Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul
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.