Sts. Peter and Paul: The Keys and the Sword

One of my favorite moments in any visit to Rome is to slow down and wander through St. Peter’s Square, rather than rushing through to get into the basilica itself. The square is surrounded by Bernini’s curved colonnade, which reaches around to embrace the gathering crowds.

In the center stands the ancient Egyptian obelisk that once dominated the nearby Vatican Circus, where St. Peter was martyred. It is crowned now with a massive cross, symbolizing the triumph of Christ over the paganism of ancient Egypt and Rome. Standing guard on either side of the square are gigantic statues of Sts. Peter and Paul.

Peter clutches the Keys of the Kingdom in a pose of contemplation, while Paul brandishes the sword of his martyrdom like a weapon for battle.

On June 29, the Church celebrates the shared memorial of Peter and Paul, remembering that these two great apostles are the guardians of the faith and true guides of the faithful. At the very core of their experience is their shared realization that the faith entrusted to them is not of their own making, but the result of divine revelation.

In his epistle to the Galatians, St. Paul says, “I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the Gospel preached by me is not of human origin. For I did not receive it from a human being, nor was I taught it, but it came through a revelation of Jesus Christ” (11-12).

Likewise, when Jesus asked Peter who he thought Jesus was, and Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God!” Jesus affirmed his witness and said, “Blessed are you, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven” (Matthew 16:16).

The huge, majestic statues of Peter and Paul are a reminder of this huge, majestic truth: The Catholic faith is not a man-made religion. This truth is vital to reaffirm because one of the most devastating problems in the Christian church today is the denial of the supernaturally revealed foundation of the faith.

In Christianity today, the worst division is not between Eastern Orthodox and Catholic Churches. The division is not between Catholic and Protestant. The real division is between those who believe the faith is supernaturally revealed by God and is unchanging in its essence and those who believe that the Christian faith is a product of a confluence of historical accidents and human invention.

In other words, the divide is between those who believe religion is revealed and those who believe religion is relative.

If the latter is true, then the Christian faith is no different than any other religion. Furthermore, if the Christian faith is the result of no more than human ingenuity and the circumstances of a particular historical age, then the faith cannot only be changed in every age, it must be adapted to changing circumstances and social needs.

On the contrary, if the faith is revealed by God in the fullness of time (Galatians 4:4) in a particular way, then those revealed truths cannot be changed. For those who believe in a revealed religion rather than a relative religion, instead of the faith adapting to the current age, every age must adapt to the faith.

Sts. Peter and Paul were convinced that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was the heaven-sent Redeemer of the world, and the reason they stand tall is that they did something about it. Through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, St. Paul’s first-rate education, brilliant mind and determined personality produced the most astounding theological explication of who Jesus Christ was and what he accomplished.

When one considers that St. Paul developed a comprehensive theology of Jesus Christ, the Church, salvation and sacraments while undergoing tremendous personal trials, missionary journeys, persecution and disappointments, his accomplishments are truly monumental.

At the same time, St. Peter, a rough-hewn fisherman, stepped up to the challenge of leading the foundling Church of Christ. Empowered at Pentecost, the once-cowardly disciple preached to thousands, set out on his own missionary journeys, healed the sick, negotiated Church disputes and endured imprisonment, death threats and his final persecution and martyrdom.

While Paul’s theology is preserved forever in his epistles, Peter’s practical memories are lodged in his epistles and St. Mark’s Gospel, which Tradition tells us was based on his experiences and preaching in Rome.

Both men, in their own way, exhibit the brains and the brawn that are needed for the Catholic faith to thrive.

The brilliant intellect of St. Paul cuts like a sword through the murky confusion of the unenlightened mind, while Peter’s decisive action provides the key to entering the kingdom of God. Following their example, we should constantly sharpen our understanding of the faith, while we unlock the door to heaven through practical and powerful action in the world.

Finally, we remember that both our intellectual understanding and our practical action are built firmly on the Rock that cannot move — the eternal Revelation of mankind’s salvation through Jesus Christ, Son of God and Son of Mary.

Father Dwight Longenecker is a priest of the Diocese of Charleston, South Carolina.

Sts. Peter and Paul painting c. 1750; Wikicommons/public domain