Who better to start our discussion on the saints than with Peter, the first pope and Prince of the Apostles? Many of us are probably familiar with his life from the Gospels, but how many of us are familiar with some of the wider traditions of his life?
Conveniently, we just heard a lot about St. Peter in the Sunday Gospels the past few weeks. Originally, he was “Simon”, until Jesus changes his name, which is actually a pretty big deal! In the Bible, only God has the authority to change names – like Abram to Abraham, Jacob to Israel, and so on. So Jesus tells Simon, “You are Peter, and upon this rock, I will build my church.” Jesus is pretty witty, actually, because Petrus (Latin) and Petros (Greek) actually mean “rock”! As the first pope, Peter really is the rock – the unifier on which Jesus lays the stones of the Church. He is usually pictured with keys, signifying that binding and loosing power that Jesus with the Church.
Now one of my pet peeves is when people, especially priests, make fun of Peter. We always joke that he was impulsive and dumb, never seeming to get what Jesus was saying. And those things are true, I guess. But St. Peter is an incredibly brave example of faith! After the Resurrection, he preached in Jerusalem for a long time, and was the first apostle to perform miracles in Jesus’ name. He then journeyed to some of the major pagan cities of the age including Antioch and Corinth, and then of course, Rome.
We know that St. Peter died in Rome in 64 AD under the Emperor Nero, and we know that he was martyred for his faith, as all the early Fathers of the Church attest. The legend is that he considered himself unworthy to die in the same manner as Christ, and so he asked to be crucified upside down. It might be easy to think that Peter’s story is all legend, but excavations under the present day St. Peter’s Basilica on the Vatican Hill have identified his ancient tomb, which was venerated even from the earliest days of the Church.
One of the most touching stories of Peter coming from our wider tradition is from the non-canonical Acts of Peter. It isn’t an official book of the Bible or anything, but it is an interesting and moving story. In this story, Peter was fleeing crucifixion in Rome, and as he was on his way out of the city, probably listening to his iPod or something to pass the time, who does he come across but Jesus! The Risen Christ was carrying a large cross and heading the other way towards the city. And Peter, shocked, asked that famous question, “Quo vadis?” “Where are you going?” Jesus smiled and answered, “I am going to Rome to be crucified again.” Moved by the Lord’s words, Peter gained the courage to bravely continue his ministry in Rome and was eventually martyred.
Even after the Ascension, Jesus doesn’t just leave us behind. Like Peter, he has commissioned us to do great things, but also like Peter, we are weak. But Christ assures us that we don’t offer ourselves alone. We walk with Christ, we offer ourselves with Christ, and we suffer with Christ. He is with us every step of the way, especially the tough steps. So take courage from the example of St. Peter, and let’s all strive to build on the firm foundations that he and his successors are for the Church!