Flanking the stairway leading to St. Peter’s Basilica stand two monumental figures. Like guardian gatekeepers, Sts. Peter and Paul keep watch over the Church founded by Christ on their joint witness. Standing over 18 feet tall, the colossal statues were commissioned by Pope Pius IX on Easter 1847 to replace the existing smaller ones. The image of St. Peter was sculpted by Giuseppe De Fabris, and St. Paul was done by Adamo Tadolini in 1848.
On June 29 each year, the Church celebrates the feast of these two great pillars as one. This is also the traditional time for priestly ordinations: These two saints stand not only for the foundation of the Catholic Church, but the two great strengths needed by every priest.
The lives and writings of Peter and Paul can be mined for many treasures, but one way to regard them is to see the balance between the intellectual virtues and the physical virtues. Peter, the Galilean fisherman, was the man of action and strength, while the well-educated patrician Paul was the man of learning and study. Paul is brains; Peter is brawn.
With the Hebrew name “Saul,” St. Paul was brought up in a devout, prosperous and well-connected family in the coastal town of Tarsus, in present-day Turkey. His father was probably a Roman citizen, and Paul achieved this status through him. He described himself as “a Hebrew of the Hebrews, of the tribe of Benjamin; as to the Law — a Pharisee.”
Like all young Jewish men, Paul received a strong grounding in the Scriptures, but unlike most, he traveled to Jerusalem and was educated at the famed school of Gamaliel, where he received a first-class education not only in the Hebrew Scriptures, but also in classical literature, philosophy and ethics.
Scholars have noted allusions to Stoic philosophy in his writings, and he is confident enough, when visiting Athens, to debate and teach in the schools of philosophy there.
Paul was the inspired genius who not only understood the true identity of Jesus Christ, but was able to synthesize his knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures and traditions with the insights of Greek learning, thereby laying a foundation for all future Christian theology and building a bridge between the Jewish religion and the Gentile world. Paul’s mystical insights, intellectual acumen and ability to gather diffuse ideas and meld them into a new understanding provides the necessary intellectual muscle on which the Catholic faith is built.
We cannot make the same claim for the working-class fisherman on whom Jesus Christ established his Church. Tradition says Peter was a stocky bruiser of a man. Scripture shows him to be feisty, impetuous and often slow on the uptake. We get the impression of a rash and uncertain leader. Peter seems ready to act first and think later. This means he is willing to take a risk. He’s ready to walk on the waves, pull out a sword to defend the Lord and take the Gospel to the Gentiles, even though it goes against his prejudices.
Then, when he thinks it through, he’s likely to doubt his judgment. He vows to stand by the Lord no matter what, then backtracks in moments of cowardice to deny the Lord.
Peter’s education was probably minimal. He likely spoke everyday Aramaic, learned Hebrew for his traditional Jewish education, and, because he was living in a cultural crossroads, probably had a smattering of Greek and Latin. He was educated, but not intellectual — and his relationship with Paul is tetchy at times.
In Galatians 2, Paul says that Peter and the other apostles had “extended to him the hand of friendship,” commissioning their missionary work, but then Paul admits that he confronted Peter to his face about his hypocrisy over the Gentile problem. Meanwhile, Peter admits that he finds some of Paul’s ideas “difficult to understand” (2 Peter 3:16).
The refined Paul and the rough-and-tumble Peter give priests a tension and a balance to aim for. Depending on one’s personality type, we tend to favor either the man of intellect (Paul) or the man of action (Peter). Depending on which type we favor, we will also be distrustful of the other type and resist the balance they offer.
Men of intellect may look down on the men of action, while the men of action may think the men of intellect have their heads in the clouds or are “so heavenly-minded that they’re no earthly good.”
Throughout the life of the Church, in the lives of the saints and the history of the papacy, we see the clash between the Peters and the Pauls. The way of balance is to realize how much we need both. The whole Church needs the balance of intellect and action, but the same balance should be cultivated in the life of each priest.
If a man is inclined to spend too much time in his study with his nose in his books, he needs to get up and get out and get busy with spreading the Gospel and being with the people of God.
If a priest avoids serious study and sidesteps intellectual development in favor of doing “real work” with “real people,” then he will be a shallow priest with little to offer in the long run. The man of action must work hard to develop intellect, just as the man of intellect must work hard to be involved in the world with real people and real problems.
Peter and Paul stand as colossal figures at the heart of the Vatican because they stand as colossal figures in the foundation of the Church itself. Their Spirit-filed lives of brain and brawn serve as an example to all who continue their apostolic ministry.
From popes to bishops and priests to saints — and the whole people of God — all are called to balance the active life of missionary witness, service to the poor and involvement with the world with the intellectual learning and discernment that gives depth to the ministry and unlocks the eternal truths we live to share.
Father Dwight Longenecker’s latest book is The Romance of Religion: Fighting for Goodness, Truth and Beauty. Visit his blog, browse his books and be in touch at DwightLongenecker.com.