What Saints Peter and Paul teach us

Given by Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde for the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul at Saint Jude Syro-Malabar Church in Centreville.

I treasure a small icon given to me as a gift, depicting Saints Peter and Paul embracing one another. Their embrace reveals their unity or one-ness of faith in the Lord Jesus and of love for Him and His Church. Indeed, they were one, yet very diverse in their temperaments, talents and roles of service within the Church. Nonetheless, each one - Saint Peter and Saint Paul - is clearly a model for us to imitate as we travel together, disciples of Christ Jesus united in faith and in love.

Saint Peter was - and is - the source of unity within the Community of Christ's Disciples, the Church. He is the source of unity in faith. When Jesus Christ asked His disciples at Caesarea Philippi: "But who do you say that I am?", it was Peter alone who professed: "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." Authentic disciples of Jesus Christ are united fundamentally by their profession of this same act of faith: "You are the Christ, the Messiah, the Savior, the Very Son of the Living God."

Saint Peter is also the source of unity in leadership within the Church. In response to his profession of faith, the Lord Jesus clearly announced: "... and so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the Kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." By these words, the Lord Jesus appointed and confirmed Saint Peter to be the visible head of the Church, His Vicar on earth, the first among equals within the College of Apostles.

This role of leadership has continued down through the centuries; each successor of Saint Peter, the one who is the Bishop of Rome, the one we call "Holy Father" or "Pope": he is the visible sign of unity in leadership within the Church Universal. Authentic disciples of Jesus Christ are united fundamentally by their communion with Saint Peter's successor.

Saint Peter is likewise the source of unity among all Christ's disciples: forming as they do the Universal Church as well as forming a particular diocesan Church. This unity is achieved through the union of each diocesan Church with the Church of Rome and all the other diocesan Churches. Every Eucharistic Prayer expresses this communion when it directly and clearly prays for unity between Francis our Pope and Paul our Bishop, by the members of the Arlington Diocese, or Jacob our Bishop, by the members of your Syro-Malabar Catholic Diocese of Chicago.

Saint Paul was - and is - the icon of evangelization. Persecutor of Christians turned convert, Saint Paul was irresistibly drawn to Jesus Christ and became passionately in love with Him. This conversion and deeply personal union with Jesus within the Community of the Disciples impelled Saint Paul to proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior to everyone and to the farthest bounds of his world. Yes, Saint Paul was passionate, zealous, determined, on fire with love for God and others, on fire to evangelize! And he remained so to the end, as we heard again in today's second reading: "I, Paul, am already being poured out like a libation, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith. From now on the crown of righteousness awaits me, which the Lord, the just judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me, but to all who have longed for his appearance. The Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the proclamation might be completed and all the Gentiles might hear it."

So, what lessons can we learn from Saints Peter and Paul?

(1) Saint Peter: Are we united by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ? Each day, through countless circumstances we are being asked: "Who do you say that I, Jesus Christ, am?" What is our real response? Our actions tell us! Are we united with the leadership within the Church? With our Holy Father, and with our proper bishop? Their style or approach in accidentals does not really matter. Are we listening to their teaching about faith and morals? Are we seeking to foster unity in faith by our concrete witness in daily life? Do we give to the Lord and to His chosen representatives our "obedience of faith"?

(2) Saint Paul: Are we daily seeking to be turned towards Jesus Christ more fully, to be converted, to be re-evangelized? Do we experience the joy of the Gospel, a joy rooted in our daily encounter with Jesus Christ? Are we eager to share the love of Jesus Christ and His message of hope and life with others? In a word, are we heralds and protagonists of the New Evangelization, our hearts on fire?

As members of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Diocese of Chicago, and this local visible expression, the Saint Jude Catholic Church here in Centreville, are you on fire to proclaim by your daily witness: "You are Christ, the Son of the Living God" and to invite everyone to come to know and love Jesus within the Community of His Disciples, the Church?

One final lesson to be learned. We are in the midst of the United States Bishops' third Fortnight for Freedom, an extended period, from June 21 through July 4, for us to pray, to become more informed, to dialogue, and to witness for the cause of religious freedom, here in our own country and beyond. The freedom of religion is the first freedom. When the answer to the question "Who am I?" is "a disciple of Jesus Christ," then every other action of ours flows from that identity. If I am not free to answer God's call to love fully as Christ's disciples, then all my other freedoms lose their meaning. Why have free speech if we cannot speak in praise of God? Why have freedom of association if we cannot gather as two or three and have Christ present among us?

It is our first freedom not simply as Catholics, but also as Americans. It is our first freedom because it comes first in our Bill of Rights - the guarantee of our freedom from an established state church and our freedom to exercise our religion without state interference. It is our first freedom as Americans because it was the reason why the first settlers came from England, so that they might be free to practice their beliefs free from the threat of oppression and governmental coercion.

At the same time, we can never allow our rights - even our right to freely worship - to become merely a political club by which we beat back our political or ideological enemies. We have rights in freedom because we have duties in love. Freedom of religion is not rooted merely in some sense of personal spiritual fulfillment. It flows from the duties we have as children of God to respond to His providence.

We serve our brothers and sisters, our neighbors and friends, our community and country best when we exemplify Christ the obedient Son who carries out the will of the Father. Our country is stronger and our people better when Christians are free to be images of Christ to the world, in our faith in God and our charity towards others. We know that our religious freedom is not some selfish design to fulfill our own plans, but our generous response to the love we have received from God. And so we insist on our rights in liberty not simply for our own sake, but for our neighbors and for the generations to follow. This is freedom's ideal - that we are free to pursue the truly good, and so to serve the common good. This is why the theme for this year's Fortnight for Freedom is "Freedom to Serve." Please make your voices known in upholding and defending religious freedom.

Yes, the icon of Saints Peter and Paul is much more than a beautiful image of these two saints embracing each other in the unity of faith and love, although it is that in a very concrete way. The icon is the call and challenge to imitate Saints Peter and Paul, surrendering in faith to Jesus Christ, Lord and Savior; proclaiming Christ to everyone; and upholding and defending religious freedom. It is fundamentally and ultimately to live what we believe, not only in the private sector of religious worship, but also in the public square of concrete witness and involvement - for the common good and the salvation of the world!

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2014