Two of the most prominent figures in the early Church are St. Peter and St. Paul. The first pope and the author of the majority of the New Testament are celebrated by the Church on the same day. Many would question why arguably the two men most responsible for the spread of the early Church should be at least entitled to their own feast days. However, there is evidence that the feast days have been celebrated jointly by the Church all the way back to 395.
St. Augustine of Hippo spoke of the feast days being on the same day in a sermon he preached.
“Both apostles share the same feast days, for these two were one; and even though they suffered on different days, they were as one. Peter went first, and Paul followed. And so, we celebrate this day made holy for us by the apostles’ blood. Let us embrace what they believed, their life, their labors, their sufferings, their preaching, and their confession of faith.”
It appears the great saints share their feast day because they were martyred on the same day, according to tradition. At least, that is one of the traditions as to why they share a feast day. Historical accounts give different years for the martyrdom, and it is uncertain if the two were martyred on the same date of the calendar. Whether they actually died on the same date or not does not matter. There are many reasons why these two should worthily share their feast day and it be celebrated by the Church worldwide.
St. Peter was crucified upside down in 64 AD and St. Paul was beheaded in 67 AD. Nero did not have St. Paul crucified because the Romans did not crucify their own citizens and, as a result, St. Paul was beheaded. St. Peter reportedly was crucified upside down since he was not a Roman. Tradition holds that he requested to be crucified upside down because he felt unworthy to be crucified in the same position as the Lord Jesus.
Interestingly though it appears that St. Peter and St. Paul rarely met in person. We are given two instances where they meet in person, the first being in Antioch (where that did not end so well since Paul rebuked Peter) and the second time was in Rome. The two saints being celebrated together shows the unity and value of the Church and the contributions the saints had in building the early Church. St. Peter, obviously being the first pope and being given the “keys” by Christ, shows the authority Peter wielded in the Church and for those of his successors. St. Paul, on the other hand, gives the Church and the faithful the freedom which is contained in Christ. Faith becomes routine, rigid, and barren apart from freedom. Paul’s freedom was necessary for the work of the Holy Spirit within the Church and that which was started at Pentecost by the Spirit. The Holy Spirit transformed the apostles from fearful to fearless, from hiding to the light, and from being silent to shouting the Gospel of Christ. It is also the same Spirit which transforms us and continues to transform the world.
It is important to note that when St. Paul challenged Peter, as he says in Galatians 2:11, that he was challenging the hypocrisy Peter was presenting and not his authority. Paul was not some power grabbing, egotistical, self-righteous individual seeking to control the Church. On the contrary, he sought to protect the Church from hypocrisy and false teaching. That is why he says in Galatians 2:11 “And when Cephas (Peter) came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face because he clearly was wrong.” Paul goes on to say it was because Peter would eat with the Gentiles and then when certain people showed up then Peter would jump away from them and pretend that he was not eating with them. This is what Paul was rebuking. It was not Peter’s authority, but his hypocrisy.
This is an example for all of us today that, regardless of our feelings about Pope Francis or any of his successors, we are to recognize that we can rebuke hypocrisy when we see it. However, we are to tread lightly when we attempt to rebuke the authority given to the pope by holding the keys and sitting on Peter’s chair. That rebuke is from God alone. Paul is a great example of how to handle this kind of disagreement and issue.
St. Paul gives us the ability to have individuality while being a child of God. Peter gives us authority, power, and vigilance. They both represent for us the need to reach all men and women with the message of Christ and the need to protect and guard the Church and the truth which it holds.
Sts. Peter and Paul, pray for us.