Saint Peter and Saint Paul, Apostles
After the great solemnities of the movable cycle, 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 very day itself which saw them go up from earth to heaven, June 29th. Her practice prevailed, at a very early date, over the custom of several other countries, which put the Apostles’ feast towards the close of December. It was, no doubt, a fair thought which inspired the placing of these Fathers of the Christian people in the cortege of Emmanuel at his entry into this world. But, as we have already seen, 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 centre of his operations. Rome, therefore, was well inspired when, leaving to the Beloved Disciple the honour 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 labours and to crown, at once, both their life and the whole cycle of mysteries.
Fully today, do the heavens declare the glory of God, as David expresses it, today do they show us the course of the Spouse completed on the eternal hills (Ps. xviii. 2-6). Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night revealeth the deep secret (Ibid. 3). From north and south of the new Sion, from either side of her stream, Peter and Paul waft one to other, as a farewell song, as a sacred Epithalamium, the good Word (Ps. xliv. 2); sublime that echo, sonorous its power, vocal still throughout the whole earth (Ibid. xviii. 4, 5), and yet to resound as long as the world lasts. These two torches of salvation blend their flames above the palaces of ancient Rome; the passing darkness of their death, that night of which the Psalmist sings, now concentrates light, forever, in the midst of the queen city. Beside the throne of the Bridegroom fixed forever and ever on yonder seven hills (Ps. xliv. 7-10), the Gentile world, now become the Bride, is resplendent in glory (Eph. v. 27), all fair in that peerless purity which she derives from their blood united as it is to that of the Son of God.
But seemly is it, not to forget, on so great a day, those other messengers sent forth by the divine householder, and who watered earth’s highways with their sweat and with their blood, the while they hastened the triumph and the gathering in of the guests invited to the Marriage feast (St. Matth. xxii. 8-10). To them is it due, if now the law of grace is definitively promulgated throughout all nations, and if in every language and upon every shore the good tidings have been sounded (Ps. xviii. 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 those 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. But in course of time, however, particular solemnities were successively consecrated to each one of the Apostles, and so the feast of June 29th was more exclusively attributed to the two Princes whose martyrdom rendered this day illustrious. More than this; as we shall presently see, the Roman Church, thinking it impossible fittingly to honour both of these on the same day, deferred till the morrow her more explicit praises of the Doctor of the Gentiles.
The Antiphons and Capitulum of First Vespers take us back to the opening days of the apostolic ministry. They place us in the midst of those which immediately follow the Descent of the Holy Ghost. Peter and John go up together to the temple of Jerusalem. Calvary’s sacrifice has put an end to its figurative oblations; but it, nevertheless, still continues to be a place of prayer, pleasing to heaven, on account of its grand memories. At the door of the sacred edifice, a man, lame from his birth, begs an alms of the Apostles. Peter, lacking both silver and gold, exerts in his favour the power of healing which he possesses in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth. The Synagogue yields no more to the miracles of the disciple than she did to those of the Master; she will not be converted; and presently a new Herod, wishing to please the Jews, finds no better means of doing so than the putting to death of James the brother of John, and the imprisoning of Peter.
But the angel of the Lord comes down into the prison where he is sleeping, on the eve of the day fixed for his death; the angel bids him arise, put on his garments, and follow him. The Apostle, set free, proclaims the reality of that which at first he thought but a dream. He departs from Jerusalem, now hopelessly the accursed city; and on all sides of the gentile world into whose midst he has entered, is verified the prophecy: Tu es Petrus: Thou art Peter, and upon this Rock I will build my Church (St. Matth. xvi. 18).
Ant. Peter and John went up to the temple at the ninth hour of prayer.
Ant. Silver and gold I have none; but what I have, I give unto thee.
Ant. The Angel said to Peter: Cast thy garment about thee, and follow me.
Ant. The Lord hath sent his Angel, and hath delivered me out of the hand of Herod. Alleluia.
Ant. Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church.
Capitulum. (Acts, xii.)
Herod the king stretched out his hand to afflict some of the church; and he killed James the brother of John with the sword. And seeing that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to take up Peter also.
