If you get a chance to visit the famous heritage Church of the Santiago Apostol parish in my hometown in Betis, Guagua, Pampanga, I advise you to take a close look at our very well-preserved “retablo.”
The image in the middle niche is that of the Risen Christ. But who do you think are positioned on his right and on his left? Not James and John; even if it was these two young and ambitious disciples who asked for those positions. (See Mark chapter 10.)
So who do you find on the right and the left of Jesus? Yes, Saints Peter and Paul, whose shared feast we are celebrating today.
Why did the Church choose to celebrate these two great apostles on the same day? Why not one day for Peter and another for Paul? I think, this feast day has a catechetical purpose. It is meant to remind us of the two directions of the Church’s mission: unity and universality.
Before I explain, let me first point out that these two men were not chosen because they were perfect; they were both sinners. Peter denied the Lord; Paul persecuted the Church. What made them into pillars of the Church were not their natural qualities. I dare say what actually strengthened them was the Lord’s faith in them, despite their weaknesses.
I hope you don’t get scandalized by that. I know that when we speak of faith, we think only of our faith in God. But God having faith is us? Yes. Listen to the Gospel. It begins with Peter confessing his faith in Jesus. In reply to Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” he says, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.” But it does not stop there. What follows is Jesus also declaring his faith in Peter: “You are Peter, and on this Rock I will build my Church.”
He was a sinner but he was chosen by God nevertheless. The present-day successor of Peter, Pope Francis, expresses the same idea in his motto as bishop: “Miserando atque eligendo.” Wretched but chosen.
Remember that scene at the lake in Luke chapter 5, when Jesus instructed Peter to cast his nets into the deep and suddenly they made such a huge catch that their boats were almost sinking? Remember how Peter fell on his knees before Jesus and said, “Leave me Lord, I am a sinner!”? And how Jesus said, “Be not afraid, from now on you will be a fisher of men.”
St. Paul was like that too. Didn’t you hear him say in our second reading from his 2nd letter to Timothy, “The Lord stood by me and gave me strength”? He always had serious doubts about himself, because of his weakness, which he called a “thorn in the flesh.” In 2 Cor. 12, he confesses that he begged the Lord three times to remove his weakness. But the Lord said to him, “My grace is enough for you; for in weakness power reaches perfection.” And so Paul declared, “It is when I am weak that I am strong.” Meaning, it is when I accept my weakness in all humility that God’s strength becomes truly manifest in me.
On this day, we are supposed to remind ourselves that the Church is kept steady by two massive pillars of faith, two of our greatest apostles: Peter, whom I call the “apostle of unity,” and Paul, whom I call the “apostle of universality.” I propose that this must the reason why the Church has chosen to commemorate them, not apart from each other but together, on the same day.
They remind us that we all must participate in the mission of the Church, which has two directions: inward unity, and outward unity—towards universality. Inwardly, we must build communion and strengthen our unity with one another, with our fellow disciples, our fellow members in the community of the baptized, the Church, the body of Christ. Outwardly, we must learn to dialogue, that is, build communion and serve as instruments of unity in the world, even with non-Christians and non-believers, because they are also called to be children of God. We can always find other bases for unity aside from a common faith. Like unity around respect for life and human dignity, a common concern for the environment, for the earth as our common home, a shared compassion for the poor and the disadvantaged, a common aspiration for a more humane society, etc.
Jesus expresses these two directions of mission using two images familiar to fishermen: BINDING and LOOSING. They are what fishermen do to mend their nets: bind the torn parts of the net and loosen the tangles. In Tagalog we say “Pagtatali ng napatid, at pagkakalag ng nagkabuhol.” I know we usually apply the binding and loosing to the principles of justice and mercy: binding as holding people accountable for their actions, and loosing as setting free from anger and resentment through forgiveness.
But the meaning can actually go beyond justice and mercy: binding can be applied to uniting, strengthening, making firm. Loosing, as opening up to the values of inclusivity and universality. They are the two important qualities of mission in the Church.
Pope Francis often reminds us that one always goes with the other. If we do binding and forget the loosing, we can become self-referential, narrow minded, parochialistic and Churchy in the negative sense, having no relevance, impact or transformative influence on the world.
But if we do loosing and forget the binding, we also can get lost in the world and lose our identity. Instead bringing about God’s kingdom in the world, we end up being seduced by worldly kingdoms . It is not one or the other; it has to be both.
If not for the pandemic I would probably be joining the concelebrated Mass today at the Manila Cathedral for our yearly celebration of the Pope’s Day.
What I appreciate most in Pope Francis is the way he has combined both the Pauline and the Petrine aspects of his office as PONTIFEX MAXIMUS (Supreme Bridge-builder). I would suggest that we call him not just a “Successor of Peter”, but as holder of the double offices of Peter and Paul. That is why we pray for him not just on this day, but at every Mass. He presides in charity over his brother bishops all over the world to make sure the Church is kept in the right course, in the two directions of mission—in unity and universality.
This is the homily of Bishop Pablo Virgilio David of Kalookan for the Feast of the Apostles Peter and Paul.