Today we celebrate the lives of Saints Peter and Paul. Here is a special reflection on each Saint by Sr Petra of Stanbrook Abbey at Wass, North Yorkshire, which is pictured above. The Abbey website is https://www.stanbrookabbey.org.uk
On their feast day this year there will be no great gatherings in St Peter’s square in celebration of these pillars of the Church. So this reflection will be on their faith journeys and their experience of Christ. He turned their lives upside down – and made them beacons for us. Both these saints knew what it was to live through crisis. And both found that crisis became grace for them. As we live in a time of crisis, let us turn to them.
St Peter was a Galilean fisherman, called by Jesus with his brother Andrew from their nets to become ‘fishers of men’. They became disciples of the itinerant preacher Jesus, sharing his ministry of healing and preaching. Though Peter has a moment of insight when he acclaims Jesus ‘Son of God’, he never fully understands that, as Messiah, Jesus must suffer and die. As the time for Christ’s passion draws near, Peter protests he would never forsake Jesus, but the Lord knows his weakness and prophesies that before the cock crows that night he will have denied him three times (Matt 26: 34). And so it is. Peter’s moment of crisis comes after the arrest of Jesus when he follows him to the High Priest’s courtyard and is recognised by his Galilean accent. Three times he is challenged that he is a disciple and three times he denies it. At the last denial the cock crows Peter goes out and ‘weeps bitterly’. In this moment he recognises his cowardice and weakness. It is a terrible moment of grief, but also of grace because it brings him self-knowledge.
After the Lord’s resurrection, we see the moment of Peter’s forgiveness. He and six other disciples have gone fishing and they see a stranger on the shore who tells them to set the net on the right side of the boat and they will make a catch. The catch is enormous, 153 fish! At this John says, ‘It is the Lord’ and Peter flings himself into the sea to reach Jesus first. Then Jesus asks him three times, ‘Do you love me?’ ‘Yes, Lord, you know I love you’, replies Peter. And each time the Lord commissions him, ‘Feed my lambs, feed my sheep…’ The three affirmations of love cancel out the betrayal and Peter becomes a man reborn through Jesus’ forgiveness.
When we see him again, after Pentecost, Peter is a man transformed by love of the Lord. He preaches the resurrection of Jesus and the grace of new life for all who believe. The gateway is through baptism: ‘Repent and be baptised…..This message is for you who are near and you who are far off…’.
The message of Christ is universal, inclusive. Peter now understands the mystery of Christ’s passion. His whole life is given to preaching the mystery of Jesus Christ and eventually he dies for his faith, suffering crucifixion for Jesus, Son of God.
How different is St Paul! The son of Pharisees, he was brought up in strict Jewish orthodoxy. We first hear of him as a dreaded and merciless persecutor of Christians. Indeed, he is on this mission to Damascus when he is struck down on the road by a blinding light and a voice that calls him by name: ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ ‘Who are you, Lord?’ he asks and is answered, ‘ I am Jesus, and you are persecuting me’ ( Acts 9: 7). This is the great crisis in Saul’s life. Blinded by the vision, he has to be led by the hand into Damascus where he remains blind for three days. It is only when the Christian Ananias is sent to him by God and lays healing hands on him that Saul regains his sight (Acts 9:12) The fearful Ananias (he knows Saul’s terrifying reputation), is told by God that this unlikely man ‘is my chosen instrument. I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name’ (Acts 9: 17). So Saul receives his sight not only physically but spiritually. He is baptized, becomes Paul, and is received into the Christian community. From this time until his death he never ceases to preach the mystery of Christ crucified and how Christ appeared to him and made him his apostle. The crisis has become revelation and conversion: ‘For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and consider them so much rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ: that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings becoming like him in his death’ (Philippians 3: 8-10).
Through grace the ruthless self-righteousness in Paul’s nature is transformed into a self-sacrificing love. He can even speak of himself as a ‘mother’, tenderly rearing and tending his Christian communities. He suffers beatings, imprisonment and finally martyrdom for his Lord, and all with great joy.
Both these great saints were de-centred by the grace of personal crisis in their lives. Peter was transformed when he recognised his own sinfulness and cowardice. His shame allowed him to receive Jesus’ forgiveness and to live a life preaching love and faith in the resurrected Christ. Paul suddenly saw Christ, Son of God, in the Christians he was persecuting. In a moment of crisis so great that he was blinded by it, it was revealed to him that Christ lives in all the baptized. From then he lived and preached the mystery of Jesus alive in his Church.
It is because Jesus himself taught Peter and Paul the truth about themselves that they could be transformed by love and spend the rest of their lives in total self-giving for his sake. This is why they are great saints. For to be a saint is to shine with God’s love. And to draw others to live in that love which is the Church.
Saints Peter and Paul teach us that God is in all that happens to us if we have eyes to see. He is there is the times of grief and suffering. He is there in the times of joy. He is present even in the crisis of the pandemic. May these great saints intercede for us and open our eyes to the glory of God.