"Thou art Peter and upon this Rock I will build My Church."
The sixth installment of this mega-part series on the History of the Mass and Holy Mother Church
treats the course of Simon Peter the Rock and how, despite petty bickering among the disciples
and the early Christians, both Peter and Paul rose above their humanity to launch Christ's Church into history, establishing Rome as the seat of Christianity. Peter is credited with two Epistles and
assisted Saint Mark with his Gospel. Given a second chance to not deny Christ, Peter returned to
Rome to be crucified after having labored for 25 years with Paul in building up Holy Mother Church.
In the last installment, 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, some contend such as John Jay Hughes in his book, "Pontiffs: Popes who shaped history," that there was tension - albeit jealousy
between these two early pillars of the Church. Hughes wrote 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). As we, of course, know Paul rightly stood up to Peter, resisting him to the face in defending Christ's True teachings. Peter was man enough to admit his error.
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, rather than either of the saints against each other. You might say those seeking ambition or their own agenda pitted one against the other, an age-old human frailty. You could 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 by His Holiness Pope Pius XII. It was confirmed to the world on June 26, 1968 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.