Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The One Heritage of Peter and Paul

When I was a language student in Rome during the Jubilee Year of 2000 (What star was I born under?) I made a point of taking in as many religious and cultural sights as I could. Fortunately the superior of the FSP student community urged me to get my fill, knowing that it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I didn’t need any prodding.

In keeping with the best of their tradition, Italian cultural organizations and, at times, civic circles collaborated with the Vatican on a number of outstanding projects for residents and Jubilee pilgrims alike. One of my favorites was Pietro e Paolo, an exhibition of epigraphs, objets d’art, and archaeological artifacts related to the story, cult, and memory of Sts. Peter and Paul in Rome during the first four centuries of the Church’s existence.

Sr. Anne Joan (Nunblog) and I made the excursion together. After soaking up everything in sight, I spoke about the exhibition at school a few days later, announcing that I had every intention of making a second visit. One of my classmates, a young Buddhist from Japan, asked if she could go with me. She was just as impressed with the exhibit and told one of her friends, who wanted to go too. So I went a third time! It was gratifying to watch the first student explain the exhibit to the second. Not knowing Japanese, I had no idea what they were really saying, but (at risk of projecting) I bet Peter and Paul were pleased. The young women couldn’t get enough. We ended up traipsing to sites nearby that are connected with Japanese Catholicism: the Church of the Gesù and St. Francis Xavier’s reliquary, then to the Church of the Holy Apostles, where St. Maximilian Kolbe used to serve Mass when he was a student at the Gregorian University. Peter and Paul have spawned centuries of missionary ardor and show no signs of letting up.

The way in which these two Apostles hover over the Eternal City, the degree to which they infuse its character, defies description. Faith and culture even among non-Christians reflect their influence. One of my language instructors, a self-declared unbeliever in his thirties who specialized in art and iconography, groused about how tourists can’t seem to grasp the gravitational pull of the Apostles’ faith on Romans’ daily life, especially when it touches the papacy.

In the U.S. even many active Catholics unintentionally try to rupture this symbiosis of life and devotion, usually at Paul’s expense. They equate fidelity to the Church with adherence to Peter (and Peter’s successor) and give a nod in Paul’s direction almost as an afterthought. It’s not like that in Rome. For example, in the mid-third century, for reasons not entirely clear, Christians began gathering on June 29 at what later became known as the catacombs of St. Sebastian, to honor the two Apostles with the traditional refrigerium, or Roman ritual meal honoring the deceased. This place of pilgrimage came to be called the Memoria apostolorum. The annual pilgrimage formed the historical basis for the solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul that the Church celebrates today. I also discovered at Pietro e Paolo that since the fourth century, both Apostles have been artistically pictured together in the concordia apostolorum, symmetrically represented in various works of art as an expression of the unity between the Church—and empire—of East and West. The most famous of these is their embrace at the gates of Rome just before their martyrdom.

We know that both men were passionate about this unity of persons, faith, and life in the Church; they gave their lives for it. In addition, we have especially from St. Paul’s epistles some of the most fundamental teachings on this essential element of the Church. This unity covers everything, from belief, to liturgy, to morality, to ecclesial structure. It informed Paul’s evangelization and pastoral practice including, of all things, his approach to fundraising.

Probably the best known example was the collection for the Church in Jerusalem, mentioned in Acts 11:27ff. and alluded to in chapter 8 of his second letter to the Corinthians and in Galatians 2:10. Apart from the opportunity it afforded Paul to smooth the feathers he had ruffled in the mother Church over the argument on justification, it also clearly demonstrated in action the position he had always maintained: that gentile Christians were now co-heirs of God’s favor with Jewish Christians, united in a common faith and a common destiny. It gave the Christians of Asia Minor and Greece a chance, however symbolic, to give something in return for the riches of grace they had received through Jerusalem. Nothing provincial or parochial here. They recognized a need in a Church they would never visit and where they knew no one; yet they rose to the occasion, even at great cost to themselves.

The manner of Paul’s fundraising, too, expressed this same concern for unity. He preferred to accept a gift from a community, rather than one from an individual. He was not averse to accepting support, though it was a point of honor that he supplied his needs and those of his companions with the work of his hands (cf. Acts 20:34 and blog post of 1/26). As he affirmed, this practice of his in the community stemmed from his desire to be free from pressure to conform the content of “his” Gospel to any one benefactor’s sensibilities (cf. 1Cor. 9:12ff.)—a pitfall that many a thinker and teacher fell into in that period.

Society of St. Paul, Daughters of St. Paul, and friends on
SSP grounds, Staten Island, NY, 2009
It follows that the Pauline Family would also want to be marked by this free and united spirit in our life, our mission, and our very structure. Nine institutes and the Association of Pauline Cooperators comprise the Family: several charisms, or gifts for building up the Church, within the one Pauline charism. There’s the point. To “edify”—using Paul’s word—doesn’t mean to impress, but to build up in unity. Whether we pray, minister, lie in a sickbed, or study, whether we spend our days working within our own community or collaborating with each other’s institutes, whether we raise funds for our needs or those of the mission, the purpose is to build up the Church for the blessing of the world.

Today as we contemplate these two pillars of the Church, our prayer could be to re-commit ourselves to the Church’s unity in all aspects of our lives, even the seemingly most mundane. With the grace that comes through that prayer, together we can all be the sign of unity in Christ that God intends for the healing of our often fragmented world.
If you're in New York on August 7, join us for the first annual St. Paul Friends & Family Fest! A Mass, barbecue, games, and prizes are planned so your friends and family can meet ours. Click the button at right for details.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Sr. Margaret,

    Many thanks for sharing. This is an eye-opener and ice-breaker.

    As a Christian, let us be guided by Jesus, Divine Master, Way, Truth and Life. The choices we make in life could be discerned whether it is pleasing to Our Creator. Each day, may God help us to know Him, love Him and serve Him more and more. Amen. Reading the Bible helps me, I would recommend it to all.

    I hope to see you in New York on August 7, 2011. Let us celebrate with Friends and Family of St. Paul!!!

    Margie Skeels
    Pauline Cooperator


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