Giving of the Keys to S Peter (detail): Pietro Perugino (c.1450–1523), 1481–2; Sistine Chapel

Giving of the Keys to S Peter (detail): Pietro Perugino (c.1450–1523), 1481–2; Sistine Chapel

Fr Thomas’s homily at Mass on the Solemnity of Saint Peter & Saint Paul (28 June)

Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.

When we celebrate the Saints, whether those two great Apostles whom we mark today, or those far less familiar men and women who crop up across the year, we do not do this to exalt them as humans — what we do is praise God for the work which he has done in and through them. If there is a personal quality in Saints Peter and Paul which we should admire and seek to emulate, it is their openness to the gifts which God gave to them; it is their willingness to co-operate with the grace which he offered to them.

In both cases we find men who would very clearly have gone astray, indeed in the case of Saint Paul somebody who was so far astray that he was trying to martyr early Christians. But far more importantly we find men who tried to serve God, men who were open to his working in their lives, who were ready to be transformed by him. That is why a humble fisherman could be raised up and made into the first Pope — leading the infant Church through the various struggles we read about in Acts, facing very real threats to his life, ultimately journeying to Rome where those threats would become more than just threats. That is why a fanatical opponent of what he saw as a blasphemous sect could be turned in a short time into the greatest evangelist that sect has ever had — proclaiming tirelessly across the Roman world that message he previously denounced as blasphemy: Jesus is Lord.

What these men shared, then, was that openness to God’s working in their lives. But also they shared an encounter with Christ. For one he was summoned to be a disciple — he walked around ancient Palestine hearing his Master’s teaching, seeing the miracles which he performed, being given explanations of some of those parables, and having particular privileges such as seeing the Transfiguration. He would have got to know Christ so well, as a man. No doubt Christ’s accent, his appearance, the way he walked would all have become familiar to him. But there was also a deeper encounter — as we heard in today’s Gospel. It wasn’t through ‘flesh and blood’ that he came to recognise proclaim Christ’s divinity — the Son of the living God — it was by inspiration from God, that is to say, he had an encounter with that veiled reality which was Christ’s being part of the Godhead. His brother apostle, too, was graced by an encounter with Christ. Now there was no question of it being simply a human encounter — Christ was resurrected, and had ascended into heaven. His appearance was surrounded by great drama, knocking the persecutor about to be changed to the ground just by coming near to him.

These two apostles had missions from God — this is why they had such particular graces from God. Before Christ became incarnate he knew how we would train Saint Peter during his ministry and prepare him to be prince and leader of the apostles; he also knew how Saint Paul would be converted from persecutor to preacher. They were prepared through their lives, by the providential working of God in their lives so that when that moment came, when that encounter happened, they were ready to receive the message which Christ had for them. They would let it enter into the heart of their beings, they would let it transform them so that they could fulfil the mission which God had for them.

What was true of these great foundations of the Church can be true for us too. God has prepared us to fulfil a mission for him, he wants us to carry his message out into the world in our own particular ways. Just as these two apostles were very different characters, just as they had different (yet vital) missions; so we have our own distinct mission from God.

What we need to do is to copy these saintly forefathers. We need to have that encounter with Christ, and when it happens we need to be ready to receive his message for us. We need to have hearts which are open to God, which want to follow him, which want to let our lives by transformed by him so that we can fulfil his mission.

As they went out to fulfil their missions they didn’t have an easy time. The vestments at Mass today are red to show that blood which they poured out for him, and their deaths were at the end of a long string of lesser sufferings. But they lived lives which were united with God, and so they could bear those challenges, those sufferings. We too, if we are to fulfil our own missions need to be united with God — receiving not only the direction for that mission from him, but also the strength to fulfil it. We may not be the foundations for the Church, but we share with Saint Peter and Saint Paul a common aim — to be united with Christ, to carry out his mission, and then to join them and the rest of the Saints in heaven. Let us pray for God’s grace to support us in pursuing this journey, and for the openness of heart to follow his invitation to us.

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