What Sts Peter and Paul show us about our own lives and faith

On 29 June of each year, we celebrate the feast of Saint Peter and Saint Paul. This is one of the great feasts of the Church calendar, not least because we revere the memory of the two apostles most closely associated with the early mission of the Church, establishing the faith in the city of Rome. That was an important factor in the establishment of the Church as the catholic and universal Church. St Paul is often taken, as the “Apostle to the Gentiles,” and St Peter as his complement, and hence as having a special ministry to the Jewish people.

That is a typological more than a historical fact: as is well known, e.g. from the account of Acts 10 of the centurion Cornelius, St Peter did convert Gentiles. Also, St Paul evangelised in synagogues! So if we take the two great saints together, we have a type or “basic picture” of the preaching of the faith to all of humanity.

We can also learn from the type, or paradigm, which they exemplified in their lives, that those to whom great graces are given are those to whom great suffering in this life will be given; or perhaps more accurately, when God gives great spiritual graces, we should be willing to accept hardships and even, as in the case of these saints, persecution unto death.

Then, we can see how St Peter fell and failed Our Lord on some significant occasions, but he had faith and hope, and never ceased trying. In the end, he gained the crown of salvation. St Paul, too, had persecuted Christians, even consenting to the slaying of St Stephen, the first martyr of the Church. From their example we can learn never to allow ourselves to despair. There is always a cause for hope precisely because our hope lies in God, not in us; for like Ss Peter and Paul, we are weak. His grace is sufficient for us and His strength is perfected in our weakness.

This is something of a paradox, meaning that because we are so weak, if we exhibit any ability and strength, those virtues must be sourced in God. Since He was able to find so much productive use for people so wretched, even making saints out of them, how powerful He must be! (2 Corinthians 12:9). It is analogous to how the skill of a doctor is more apparent not when he cures someone who was only a little unwell, but on the very verge of death.

So we start to understand that the typological approach of the Syriac Christian tradition is one whereby we ponder the events of sacred history, and read Scripture, in order to be able to apply its lessons and examples to our lives. It is not necessary to come up with theories and write interpretations of Ss Peter and Paul. All we need to do is see the picture of their lives and try to imitate their virtues.

We cannot imitate their lives: St Paul wrote extraordinary epistles (the sublime heights of his letters to the Philippians, Colossians, and Ephesians are sometimes overlooked for the more directly evangelical doctrine of Romans, Corinthians and Galatians). Then, St Peter’s teaching was placed in the Gospel of St Mark (which Ss Matthew and Luke adopted as their framework).

A commentator said that even the limitations of his Gospel were because St Mark followed the order of St Peter’s preaching! Then, St John was persuaded to write his Gospel to supplement the other three with a more purely spiritual, even mystical message (and, many have suggested, to correct some errors, such as the day of the crucifixion). So much of the New Testament is indebted to these two great saints, together with St John, who produced his Gospel, three Epistles, and the Apocalypse.

Syriac Christianity is not a philosophy: it is a revealed religion. It is grounded in history, not in abstract arguments. Our hearts will be changed by feeling the power of the examples of Our Lord, the Mother of God, and the saints. This is the essence of the typological approach to ethics. We want to follow them, not just to talk about them.

Finally, and again speaking typologically, there is one understanding both of these saints shared which, I propose, we would do well to ponder upon: and that is their sense of urgency.

Both of these saints had a profound consciousness of the value and importance of the faith. They had an overpowering sense that they had to act in the present moment. There was no time to delay. Souls were at stake.

The plan of God was to be grasped and put into action by each according to our abilities. Holiness prevents us from panicking, but it does impart a sense of urgency. May I wish you a blessed Feast of Ss Peter and Paul.

Article originally published in The Catholic Weekly here


*Maronite icon written by Fr Abdo Badwi