Saints Peter and Paul played complementary roles in the ancient Church

Father John A. Kiley

The Second Vatican Council (1962-65) neatly coincided with the political, social and psychological upheaval that gripped the Western World in the middle of the last century. The Beatles from Great Britain, the hippies at Woodstock, the march at the Selma Bridge, and the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers and the Rev. King are all emblematic of the secular turmoil generated during “the sixties.” Not to be outdone, Vatican Council II raised a few eyebrows and sparked much interest in the sacred world of religion. Catholic author Charles A. Fracchia notes that political advisor John Kenneth Galbraith considered the Second Vatican Council to be “the greatest social displacement he has observed in his lifetime.” And of course, for weal or woe, his observation is true. The 21st Ecumenical Council not only affected the world’s 1.3 billion Roman Catholics but also to a great extent, like it or not, Orthodox and Protestant Christians as well as many other people of faith. Next to the mission of Christ and the conversions of St. Paul and the Emperor Constantine, Vatican Council II might be the most significant event in the history of the Christianity – at least so far.
This week the Catholic Church celebrates the life and teachings of the believing community’s great forefathers, Saints Peter and Paul. St. Peter clearly represents the Church establishment. With Christ from the beginning of the Savior’s public life, a witness to the Transfiguration, the raising of Jairus’ daughter and the agony in the garden, he was the first to enter the empty tomb. Commissioned with Church leadership clearly in St. Matthew’s account (…on this rock…) and again in St. John’s report (…feed my lambs…), St. Peter would be the spokesperson on Pentecost and the prime authority St. Paul sought after his conversion. Simon Peter was indeed the Church’s first father.
St. Paul, by his own admission, was not part of the establishment. The Apostle frankly told the church at Corinth (15:8), “Last of all, as to one born abnormally, he appeared to me. For I am the least of the apostles, not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. ” St. Paul’s renewed religious life began on the road to Damascus with a charismatic encounter with the Risen Christ. His initial growth in the Christian life was a solitary experience in Arabia. Only later did he first seek out Peter and then the “pillars” of the Church – Peter, James and John – to confirm his status as an authentic missionary and preacher. And he was not afraid to preach truth to power, confronting St. Peter over the observance of rituals.
Pope Paul VI saw the Second Vatican Council through to its completion, signing his name to the final documents. But it fell to Pope Saint John Paul II and to Pope Benedict XVI and now to Pope Francis to adapt the Council’s declarations to the Church’s everyday life. Saint John Paul II worked and wrote tirelessly to seal the truth of the Council’s decrees. His fourteen encyclicals, especially Fides et Ratio and Veritatis Splendor as well as his Theology of the Body plumb Catholicism’s intellectual depth. Pope Benedict XVI’s three encyclicals on charity, hope and integrity, as well as his insightful biographical works on Christ, are concerned with Catholicism’s spiritual height. Now it is the chief occupation of Pope Francis to reveal Catholicism’s extensive breadth.
History will probably record Pope Francis’ most famous words as “Who am I to judge?” Readily taken out of context, these words do express an expansive understanding of Catholicism revealed also by the Pontiff’s resolve to wash women’s feet on Holy Thursday, by his trek to visit 1300 Catholics living in Mongolia, by his sympathy for those in irregular marital situations, and by his concern for the material universe. Pope Francis’ broad appreciation and application of Catholic truth are well expressed in his encyclical Fratelli Tutti. “The following pages do not claim to offer a complete teaching on fraternal love, but rather to consider its universal scope, its openness to every man and woman. I offer this social Encyclical as a modest contribution to continued reflection, in the hope that in the face of present-day attempts to eliminate or ignore others, we may prove capable of responding with a new vision of fraternity and social friendship that will not remain at the level of words. Although I have written it from the Christian convictions that inspire and sustain me, I have sought to make this reflection an invitation to dialogue among all people of good will .”(FT6)
Saints Peter and Paul played complementary roles in the ancient Church. Present day Catholicism is blessed to have recent pontiffs who ably and personally express the depth, the height, and the breadth of God’s love as found in the Roman Catholic Church.