Peter, Paul, and Rome

Peter and Paul met in Jerusalem at least twice; the paths of both were ultimately to converge in Rome. Why? Might this be something more than pure chance? Might this contain a lasting message?

Paul arrived in Rome as a prisoner but, at the same time, as a Roman citizen who, precisely as such, after his arrest in Jerusalem had appealed to the Emperor to whose tribunal he was taken. However, in a deeper sense Paul came to Rome of his own free will. Through some of his most important Letters he had already become inwardly close to this city: he had addressed to the Church in Rome the writing that sums up the whole of his proclamation and his faith better than any other. In the initial greeting of this Letter he says that the faith of the Christians of Rome is being talked about in all the world and is, therefore, reputed everywhere to be exemplary (cf. Romans 1:8). He then writes: “I want you to know, brethren, that I have often intended to come to you (but thus far have been prevented)” (1:13). At the end of the Letter he returns to this topic, now speaking of his project of a journey to Spain. “I hope to see you in passing as I go to Spain, and to be sped on my journey there by you, once I have enjoyed your company for a little” (15:24). “And I know that when I come to you I shall come in the fullness of the blessing of Christ” (15:29). These are two things that become obvious: for Paul, Rome was a stopping place on the way to Spain, in other words – according to his conception of the world – on his way to the extreme edge of the earth. He considers his mission to be the fulfillment of the task assigned to him by Christ, to take the Gospel to the very ends of the world. Rome lay on his route. Whereas Paul usually went to places where the Gospel had not yet been proclaimed, Rome was an exception. He found there a Church whose faith was being talked about across the world. Going to Rome was part of the universality of his mission as an envoy to all peoples. The way that led to Rome, which already prior to his external voyage he had traveled inwardly with his Letter, was an integral part of his duty to take the Gospel to all the peoples – to found the catholic or universal Church. For him, going to Rome was an expression of the catholicity of his mission. Rome had to make the faith visible to the whole world, it had to be the meeting place of the one faith.

But why did Peter go to Rome? The New Testament says nothing about this directly. Yet it gives us some hints. The Gospel according to St. Mark, which we may consider a reflection of St. Peter’s preaching, focuses closely on the moment when the Roman centurion, who, in the light of Jesus Christ’s death on the Cross, said: “Truly this man was the Son of God!” (15:39). By the Cross the mystery of Jesus Christ was revealed. Beneath the Cross the Church of the peoples was born: the centurion of the Roman platoon in charge of his execution recognized Christ as the Son of God. The Acts of the Apostles describe the episode of Cornelius, a centurion of the Italic cohort, as a crucial stage for the entry of the Gospel into the Gentile world. On a command from God, Cornelius sent someone to fetch Peter, and Peter, also following a divine command, went to the centurion’s house and preached there. While he was speaking the Holy Spirit descended on the domestic community that had gathered and Peter said: “Can any one forbid water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (Acts 10:47). Thus at the Council of the Jerusalem, Peter became the intercessor for the Church of the Gentiles, who had no need of the Law, because God had “cleansed their hearts by faith” (Acts 15:9). Of course, in the Letter to the Galatians Paul says God empowered Peter for the apostolic ministry among the circumcised, and instead empowered him, Paul, for the ministry to the Gentiles (2:8). This assignment however could only be in force while Peter remained with the Twelve in Jerusalem in the hope that all Israel would adhere to Christ. As they faced the further development, the Twelve recognized when it was time for them, too, to set out for the whole world to proclaim the Gospel. Peter who, complying with God’s order, had been the first to open the door to pagans, now left the leadership of the Christian-Jewish Church to James the Lesser in order to dedicate himself to his true mission: the ministry for the unity of the one Church of God formed by Jews and pagans. Among the Church’s characteristics, St. Paul’s desire to go to Rome places emphasis – as we have seen – on the word “catholic“. St. Peter’s journey to Rome, as representative of the world’s peoples, comes especially under the word “one“: his task was to create the unity of the catholica, the Church formed by Jews and pagans, the Church of all the peoples. And this is Peter’s ongoing mission: to ensure that the Church is never identified with a single nation, with a single culture or with a single State but is always the Church of all; to ensure that she reunites humanity over and above every boundary and, in the midst of the divisions of this world, makes God’s peace present, the reconciling power of his love. Thanks to technology that is the same everywhere, thanks to the world information network and also thanks to the connection of common interests, in the world today new forms of unity exist; yet they spark new disputes and give a new impetus to the old ones. In the midst of this external unity, based on material things, our need for the inner unity which comes from God’s peace is all the greater – the unity of all those who have become brothers and sisters through Jesus Christ. This is Peter’s permanent mission and also the specific task entrusted to the Church of Rome.

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