of chains with which a foreigner's hand will load him; he must be subjected to death, in its violent form, from which nature recoils, and drink the chalice from which even his Divine Master Himself prayed to be spared. But like his Master also, he will arise strong in the divine aid, and will press forward to the cross.

On the day fixed by God's decree, pagan power gave orders for the Apostle's arrest. Details are wanting as to the judicial procedure which followed, but the constant tradition of the Roman Church is that he was incarcerated in the Mamertine prison. By this name is known the dungeon constructed at the foot of the Capitoline hill by Ancus Martius, and afterwards completed by Servius Tullius, whence it is also called Carcer Tullianus. Two outer staircases, called "the steps of sighs," led to the frightful den. An upper dungeon gave immediate entrance to that which was to receive the prisoner and never to deliver him up alive, unless he was destined to a public execution. To be put into this horrible place, he had to be let down by cords, through an opening above, and by the same was he finally drawn up again, whether dead or alive. The vaulting of this lower dungeon was high, and its darkness was utter and horrible, so that it was an easy task to guard a captive detained there, especially if he were laden with chains.

On the 29th of June, in the year 67, St. Peter was at length drawn up to be led to death. According to Roman law, he must first be subjected to the scourge, the usual prelude to capital punishment. An escort of soldiers conducted the Apostle to his place of martyrdom, outside the city walls, as the laws required. St. Peter was marched to execution, followed by a large number of the faithful, drawn by affection along his path, and for his sake defying every peril.

Beyond the Tiber, facing the Campus Martius, there stretches a vast plain, which is reached by the bridge named the Triumphal, whereby the city is put in communication with the Via Triumphalis and the Via Cornelia, both of which roads lead to the north. From the river-side the plain is bounded on the left by the Janiculum, and beyond that, in the background, by the Vatican hills, whose chain continues along to the right in the form of an amphitheater. Along the bank of the Tiber the land is occupied by immense gardens, which three years previously had been made by Nero the scene of the principal immolation of the Christians, just at this same season also. To the west of the Vatican plain, and beyond Nero's gardens, was a circus of vast extent, usually called by his name, although in reality it owes its origin to Caligula, who placed in its center an obelisk which he had transported from Egypt. Outside the circus, towards its farthest end, rose a temple to Apollo, the protector of the public games. At the other end, the declivity of the Vatican hills begins, and at about the middle, facing the obelisk, was planted a turpentine tree well known to the people. The spot fixed upon for St. Peter's execution was close to this tree. There, likewise, was his tomb already dug. No other spot in Rome could be more suitable for so august a purpose. From remotest ages, something mysterious had hovered over the Vatican. An old oak, said by the most ancient traditions to be anterior to the foundation of Rome, was there held in the greatest reverence. There was much talk of oracles heard in this place. Moreover, where could a more choice resting-place be found for this old man, who had just conquered Rome, than a mound beneath this venerated soil, opening upon the Triumphal Way and the Cornelian Way, thus uniting memories of victorious Rome and the name of the Cornelii, which had now become inseparable from that of Peter?

There is something supremely grand in the taking possession of these places by the Vicar of the Man-God. The Apostle, having reached the spot and come up to the instrument of death, implored of his executioners to set him thereon, not in the usual way, but head downwards, in order, said he, that the servant be not seen in the position once taken by the Master. His request was granted; and Christian tradition, in all ages, renders testimony to this fact which adds further evidence to the deep humility of so great an Apostle. St. Peter, with outstretched arms, prayed for the city, prayed for the whole world, while his blood flowed down upon that Roman soil, the conquest of which he had just achieved. At this moment Rome became forever the new Jerusalem. When the Apostle had gone through the whole round of his sufferings, he expired; but he was to live again in each of his successors to the end of time.

