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The “Two Primacies”

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

The Feast Of Saints Peter And Paul: June 29, 2016 (Year C)

by Fr. David M. Knight


Why do we celebrate Peter and Paul together? Why does Eucharistic Prayer I place Paul at the head of the list of Apostles with Peter, when he was not one of the Twelve? (While Matthias, who was one, is in the second list with Barnabas!)


The Responsorial (Psalm 34) focuses us on confidence: “The Lord set me free from all my fears.” The Opening Prayer identifies our trust: “Through Peter and Paul the Church first received the faith. Keep us true to their teaching.”

Acts 12:1-11 shows us God breaking Peter out of jail. We can be sure Peter was scared, because Herod, who arrested him, had just “had James, the brother of John, killed with the sword.” And he was going to “bring him [Peter] out to the people after the Passover” for trial. Peter had no reason to think God would protect him any more than he had James.

But there was a reason Peter could not guess at. Peter had to die in Rome. Why? Because Paul was going to die there, and both of them had to die in the same place. Why? And why in Rome? Nothing in the Gospels gives Rome any particular importance. Jesus never even mentioned Rome. And after his resurrection he only spoke its name once, when in Acts 23:11 he said to Paul: “Keep up your courage! For just as you have testified for me in Jerusalem, so you must bear witness also in Rome.” He does not say why. There was nothing sacred about the city at the time. Rome became sacred only because Peter and Paul died there.

Because they died in united witness to the same faith, Rome became a symbol of the unity of the Church.

Peter and Paul could have — and by normal human standards predictably would have — divided the Church. Peter had the authority from Jesus himself to govern the Church and keep it faithful to what the original Twelve had seen and heard “beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up” (Acts 1:22). Paul wasn’t one of those original witnesses. But he proclaimed himself “an apostle —sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead.” He said he did not receive the Gospel he preached “from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ”:

“When God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me…” precisely to “proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me.” This could have set him on a collision course with Peter. But instead, they each recognized the complimentary “primacy” of the other.

Peter had the authority to declare what was and was not consistent with the teaching of Jesus. But Paul had a mandate from God himself to preach what the Spirit taught him, and it went far deeper into the truth that Peter understood.

Deeper but not against. Paul adds, “Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days… after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem… in response to a revelation. Then I laid before them (though only in a private meeting with the acknowledged leaders) the gospel that I proclaim among the Gentiles, in order to make sure that I was not running, or had not run, in vain.”

Had Paul not done that, there would have been two churches; one governed by Peter, the other inspired by Paul. And even if they had all believed the same thing, they would not have been in fellowship, and they would not have benefited from the sharing of their charisms. Peter was the link to the historical Jesus. His was the last word on what was consistent with the Gospel as Jesus preached it. But Paul’s charism was to be an equally authoritative channel for the development of that teaching by the risen Jesus, speaking through the Holy Spirit. Jesus promised the Twelve that the “Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name,” would not only “remind you of all that I have said to you,” but would also “teach you everything” (John 14:26). In no one was that more obvious than in Paul.

There we have; what we might call the ‘primacy of Paul.’ …It was charismatic rather than institutional. Paul was the one who bore witness to the absolute, radical authority of the Word over everything and everyone, even over him to whom the Lord had committed leadership… within the apostolic group. The fact of Paul’s unique calling shows how God’s grace transcends every institution (J. M. R. Tillard, O.P., The Bishop of Rome, Glazier, 1986, pp. 74-117).

The Twelve could have split the Church too, had they refused to recognize the authority of the Spirit in Paul. But the Spirit of unity prevailed: “When they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel for the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel for the circumcised… and when James and Cephas and John, who were acknowledged pillars, recognized the grace that had been given to me, they gave to Barnabas and me the right hand of fellowship, agreeing that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. They asked only one thing, that we remember the poor, which was actually what I was eager to do” (Galatians 1:11 to 2:10).

God arranged that this unity would be sealed dramatically when Peter and Paul both died in united witness to the same Gospel in Rome. That is what made Rome what it is.

Rome now became the place of total, perfect confession of the apostolic faith, with no split in its faithfulness both to its roots in the historical group which Jesus had gathered during his earthly ministry [through Peter] and to the new experience of the Spirit of the resurrection [through Paul]. Hence the privilege of this local church, and so of her See and cathedra. Hence also her special calling: the communion of the witness of Peter and that of Paul which had been entrusted to her — engraved in her, so that she became the ‘living memory’ among all the churches. Her bishop would have the responsibility of becoming guardian of and spokesman for all that is implied by such a privilege and calling” (Tillard, ibid).

The Responsorial (Psalm 34) that follows the first reading is a cry of confidence in God: “The Lord set me free from all my fears.” Peter must have echoed it when the angel set him free of his chains. And in 2Timothy 4:6-18 Paul is saying the same thing in his prison in Rome, from which he knows that only death will deliver him: “As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come.”

But he makes it clear that the Lord has “set him free from all his fears” — from all the ones that matter, at least: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”

In the sentence before this, he spoke to Timothy of his real fear: “The time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.” His real fear was division in the Church, separation caused by people choosing their own teachers instead of heeding the ones God appointed.

This is the danger from which God rescued Paul himself by maintaining him in union with Peter and the original community of believers. His own experience gave him confidence that the same Lord who “stood by me and gave me power, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it.” would continue to preserve the Church until “that Day “ when “the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me the crown of righteousness” and not only to Paul “but also to all who have longed for his Appearing.” And so he urges Timothy, “Proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching…. be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully” (2Timothy 4:2-5).

In Matthew 16:13-19 Jesus says to Simon, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church. And the gates of the underworld can never hold out against it.” This gives us confidence when authority and inspiration seem to be in conflict. The Church will stand united because it is founded both on Peter and on Paul. In traditional writings they are called the “two Coryphaei” or “leaders of the chorus.” The church (diocese) of Rome was founded on them both. That is why we celebrate their feastday together.

Insight: How are the distinct charisms of Peter and Paul seen in the Church today?

Initiative: Give God’s life - Be both open to the Spirit and faithful to the teaching of the Church.

Reflections brought to you by the Immersed in Christ Ministry

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