The Feast of Sts Peter and Paul is one of the most important, and yet most glossed over, feasts of the Church Year. Yet, it should be easy to see its value. Sts Peter and Paul are the two most significant Apostles in the New Testament, and their ecclesial ministries end together with their martyrdoms in Rome. Despite previous conflicts against each other, they die united for Christ, embracing each other in love, recognizing each other as providing an authentic voice of Christ’s desires for the Church. They merge their authority together into one, forming a new Apostolic See, the See of Rome. And since it exists as the continuation of the authority of the two most important Apostles of the early Church, the See of Rome becomes, as it were, the heart which lovingly directs the Church throughout time. It is no wonder that St Irenaeus, writing in the second century, would declare the church at Rome as the church which all other churches must heed:
Since, however, it would be very tedious, in such a volume as this, to reckon up the successions of all the Churches, we do put to confusion all those who, in whatever manner, whether by an evil self-pleasing, by vainglory, or by blindness and perverse opinion, assemble in unauthorized meetings; [we do this, I say,] by indicating that tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul; as also [by pointing out] the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its preeminent authority, that is, the faithful everywhere, inasmuch as the apostolical tradition has been preserved continuously by those [faithful men] who exist everywhere (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, III:3. ANF1).
In all of this talk of authority, which is good and needed to be said, something interesting is left out. It’s something which should be readilly apparent but isn’t. That is, the See of Rome finds its existence, its essence, in reflecting the Trinity. This, above all else, is what makes it the model church among churches, explaining its preeminent position in the Catholic communion of churches. To see this we must look at how the church in Rome is formed under the auspices of Sts. Peter and Paul.
In all of the Gospel accounts, it is made sufficiently clear that Jesus chose Peter to lead the Apostles. We often find Jesus talking to Peter as one would a “second in command.” Most of the time, when Jesus asks Peter a question, he is not asking Peter to answer for himself, but for the whole of the Apostles. “Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do men say that the Son of man is?’ And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter replied, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God'” (Matt. 16:13 – 16). It is because he speaks for the Apostles, in union with the rest of the Apostles, that we can discern that Peter is their leader. And Jesus confirms this and points out that when Peter does so, God is guiding him, allowing him to respond in a way which transcends normal human understanding. “And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon Barjona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven'” (Matt. 16:17 – 19).
While it can be shown that Peter is the leader of the Apostles, what that means could only be made clear after the resurrection. For the kingdom of God is established at the cross, and it is only for the sake of the kingdom Peter is called to represent Christ on earth. As their leader, Peter is set apart from the rest of the Apostles with a unique command and mission: the mission of love. But he can only understand the full extent of what love is in the revelation of the cross, in the death and resurrection of Christ, where God is revealed as love. Since the cross is the perfect example – and act- of love, it is only in and through that love that Peter can truly follow his mission. And it is by passing Christ’s test of that love that Peter can be proven fit for duty. “When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ He said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ A second time he said to him, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ He said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’ He said to him the third time, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep'” (John 21:15 – 17). Many commentators note the relationship between Peter’s threefold denial of Christ with Jesus’ threefold questioning of his love. While this aspect of Christ’s testing is important to note, perhaps what gets lost in here is something else, something about the nature of love being expressed. This passage is not shown just to give us a reversal of Peter’s denial of Christ. Rather, it is to show us how love can be recognized: love is proven once it is tried and found true three times. Peter’s love is love because it is Trinitarian.
Peter’s authority is the authority of love; and it is because it is love, it is credible: love alone justifies obedience, for the dictates of love transcend all kinds of legalism. And this explains why the law which Peter established for the churches is the law of love: “Above all hold unfailing your love for one another, since love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8). What great sorrow Peter had to go through before he was free from his egoism and selfish desires, and he was truly cable of understanding the teaching of love, the message of which Christ spoke of throughout his ministry. It is love which commands and has true authority. “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). It is this love which is the core of God’s law (cf. Luke 10:27-28). It is when it is given to all, even to ones enemies, like Jesus on the cross, when love truly can be called love. “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:32-36). In a way, this law of love is to best expressed in the love of Christians, one for another, for it is such an act of love which is to be a sign of God’s love for the world. “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-5).
When we turn to St Paul, we note a man on fire for God, a man so filled with love for God, that sometimes that love got the best of him. How else can we explain his persecution of Christians? It was from love, but a perverted, foolish love, so confused by the legalism of his day that he initially didn’t understand where the love God would lead humanity. His anger at Christians was out of his love for God, and it was because it was love which ruled over him that he was able to be converted and turned towards Christ. Perverted, love can become malicious and seek to destroy others; developed in wisdom, and purified by in truth, love bears all for the sake of others, and the lover willingly sacrifices his or herself for the beloved. Once St Paul understood this, he was free to see Christ, to understand Christ as love incarnate. Paul then could understand Christ’s death and resurrection as the proof of God’s love for us all. St Paul must be understood as one of love’s greatest conquests; all of his doctrines, all of what he says, can only be appreciated once one understands that love, not knowledge, is his only foundation. “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood. So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” (1 Cor. 13: 11 – 13).