Homily of His Holiness Benedict XVI on the
Feast of Saints Peter and Paul
Holy Mass for the Imposition of the Sacred Pallium on Metropolitan Bishops

Friday, 29 June 2012

Brother Bishops and Priests,
Dear Brothers and Sisters,

We are gathered around the altar for our solemn celebration of Saints Peter and Paul, the principal Patrons of the Church of Rome. Present with us today are the Metropolitan Archbishops appointed during the past year, who have just received the Pallium, and to them I extend a particular and affectionate greeting. Also present is an eminent Delegation from the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, sent by His Holiness Bartholomaios I, and I welcome them with fraternal and heartfelt gratitude. In an ecumenical spirit, I am also pleased to greet and to thank the Choir of Westminster Abbey, who are providing the music for this liturgy alongside the Cappella Sistina. I also greet the Ambassadors and civil Authorities present. I am grateful to all of you for your presence and your prayers.

In front of Saint Peter’s Basilica, as is well known, there are two imposing statues of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, easily recognizable by their respective attributes: the keys in the hand of Peter and the sword held by Paul. Likewise, at the main entrance to the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls, there are depictions of scenes from the life and the martyrdom of these two pillars of the Church. Christian tradition has always considered Saint Peter and Saint Paul to be inseparable: indeed, together, they represent the whole Gospel of Christ. In Rome, their bond as brothers in the faith came to acquire a particular significance. Indeed, the Christian community of this City considered them a kind of counterbalance to the mythical Romulus and Remus, the two brothers held to be the founders of Rome. A further parallel comes to mind, still on the theme of brothers: whereas the first biblical pair of brothers demonstrate the effects of sin, as Cain kills Abel, yet Peter and Paul, much as they differ from one another in human terms and notwithstanding the conflicts that arose in their relationship, illustrate a new way of being brothers, lived according to the Gospel, an authentic way made possible by the grace of Christ’s Gospel working within them. Only by following Jesus does one arrive at this new brotherhood: this is the first and fundamental message that today’s solemnity presents to each one of us, the importance of which is mirrored in the pursuit of full communion, so earnestly desired by the ecumenical Patriarch and the Bishop of Rome, as indeed by all Christians.

In the passage from Saint Matthew’s Gospel that we have just heard, Peter makes his own confession of faith in Jesus, acknowledging him as Messiah and Son of God. He does so in the name of the other Apostles too. In reply, the Lord reveals to him the mission that he intends to assign to him, that of being the “rock”, the visible foundation on which the entire spiritual edifice of the Church is built (cf. Mt 16:16-19). But in what sense is Peter the rock? How is he to exercise this prerogative, which naturally he did not receive for his own sake? The account given by the evangelist Matthew tells us first of all that the acknowledgment of Jesus’ identity made by Simon in the name of the Twelve did not come “through flesh and blood”, that is, through his human capacities, but through a particular revelation from God the Father. By contrast, immediately afterwards, as Jesus foretells his passion, death and resurrection, Simon Peter reacts on the basis of “flesh and blood”: he “began to rebuke him, saying, this shall never happen to you” (16:22). And Jesus in turn replied: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me ...” (16:23). The disciple who, through God’s gift, was able to become a solid rock, here shows himself for what he is in his human weakness: a stone along the path, a stone on which men can stumble – in Greek, skandalon. Here we see the tension that exists between the gift that comes from the Lord and human capacities; and in this scene between Jesus and Simon Peter we see anticipated in some sense the drama of the history of the papacy itself, characterized by the joint presence of these two elements: on the one hand, because of the light and the strength that come from on high, the papacy constitutes the foundation of the Church during its pilgrimage through history; on the other hand, across the centuries, human weakness is also evident, which can only be transformed through openness to God’s action.