Lo! beauteous Light Eternal floods, with sacred fires, this golden day which crowns the Princes of Apostles and opens out unto the guilty a free path to Heaven.
The Teacher of the whole earth, as well as the Doorkeeper of Heaven, both of them Fathers of Rome, and Judges of nations, each a victor of death, the one by the sword, the other by the cross, laurel-crowned, both take their seats in the Senate of Eternal Life.
O happy Rome, by noble gore of Princes twain art thou now consecrated; empurpled by the blood of such as these, thou alone in beauty dost surpass all the rest of earth.
To the Trinity in Unity that governeth all things through ages of ages, may there be eternal glory, honour, power, and jubilation. Amen.
V. Their sound hath gone forth into all the earth.
R. And their words unto the ends of the world.
Antiphon of the Magnificat
Thou art the Shepherd of the sheep, O Prince of the sheep, O Prince of the Apostles, to thee were delivered the keys of the kingdom of heaven.
O God, who hast consecrated this day by the martyrdom of thine Apostles Peter and Paul; grant to thy Church that she may in all things follow their instruction by whom she received the Faith. Through our Lord, &c.
The sun is bending towards the horizon. The Church is about to resume her chants, and to begin the sacred Vigil which will be continued until morning with all the pomp and continuity of the greatest solemnities. In heart, at least, let us keep watch with her. This night is the last during which the visible Head given to her by the Spouse, is fulfilling his ministry of prayer and suffering in Nero’s dungeons; so much the less, therefore, will she leave him, and so much the more eager is she to spend herself in extolling his greatness. When once again the day-star shall appear in the east, gilding with his rays those seven hills whereon the Queen of nations is seated, the hour of sacrifice will have sounded for the Vicar of the Man-God. Let us, then, prepare to form a part of his cortege, by representing to ourselves in thought the historic details of this glorious drama, and the facts which led to it.
Since the terrible persecution of the year 64, Rome had become for 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 (St. John, xxi). 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 Father he truly was. But before quitting earth, 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 Peter in the prodigies operated by him. So 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. If we are to believe Dion Chrysostom, Nero seems even to have entertained at his court this wondrous personage, who pledged himself to soar aloft in mid-air. More than that, the emperor would even with his own presence honor this rare sight (Orat. xxi). The imperial lodge was reared upon the Via Sacra, where the scene was to be enacted.
But cruel for the impostor did this deception prove. “Scarce had this Icarus begun to poise his flight,” says Suetonius, “than he fell close to Nero’s lodge which was bathed in his blood.” The gravest writers of Christian antiquity are unanimous in attributing to the prayer of Peter this humiliation inflicted on the Samaritan juggler in the very midst of Rome, where he had dared to set himself up as the rival of Christ’s Vicar.
The disgrace, as well as the blood of the heresiarch, had fallen on the emperor himself. Curiosity and ill-will but needed, therefore, to be combined, in order to attract personally upon Peter an attention that might prove disastrous. Moreover, be it remembered, there was yet another danger, and to this Saint Paul alludes, namely, the peril of false brethren. To understand this term and justly to appreciate the situation, we must bear in mind how inevitable are the clashings of certain characters in a society so numerous as was already that of the Christians in Rome; and how discontent is necessarily caused to vulgar minds when existing circumstances sometimes demand higher interests to be exclusively consulted, in the always difficult question of choosing persons to offices of trust, or to special confidence. These things well borne in mind, it will be easy to account for what Saint Clement, an eye-witness of the Apostle’s martyrdom, attests in a letter to the Corinthians, viz., that “rivalries and jealousies” had a large share in the tragic end brought about, through the suspicions at last conceived by the authorities against “this Jew.”
The filial devotedness of the Christians of Rome took alarm, and they implored Saint Peter to elude the danger for a while, by instant flight. “Although he would have much preferred to suffer,” says Saint Ambrose (Contra Auxent), Peter set out along the Appian Way. Just as he reached the Capuan gate, Christ suddenly presented Himself, seemingly about to enter the city. ” Lord, whither goest thou? cried out the Apostle. ” To Rome,” Christ replied, “to be there 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, even unto the Cross itself, was He about to make him His participator. Rome having replaced Jerusalem must likewise have her Calvary.
