chapter six

"Thou art Peter and upon this Rock I will build My Church."

    In the last issue, we dealt with the embryo years of the Church, the persecutions of Saul, the ultimate conversion of Saint Paul and the vast good he wrought in evangelizing the Word of Jesus Christ to all he could. A hierarchy was forming with Saint Peter as the head in fulfillment of Christ's words to him, "Thou art Peter and upon this Rock I will build My Church" (Matthew 16:18). It was Simon the Rock who had been charged by Christ to "Feed My sheep" (cf. John 21: 17). History, mixed with legend, has it that in July of 64 AD Peter had been persuaded to flee Rome and escape the persecution of the Emperor Nero. As he was fleeing along the Appian Way he met a familiar figure going toward Rome. Peter asked, "Where are you going?" or in Latin "Quo vadis?" and the traveler replied, "I am going to Rome to be crucified afresh." He at once recognized Christ's voice Who was returning to Rome to be re-crucified for the faith because His Christian children were suffering so there in Rome. The account brought back horrendous memories of Peter's denial of Christ during his Lord's trial and he resolved it would not happen again, thus Peter did an about face and headed back toward Rome. Hoping to catch up with the traveler who had sounded so like his Master, he realized He had vanished and had come to remind Peter of his mission for Christ's Church.

    As we see in Acts of the Apostles and again in 1 Peter and 2 Peter, he had been the leader in Jerusalem and had also conducted missionary activity. There are no accurate accounts of where he went for sure but some reports from Acts and Galatians had him in Joppa, Caesarea and Antioch. He didn't always see eye to eye with Paul and that's nothing new. Not only was Peter a fiery, obstinate soul but he possessed a personality that was set in his ways. He was not always open to the ideas of St. Paul who adapted to each community he evangelized while still asserting the rigidness of Christianity. While Paul was not afraid of his Jewish brethren and openly spoke out, Peter was more timid as Paul recorded in Galatians 2: 12. In addition, there was tension - albeit jealousy between these two early pillars of the Church. Author John Jay Hughes writes in "Pontiffs: Popes who shaped history" that, "Paul was indignant for two reasons. First because Peter, the 'apostle to the Jews' (Galatians 2:8), had exceeded his jurisdiction by laying down rules for Gentile Christians. More serious in Paul's eyes, however, was the question of principle: the conduct of Peter and those who sided with him 'did not square with the truth of the gospel' (Galatians 2:14). We must beware of reading back into the first century, issues that belong to later history. There was no question at Antioch of 'appealing to Peter as the supreme authority.' Such an appeal would be possible only after centuries of historical development, including (Catholics believe) the Church's Spirit-guided reflection on this development. Then, however, a pattern visible in this early dispute at Antioch would be repeated. Not infrequently a holder of Peter's office has rejected the impassioned plea of a prophetically gifted defender of the faith who was right in principle, but whose position, if adopted at that time and place, would have injured the Church's unity."

    There is no doubt, from all our research, that different Christian factions, for either political or cultural purposes, played Paul against Peter and vice-versa. You might say they robbed Peter to pay Paul and vice-versa. Hughes substantiates this from the events in Corinth when he writes, "Some of the Corinthian Christians were appealing to Peter's authority as superior to Paul's. It is noteworthy, however, especially in view of the previous difficulties at Antioch, that Paul blames these divisions not on Peter but on the immaturity of certain members of the Corinthian Church." This is evident in Corinthians when Paul confirms the dissension in 1 Corinthians 10: "Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all say the same thing; and that there be no dissensions among you,...for I have been informed about you...each of you says, I am of Paul, or I am of Apollos, or I am of Cephas (Peter), or I am of Christ. Has Christ been divided up?" Paul further chastises them when he writes in 1 Corinthians 3: 1, "And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual men but only as carnal, as to little ones in Christ." By the latter he was putting them down as being bickering children arguing about things that they needed to be united on. Peter had no problem with this and on this both Peter and Paul were in full agreement.

    Both were reunited in Rome where Peter returned to visit Paul in prison. Paul and Peter had come together to Rome from the east. They had met at Corinth and traveled together to support and encourage the many Christians being put to death. After Paul was sentenced to death, Peter was persuaded to escape for he was the leader of the Church. As we know, it was on the Appian Way just outside of Rome where Peter in the accounts of "Quo Vadis", a 1895 novel written by Polish author Henryk Sienkiewicz and turned into a major motion picture in the 1950's, came to grip with the fact that he, too, would be a martyr for his Master. It wasn't half-hearted, but a full commitment for Peter did nothing half-heartedly. Many attribute Sienkiewicz work with the influence of the Acts of Peter, a work many believe was composed before the end of the second century somewhere in Asia Minor. Its origins are sketchy and its accuracy questioned, but there is no arguing the fact that Peter was so stubborn that he aggravated the Roman soldiers inside the prison, provoking their wrath further by openly proclaiming Christ and evangelizing within the prison walls. The Roman historian Tacitus relates that Nero wanted to exact revenge on Peter and his followers in retaliation for the great fire in Rome a year earlier. He also asserts that Peter was not among the mass of Christians persecuted in the great circus as part of Nero's revenge. Had he been, it is unlikely his bones would have been recovered. Rather, it is thought Peter was held up for example to dishearten his Christian followers by being publicly crucified alone. Again, Peter's arrogance against the Roman soldiers is confirmed in his fiestiness all the way to the cross where he pleaded with them to hang him upside down. Modern historians attribute that to his saying he was not worthy to be crucified as His Savior was, but earlier historians, knowing the personality of Peter and his competitive nature hint that he was just one-upping Paul's death. Paul, who had become a Roman citizen was beheaded by the sword. Peter, some say, wanted to go Paul one better by being crucified with his head down. We will never truly know the reasons, and they're not important. What is important is that Peter and Paul's blood nourished the seeds of Christianity for every generation to come.

    Historians set Peter's death between 65 and 68 AD. A memorial was established at Peter's tomb on Vatican Hill around 140 AD by Roman Christians who knew the site. As centuries rolled by, the tomb was lost and it wasn't until this century that excavation began in search of Peter's tomb. From 1940 through 1949 efforts went unrewarded. A second excavation was ordered from 1953 to 1957. Pope Paul VI, on June 26, 1968, confirmed to the world that the bones of Peter, after having been carefully analyzed and carbon-dated, had been found to be that of the first pope - the Apostle whom Jesus had charged to lead His Church. Today one can venerate his tomb in the crypt directly under the main altar in St. Peter's Basilica. Though some question whether those truly are Peter's bones, the majority believe. Besides, it isn't vital to our faith if those are the bones or not for we must heed the words of the Angel in Luke 24: 5, "Why do you seek the Living One among the dead?" The body of Peter lies somewhere below the Vatican, but the spirit of Peter lives on in his successors, permeating not only the Holy See but every corner of the earth.

    In chapter seven, we will treat the rest of the first century and Peter's immediate successors as the Church takes root from the seat of Rome.