What Paul first didn’t understand – the incarnation of love in Christ – he was, through grace, to understand and live out after his conversion. He was to give himself over entirely to Christ, to know that Christ is the revelation of God’s love. “While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Why, one will hardly die for a righteous man — though perhaps for a good man one will dare even to die. But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5: 6 – 8). And it was by completely giving himself over to the guiding light of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Love, that Paul could follow Christ and endure all kinds of suffering in imitation of him. He became all things for all men, a Jew for the Jews, a Gentile for the Gentiles, because he followed the universal call of love. “For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, that I might win the more. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews; to those under the law I became as one under the law — though not being myself under the law — that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law — not being without law toward God but under the law of Christ — that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings” (1 Cor. 9:19 – 23).
This love, this desire to become all things for all men, served as the foundation for Paul’s mission to the Gentiles. “To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make all men see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places. This was according to the eternal purpose which he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have boldness and confidence of access through our faith in him. So I ask you not to lose heart over what I am suffering for you, which is your glory” (Eph. 3:8 – 13). Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles (cf. Gal. 1:16), was always a Jew and always loved his people. His love burned for them so much that he was willing to suffer perdition for their sake (cf. Rom. 9: 1 -5). The lover will sacrifice everything for the beloved, even eternal beatitude; Christ, in his death, descent into hell, and resurrection shows us how true this is for God, and Paul shows us to the extent we, as humans, can follow.
These two manifestations of love, the love of St Peter, and the love of St Paul, merge together and give birth to the church in Rome. Just as the love of the Father for the Son and the Son for the Father is revealed in the Holy Spirit, the See of Rome, the See of Peter and Paul, comes about out of the union of the love of Peter and Paul. The Church, ever nourished and guided by the Spirit, is given a center. It is the church of love, founded in love and by love. And it is the one See which shows, from its inception, a reflection of the love found in the Trinity. For Peter, given the leadership of the Church by Christ, is a spiritual father and elder to Paul, who was only to come to the faith much later, after his own encounter with the resurrected Christ (Paul mentions his journey to Peter in Gal. 1:18, confirming his understanding that Peter had a specific authority which could not be denied and must be addressed before his work can be recognized by the Church). Yet, things between Peter and Paul were not always pleasant. Paul, so filled with love, was free in his rebukes, even to his elders. Who cannot recognize in Paul the role of a son who, in trying to make his own path in life, criticizes his father for all that his father has done wrong (cf. Gal 2:7-8; 11-14). But in Rome, they come together, father and son. In their mutual love for one another, in Christ, they die, martyrs for Christ. And it is in that unity, on their way to death, when they left their combined authority with St Linus in Rome, they made him the successor not only of the leadership of Peter, but also of Paul’s universal mission to spread the Gospel over all the earth. It is in this way the authority of Rome can be and must be understood; it is the double-authority of love, the love of Peter for Christ which makes him the leader of the Church with the love of Paul for the world. It is only in this double mission and double-Apostolic authority, attested by St Irenaeus, wherein Rome can be seen as greater than any other church. Both Peter and Paul founded many other bishoprics, but only one unites their two missions together, only one became the union of two Apostolic missions, only one is left with their combined authority, merging them to become a new, third entity of its own. Only one finds itself as the union of two loves. Only one is perfectly formed in the image of the Holy Spirit, presenting itself, therefore, as the servant of servants which must be listened to, because it is the See of Love itself.
In the earliest records of Church History, the reality of Rome’s authority was lived out long before the explanation for its authority was understood. When Rome spoke with guiding authority, it spoke to warring factions within the Church with a voice of love, working to pacify two or more parties and find a way to have them back together in peace and back in the warm embrace of Christian unity (See, Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Office of Peter and the Structures of the Church. Trans. Andree Emery (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), 242 – 249 )). From the epistles of St Clement of Rome to the recognition given to Rome by St Ignatius, Rome’s leadership of love was long in action before the time of St Irenaeus. This is why he could point out its doctrinal authority as a way of overcoming the new, Gnostic teaching fighting against the Church. The authority of love outranked pseudo-knowledge. St Irenaeus had seen that authority already in practice, and that it had not been denied by the Church. After this authority was recognized in history and proclaimed by theory, it is clear, of course, that some would come into See for the sake of power. From time to time, the love of Rome has indeed cooled. This is because Satan has constantly fought against it, tried to seduce it, and has done all he could to corrupt it, ever since the time of Peter. “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren” (Luke 22:31 -32). Through the wiles of Satan, Peter did, from time to time, fail to live out the dictates of love. This did not, however, diminish his authority or leadership over the Church. That he was able to get beyond it demonstrates that this flame of love, even when it grows cool, is never put out, and can always be made to burn bright once again. We can see, in history, the failure of Peter often being lived out by his successors in Rome. Yet Jesus’ prayer for Peter is also a prayer for all who follow him in authority. Like Peter, so with Rome: love is never entirely lost. And yet, also like Peter, Rome is constantly in need of reformation. Through the grace of the Spirit, Rome is always being “turned again” to Christ. Because of the prayer of Christ, Rome always succeeds in the end to follow its mission, to guide and protect the Church as its heart. And that is because, as the Church’s heart, the gates of hell will never overcome it.