Please see below Fr Gabriel's Homily for the martyrdom of St Peter and St Paul.
We celebrate the solemnity of the apostles Peter and Paul, commemorating their martyrdom. We celebrate feasts for both of them at other times in the year, commemorating St Paul’s conversion in January and in February Peter’s primacy over the Church, but the focus today is on their bearing witness to Christ by their brave deaths. We pray for the grace to share in their courage and so too to share in their triumph, for Christians believe they are joined to the death of Christ in order to share in his resurrection.
As I mentioned at the beginning of Mass we are celebrating the martyrdoms of St Peter and St Paul and the reason they are linked together is that their deaths are believed to have taken place in Rome. In neither case is their death directly mentioned in the New Testament. That Peter died by crucifixion is hinted at the end of St John’s Gospel, though the place is not mentioned; according to tradition he was crucified upside down in the circus of Nero and Caligula at the foot of the Vatican Hill in Rome. Evidence is scanty to say the least about how he came to be in Rome, but the tradition continues that he was buried in a necropolis built into the Vatican Hill and that is how the Vatican comes to be the key place for Catholic Christianity it is today.
St Paul’s martyrdom is presaged in our second reading of today’s Mass, his second letter to Timothy, when he writes that his life is already being poured out as a libation, that is as though it were a cup of sacrifice. In his case the tradition is that he was beheaded by the imperial authorities at a place to the south west of Rome and that he was then buried where there is now a church: St Paul’s Outside the Walls.
In both cases, as in all martyrdoms there is a double narrative at work. First there is their deaths at the hands of those who seek to destroy them, to silence their message, to oppose the faith they proclaim. It was the Roman empire of the first century in the case of Peter and Paul and it has been many empires in our world since down to our own day in the case of the long line and tradition of Christian martyrs.
But then the second narrative is that they are in fact not destroyed, their message is not silenced, their faith is not obliterated. On the contrary and in a quite mysterious way, by their deaths, by their blood, it grows and it flourishes rather than being destroyed, silenced, obliterated. Our celebration today is an evidence, a proof almost, of this. Death proves not to be the end but a gateway. So it was for Christ; so it is for his saints; so it may be for you and me.
It is therefore the case that in this Mass the texts and the readings we have heard do not in fact concentrate so much on death, which is referred to only rather allusively. Instead, the emphasis is on faith and on salvation, on rescue, on a something beyond, a kingdom to come. Peter says to Christ in the Gospel: ‘You are the Christ’, that is you are the saviour, the rescuer and that is something that the gates of the underworld let alone any earthly power and empire can never hold out against.
In the first reading Peter walked out of a prison guided by an angel – this prison was just an earthly one and as we know the day would dawn when the angel would not intervene to save Peter from his crucifixion in imitation of his Lord, but we read this morning this rescue as a symbol of a deeper rescue from the prison of death. In the psalm today there come these lines: ‘I will bless the Lord at all times, his praise always on my lips … I sought the Lord and he answered me; from all my terrors he set me free’. No tears of mourning then, no fear, but rather a song of praise and courage.