Risen Jesus Christ surrounded by St. Peter, St. Paul and two angels by Antonis Mor. Wikipedia

Which of us is greatest?

  • May 31, 2024

Sam joined a church group which he enjoyed and found life-giving. As he got more involved, though, he found himself running up against hurts and aggravations, some familiar, some new. 

“Is it me, or is it them?” he wondered. “Are they getting in the way of what we’re doing, or am I?” He was tempted to quit and go it alone, or stay but suppress his frustration. Neither seemed quite right. 

As with the disciples who walked the earth with Jesus, belonging to Him means belonging to each other — and this raises unavoidable questions, from who gets to be in charge, to what to do when somebody starts stealing. Even with Christ at the centre, it’s not easy to be a community.  

But though we might find individual existence easier and more accessible than it was in poorer, simpler times, it’s not what our hearts desire. We’re made for community. Our hearts, made for Christ, are also made for one another. And yet we struggle mightily with each other (and, above all, with ourselves). We might wonder if it can ever work.

A liturgical response is given on the feast day shared by the two best-known apostles. Other apostles have their own days, including Matthias who was named apostle by the Eleven after Jesus’ death, and Mary Magdalene “Equal to the Apostles.” Aren’t there enough days to allow Peter and Paul each his own? They appear in other ways on the calendar, but when being honoured for their martyrdoms, they have to share. 

Tradition suggests both died on June 29, but their death dates are not certain. Still, the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul is an ancient one in the Church’s calendar. Clement, around the year 80, mentions the martyrdoms; Rome was celebrating their joint feast by the fourth century, and the universal Church by the sixth. Images for the feast show the two side-by-side, hand-in-hand or cheek-to-cheek. 

It’s not that they had similar personalities or were temperamentally fond of each other; the New Testament shows they even clashed at times. It’s that in belonging to Christ, they belonged to one another; the closer they came to the one Lord, the closer they came together. When we see them cheek-to-cheek, we see them as they are. In the process, they don’t lose their unique personalities, but receive them. 

Peter and Paul were at far ends of the social spectrum: one died brutally as a slave, the other as a privileged Roman citizen. In their mutual embrace we see that the two leaders, and their two martyrdoms, were not in competition (“which of us is the greatest?”) but together embraced one faith in one God.  

The violent deaths of these two leaders, inflicted close in time if not on precisely the same day, surely caused a crisis in the young Church. If its leadership was destroyed, wouldn’t the community be destroyed? Yet June 29, though tragic and painful, is not the end of it all. The Church came to treasure the date as something life-giving. In their different ways, each of the two was taken beyond his own weaknesses, beyond his personal capacity for betraying the one Lord, to love completely that one Lord and therefore the one Church. 

It’s within the Church’s life that we best see and hear what they direct us to. They show us our terrible capacity to betray everything that matters, and our awesome capacity to claim the one thing that matters. They show how the inner self can be renewed, so that people can become many valuable parts of one sacred body, not eternally warring against each other but eternally moving together. They help us trust the map that marks out Christian life.

Their witness was illuminated for me by praying, together with others, in the presence of their physical bones. These have been kept in honour by the Roman Church since the earliest days, when preserving them meant risking one’s life. Near Peter’s bones, in the humid heat of excavations under the basilica, silent prayer emerged into a hymn sung by all present, including the guide. At Paul’s sarcophagus outside the ancient city walls, the place where his decapitated body was secretly brought and has remained, our prayer created silence even among the milling tourists, bringing a stillness remarkable in a place of perpetual activity. Reading Paul’s words together there was like hearing the silence speak. 

“Be transformed by the renewal of your mind… think so as to have sound judgment, as God has allotted to each a measure of faith. For as in one body we have many parts, and all the parts do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ and individually parts of one another. … give preference to one another in honour, rejoice in hope, endure in affliction, persevere in prayer… exercise hospitality” Romans 12.

“Lord, you know everything.  You know that I love you!” John 21.

 (Marrocco can be reached at mary.marrocco@outlook.com.)