The past week was a very interesting one in the calendar of the Church. We honored three prominent saints, who spilled their blood for the Faith: St. John the Baptist, St. Peter and St. Paul.
St. John the Baptist was the son of Zachary, a priest of the Temple in Jerusalem, and Elizabeth, a kinswoman of Mary who visited her. He lived as a hermit in the desert of Judea until about A.D. 27. When he was thirty, he began to preach on the banks of the Jordan against the evils of the times and called men to penance and baptism “for the Kingdom of Heaven is close at hand“. St. John the Baptist, who is presented in the New Testament as the last of the Old Testament prophets and the precursor of the Messiah, is the first cousin of Jesus, who “prepared the way for the Lord”.He was radically different: he lived and sustained himself in the ways of the desert. He was humble; as the Gospel of St. John reported that Jesus’ disciples were baptizing and that a debate broke out between some of the disciples of John and another Jew about purification. In this debate John argued that Jesus “must increase, while I must decrease” (Jn. 3: 30). He was a prophet who dared to speak what was right and just. He wasn’t intimidated by power and focused himself on living his mission. He was beheaded at the request of Salome, daughter of Herodias, who asked for his head at the instigation of her mother. St. John was truly a prophet in the deepest meaning of the word.
Simon Peter or Cephas, is the first Pope, Prince of the Apostles, and founder, with St. Paul, of the See of Rome. Peter was a native of Bethsaida, near Lake Tiberias, the son of John, and worked, like his brother St. Andrew, as a fisherman on Lake Genesareth. Andrew introduced Peter to Jesus, and Christ called Peter to become a disciple. Peter was always listed as the first of the Apostles in all of the New Testament accounts and was a member of the inner circle of Jesus, with James and John. He is recorded more than any other disciple, and was at Jesus’ side at the Transfiguration, the raising of Jairus’ daughter, and the Agony of Jesus at the Garden of Gethsemane. He helped organize the Last Supper, played a major role in the events of the Passion; he cut off the right ear of a slave of the high priest Malchus and then denied Christ three times as the Lord predicted. Peter then “went out and began to weep bitterly”. After the Resurrection, Peter went to the tomb with the “other disciple” after being told of the event by the women. The first appearance of the Risen Christ was before Peter, ahead of the other disciples, and when the Lord came before the disciples at Tiberias, he gave to Peter the famous command to “Feed my lambs… Tend my sheep… Feed my sheep”. In the time immediately after the Ascension, Peter stood as the unquestionable head of the Apostles, his position made evident in the Acts. He appointed the replacement of Judas Iscariot; he spoke first to the crowds that had assembled after the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost; he was the first Apostle to perform miracles in the name of the Lord; and he rendered judgment upon the deceitful Ananias and Sapphira. Peter was instrumental in bringing the Gospel to the Gentiles. He baptized the Roman pagan Cornelius, and at the Council of Jerusalem gave his support to preaching to the Gentiles, thereby permitting the new Church to become universal. Imprisoned by King Herod Agrippa, he was aided in an escape by an angel. He then resumed his apostolate in Jerusalem and his missionary efforts included travels to such cities of the pagan world as Antioch, Corinth, and eventually Rome. He made reference to the Eternal City in his first Epistle by noting that he writes from Babylon. It is certain that Peter died in Rome and that his martyrdom came during the reign of Emperor Nero. According to rich tradition, Peter was crucified on the Vatican Hill upside down because he declared himself unworthy to die in the same manner as the Lord.
From the earliest days of the Church, Peter was recognized as the Prince of the Apostles and the first Supreme Pontiff; his see, Rome, has thus enjoyed the position of primary over the entire Catholic Church. In liturgical art, he is depicted as an elderly man holding a key and a book. His symbols include an inverted cross, a boat, and the rooster.
In contrast, St. Paul, before he was converted, made the life of the early Christians difficult and miserable. In his zeal for Judaism, he persecuted the early Church. He took upon himself the task of ensuring that his Jewish faith be preserved from others. St. Paul was converted from Judaism on the road to Damascus. After remaining there for some days after his Baptism, he then went to Arabia, to prepare himself for his future missionary activity. Having returned to Damascus, he incurred the hatred of the Jews for preaching Jesus and had to flee from the city. He then went to Jerusalem to see Peter and pay his homage to the head of the Church.
Through the centuries, missionaries in the “style” of St. Paul used creative ways to deliver Christ’s message to all the nations. To keep the Church from mutating into “unrecognizable variations”, the office of the Pope at the center preserves the mindset of Jesus as understood by the Twelve Apostles.
Both saints were martyred in Rome around 64 – 65 A.D.; old men building up “the Body of Christ” till their last breath. St. Augustine of Hippo says in his Sermon 295: “One day is assigned for the celebration of the martyrdom of the two apostles. But those two were one. Although their martyrdom occurred on different days, they were one.”
Like St. Peter and St. Paul, it is our challenge, that at the end of our earthly journey, may we proudly say,
“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on a merited crown awaits me; on that Day of the Lord, just judge that he is, will award it to me — and not only to me but to all who have looked for his appearing with eager longing.” (1 Tim. 4: 7 – 8)