When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the
Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on
earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew. 16, 13-19)
Every rite of the Catholic Church celebrates the feast day of SS. Peter and Paul on June 29, a day which is still a holy day of obligation for Byzantine Catholics. The commemoration on this day is for two different Apostles, but both are seen as first among Apostles and were martyred in the city of Rome.
From the Gospel accounts, the Epistles and the Acts of the Apostles, we know the biographies of both these great saints and are quite familiar with them. In the Gospel accounts, Peter often stands out as the Apostle who most frequently took the initiative and therefore assumed the role of leader. It is upon Peter (the Rock), that Christ declared He would establish and entrust His Church giving him keys to the Kingdom. In the Acts of the Apostles, Peter is portrayed as the undisputed leader of the primitive church who underwent enormous hardship and persecution for the sake of Christ. It has traditionally been thought that he journeyed to the capital city of Rome and was the first pope. It was in Rome that he was crucified upside down by the Emperor Nero around the year 64 A.D. It is taught that he was crucified and buried outside the city gates of Rome where St. Peter’s Basilica now stands in the Vatican.
Paul was a pharisee who belonged to the tribe of Benjamin. He was well versed in Jewish rabbinical teachings and before his conversion to Christianity was foremost among the persecutors of the early Christian Church. The known facts about his life are contained in the Acts of the apostles and his Epistles. On his way to arrest
certain Christians in Damascus Acts 9:1-9), he had a vision of the risen Lord which immediately and totally changed the course of his life. After three years of living alone in the Arabian desert, he plunged into a life of intense missionary activity. He was the first apostle to spread the Gospel to the gentiles and is thus known as the Apostle of the Gentiles. A controversy arose over whether the early Christians should convert the gentiles directly to Christianity, or if they should become Jews, through circumcision), first. Paul directly opposed Peter on this point in a meeting of the Apostles and church elders in Jerusalem. After that Paul continued his
missionary activity and underwent much persecution and imprisonment. Because Paul was a Roman citizen, he demanded to be tried in Rome where he was beheaded and buried outside the city gates of Rome in 67 A.D.
It is rather interesting how June 29 became the date on which we celebrate the memory of these two prime Apostles. The earliest source we lave for this feast is the Martyrologium Hieronymianum of the year 354 A.D. “his manuscript speaks about a local commemorative service held in honor of SS. Peter and Paul on June 29,
258 A.D. It was during this year that the persecution of the Christian religion was most severe under the Roman Emperor Valerian. It has been speculated that the Christians, fearing that the resting places of these most honored Apostles would be violated and desecrated, carried the remains of the Apostle Peter from the Vatican
Hills and Paul’s remains from the road to Ostia and brought them to the catacombs of St. Sebastian on the Via Appia outside of Rome. Thus, the practice of remembering these two Apostles on June 29 dates back to a local Roman practice which spread to the whole of Christianity. This is one example of an ancient and acceptable practice of our rite which is directly due to Latin influence. What does our Byzantine tradition say about the two saints? This can be gained from studying the liturgical
texts from the vespers and matins for this feast day. Sadly enough, most of our parishes no longer avail themselves of the great catechetical possibilities which the mere celebration of vespers and matins affords.
These two apostles, seen to be of equal importance and greatness, are described together as doctors of the world, the two infallible preachers of divine truth and as leaders of the Apostles. There are other descriptions also, but the aspect that stands out most notably is that they were the greatest teachers and dispensers of the
revelation received from Jesus Christ. They are also described as the two tablets of the New Covenant and two great luminaries of the Church, further emphasizing their place as the most important sources from which we have received teachings and ways of Jesus Christ.
The Church’s teaching on divine revelation is that the Apostles received the full revelation of Christ as a result of their closeness to Him, knowing Him personally. This primary revelation ended with the death of the last Apostle and since then the Church has been expounding on it and clarifying it. Rightfully so, since these two
Apostles were seen as the leaders: Peter is the rock upon which the Church was built and Paul is the Apostle to the Gentiles and writer of many magnificent Epistles which hold a large and important place in the New Testament.
Finally, this feast day is followed by the Synaxis of the 12 Apostles. A synaxis refers to a certain commemoration falling on the day immediately after a great feast which honors some person closely connected with the theme of the feast itself. This feast day commemorating all the Apostles concludes the celebration of SS. Peter and
Paul by emphasizing their importance and their preeminence over the other Apostles. It is especially from these two, along with the other Apostles, that the deposit of faith has been handed down from them to the Church and to us today.