And in today’s Gospel there emerges powerfully the clear promise made by Jesus: “the gates of the underworld”, that is, the forces of evil, will not prevail, “non praevalebunt”. One is reminded of the account of the call of the prophet Jeremiah, to whom the Lord said, when entrusting him with his mission: “Behold, I make you this day a fortified city, an iron pillar, and bronze walls, against the whole land, against the kings of Judah, its princes, its priests, and the people of the land. They will fight against you; but they shall not prevail against you - non praevalebunt -, for I am with you, says the Lord, to deliver you!” (Jer 1:18-19). In truth, the promise that Jesus makes to Peter is even greater than those made to the prophets of old: they, indeed, were threatened only by human enemies, whereas Peter will have to be defended from the “gates of the underworld”, from the destructive power of evil. Jeremiah receives a promise that affects him as a person and his prophetic ministry; Peter receives assurances concerning the future of the Church, the new community founded by Jesus Christ, which extends to all of history, far beyond the personal existence of Peter himself.

Let us move on now to the symbol of the keys, which we heard about in the Gospel. It echoes the oracle of the prophet Isaiah concerning the steward Eliakim, of whom it was said: “And I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open” (Is 22:22). The key represents authority over the house of David. And in the Gospel there is another saying of Jesus addressed to the scribes and the Pharisees, whom the Lord reproaches for shutting off the kingdom of heaven from people (cf. Mt 23:13). This saying also helps us to understand the promise made to Peter: to him, inasmuch as he is the faithful steward of Christ’s message, it belongs to open the gate of the Kingdom of Heaven, and to judge whether to admit or to refuse (cf. Rev 3:7). Hence the two images – that of the keys and that of binding and loosing – express similar meanings which reinforce one another. The expression “binding and loosing” forms part of rabbinical language and refers on the one hand to doctrinal decisions, and on the other hand to disciplinary power, that is, the faculty to impose and to lift excommunication. The parallelism “on earth ... in the heavens” guarantees that Peter’s decisions in the exercise of this ecclesial function are valid in the eyes of God.

In Chapter 18 of Matthew’s Gospel, dedicated to the life of the ecclesial community, we find another saying of Jesus addressed to the disciples: “Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Mt 18:18). Saint John, in his account of the appearance of the risen Christ in the midst of the Apostles on Easter evening, recounts these words of the Lord: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven: if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (Jn 20:22-23). In the light of these parallels, it appears clearly that the authority of loosing and binding consists in the power to remit sins. And this grace, which defuses the powers of chaos and evil, is at the heart of the Church’s mystery and ministry. The Church is not a community of the perfect, but a community of sinners, obliged to recognize their need for God’s love, their need to be purified through the Cross of Jesus Christ. Jesus’ sayings concerning the authority of Peter and the Apostles make it clear that God’s power is love, the love that shines forth from Calvary. Hence we can also understand why, in the Gospel account, Peter’s confession of faith is immediately followed by the first prediction of the Passion: through his death, Jesus conquered the powers of the underworld, with his blood he poured out over the world an immense flood of mercy, which cleanses the whole of humanity in its healing waters.

Dear brothers and sisters, as I mentioned at the beginning, the iconographic tradition represents Saint Paul with a sword, and we know that this was the instrument with which he was killed. Yet as we read the writings of the Apostle of the Gentiles, we discover that the image of the sword refers to his entire mission of evangelization. For example, when he felt death approaching, he wrote to Timothy: “I have fought the good fight” (2 Tim 4:7). This was certainly not the battle of a military commander but that of a herald of the Word of God, faithful to Christ and to his Church, to which he gave himself completely. And that is why the Lord gave him the crown of glory and placed him, together with Peter, as a pillar in the spiritual edifice of the Church.

Dear Metropolitan Archbishops, the Pallium that I have conferred on you will always remind you that you have been constituted in and for the great mystery of communion that is the Church, the spiritual edifice built upon Christ as the cornerstone, while in its earthly and historical dimension, it is built on the rock of Peter. Inspired by this conviction, we know that together we are all cooperators of the truth, which as we know is one and “symphonic”, and requires from each of us and from our communities a constant commitment to conversion to the one Lord in the grace of the one Spirit. May the Holy Mother of God guide and accompany us always along the path of faith and charity. Queen of Apostles, pray for us! Amen.


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