In his flight, Peter dropped from his leg a bandlet which a disciple picked up, with much respect. A monument was afterwards raised on the spot where this incident occurred: it is now the Church of Saints Nereus and Achilles, anciently called Titulus fascioloe, 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.
From that moment Peter set everything in order with a view to his approaching end. It was at this time he wrote his Second Epistle, which is, as it were, 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 further on. The laying away of this my tabernacle is at hand, according as our Lord Jesus Christ also hath signified to me (2 St. Pet. i. 14). These his words are evidently an allusion to the apparition on the Appian Way.
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 Tullus, whence it is also called Carcer Tullianus. Two outer staircases, called the steps of sighs, led to this 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 were 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 therein, specially if he were laden with chains.
On the twenty-ninth of June, in the year sixty-seven, 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. 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 Martins, there stretches a vast plain, which is reached by the bridge named the Triumphal, whereby the city is put in communication with the Via Triumphalia and the Via Cornelia, both of which roads lead to the North. On its further side from the river, 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 amphitheatre. 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 centre an obelisk which he had transported from Egypt. Outside the Circus, towards its furthest end, rose a temple to Apollo, the protector of the public games. At the other end, the declivity of the Vatican hill begins, and about the middle, facing the Obelisk, was planted a turpentine tree well known to the people. The spot fixed upon for Peter’s execution was close to this said turpentine tree. There, likewise, was his tomb already dug. No other spot in all 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 great 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 the 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 same 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. Peter, with outstretched arms, prayed for the city, prayed for the whole world, the 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 one of his Successors, unto the end of time.
O Peter, we also hail thy glorious tomb! Well does it behove us, thy chosen sons of the West, to celebrate with faith and love the glories of this day. If all nations are moved at the tidings of thy triumphant death; if all tongues proclaim that from Rome perforce must the law of the Lord come forth, unto the whole world; is it not because this death of thine has turned Babylon into that city of divine oracles hailed by the son of Amos, in his prophecy (Is. ii. 1. 5)? is it not because the mountain prepared, in distant ages, to bear the house of the Lord, begins to peer from out the mist, and now stands forth in full day-light to the eyes of the nations. The site of the new Sion is forever fixed; for on this day, is the corner-stone laid (Ibid. xxviii. 16), and Jerusalem is to have no other foundation, than this tried and precious Stone.
O Peter, on thee must we build; for fain are we to be dwellers in the Holy City. We will follow our Lord’s counsel (St. Matth. vii. 24-27), by raising our structure upon the rock, so that it may resist the storm, and may become an eternal abode. Our gratitude to thee, who hast vouchsafed to uphold us, is all the greater, since this our senseless age, pretends to construct a new social edifice, which it would fix on the shifting sands of public opinion, and hence realizes naught save downfall and ruin! Is the stone rejected by our modern architects any the less, head of the corner? And does not its strength appear in the fact (as it is written) that having rejected and cast it aside, they stumble against it and are hurt, yea broken?
Standing erect, amid these ruins, firm upon the foundation, the rock against which the gates of hell cannot prevail,–we have all the more right to extol this day, on which the Lord hath, as our Psalm says established the earth (Ps. xcii. 1). The Lord did indeed manifest His greatness, when He cast the vast orbs into space, and poised them by laws so marvelous, that the mere discovery thereof does honour to science; but His reign, His beauty, His power, are far more stupendous when He lays the basis prepared by him to support that temple of which a myriad worlds scarce deserve to be called the pavement. Of this immortal day, did Eternal Wisdom sing, when divinely foretasting its pure delights, and preluding our gladness, he thus led on our happy chorus: “When the mountains with their huge bulk were being established, and when the earth was being balanced on its poles, when He established the sky above, and poised the fountains of waters, when he laid the foundations of the earth, I was with Him, forming all things; and was delighted every day playing before him at all times ; playing in the world, for my delights are to be with the children of men (Prov.viii).
The Liturgical Year. 1904. Abbot Dom Gueranger, O.S.B. Translated from the French by Dom Laurence Shepherd, O.S.B. Imprimatur, 1910.