Catholic Culture News
Catholic Culture News

'On this Rock I Will Build my Church'

by Pope Saint John Paul II


Pope John Paul II's Homily for Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul Pope Confers Pallium on 30 Archbishops (June 29, 1996).

Publisher & Date

Vatican, June 29, 1996

1. "The Lord has ... rescued me from the hand of Herod" (Acts 12:11).

On today's solemnity we listen once again to Peter's words and to similar words from Paul: "The Lord will rescue me from every evil and save me for his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory for ever and ever" (2 Tm 4:18).

Today the whole Church and, in particular, the Church in Rome gives glory to God for the holy Apostles Peter and Paul: "The angel of the Lord will rescue those who fear him" (cf. Ps 34 [33]:5). The Apostles were delivered from all fear by the power that comes from God. Humanly speaking, like all human beings they too were weak creatures. Peter showed this weakness several times, especially when he was put to the test and denied his very Master (cf. Jn 18:15-27). Paul's weakness shows up in the fury and almost boundless cruelty with which he persecuted Christ's followers.

The Lord however acted in them as though he took no account of this human frailty, as if he ignored it, proceeding according to his own mysterious plan of salvation. He revealed to Peter that he was the "rock" on which he would build his Church (cf. Mt 16:18). He said of Paul that he was a "chosen instrument" to proclaim the Gospel to all peoples (cf. Acts 9:15). Both knew they were fulfilling the mission entrusted to them by the power of the Lord himself. Here in Rome they understood this in a special way, as they prepared to face the supreme trial of martyrdom.

Peter died a martyr in Rome during Nero's persecution

2. In the Acts of the Apostles we read that King Herod "killed James the brother of John with the sword; and when he saw that it pleased the Jews he proceeded to arrest Peter also" (Acts 12:2-3), intending "after the Passover to bring him out to the people" (ibid., 12:4).

Then Peter, who was kept in prison during the feast of Passover, was able to meditate with particular intensity on the events of the Last Supper and the Passion of Jesus, arrested, condemned, scourged, laden with the cross and crucified on Golgotha. He was truly "obedient unto death, even death on a cross" (Phil 2:8). Several years had passed since that Passover and Peter now found himself in prison, awaiting in turn the death sentence which Herod, like Pilate, would pronounce. The reason for it would have been to elicit the crowd's sympathy. The Apostle felt he did not have much time left but he did not forget Christ's words: "You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church" (Mt 16:18).

3. Then something unexpected happened. He was released from prison in Jerusalem by God's power, expressed through the angel's intervention: the prison door opened of its own accord and he found himself free. "So my hour has not yet come", the Apostle must have thought at that moment, and shortly afterwards he left Jerusalem for Antioch and then for Rome. In Rome, more than 20 years after the events of Christ's Passover, Peter realized that his own hour had now come. It came at the time of the Emperor Nero's persecutions, when so many of his brothers and sisters in the faith died as martyrs. With them Peter would die too.

As for Paul, who had been living in Rome for some time, he also sealed his witness to Christ with his blood. In his Letter to Timothy he writes: "For I am already on the point of being sacrificed; the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day" (2 Tm 4:6-8).

Paul, a Roman citizen, was not subjected to the agony of crucifixion but to decapitation by the sword.

Peter might have had like thoughts on the day when, caught by his persecutor, he was condemned to death on the cross. A venerable tradition claims that he asked to die upside down, because he did not feel worthy to be crucified like his divine Master.

4. "And there is salvation in no one else" (Acts 4:12). On today's solemnity, the Church remembers this and pauses in meditation. These great pioneers of the Gospel, who passed on the truth of the crucified and risen Christ, not only by their words and deeds, but especially by the witness of their lives, died at the peak of a great apostolic epic.

Peter's profession is basis of his unique role

By the gift of the Holy Spirit they had become new men, so that it might even have been difficult for them to recognize inwardly what they had once been. The Lord communicated a mysterious divine power to them. This happened to Paul on the road to Damascus. This happened to Peter when, in the district of Caesarea Philippi, he answered the Master's question about who was the Son of Man. Unlike the people, only Peter, on whom the Church was founded, proclaimed the truth about Christ: "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God" (Mt 16:16). Jesus of Nazareth is greater than Moses and Elijah greater than the prophets, greater than John the Baptist: he is the Son of the living God.

"God from God, Light from Light, true God of true God, begotten not made, one in Being with the Father": this is how the Councils of Nicaea and Constantinople explained the faith of the Church. This solemn profession handed down to us by Christians is already contained in Simon Peter's profession: "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God".

This is a key expression of the Creed from which the Church cannot depart, if she does not want to deny herself. It is a profession of faith which is not merely the work of a man, Peter, as the Master himself states: "Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven" (Mt 16:17). In a certain sense, the beginning of the Church is contained in this profession. The continuation of Jesus' answer indicates it: "And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven" (Mt 16:18-19).

5. This profession of faith constitutes the basis of Peter's unique role within the Apostolic College. He was the first to proclaim Christ on the day of Pentecost, and to welcome converts from the people of Israel. By virtue of his profession of faith, then, the Church was formed and spread everywhere in the spirit of this profession and of Christ's reply.

What happened near Caesarea Philippi is repeated in every place and in every time with the proclamation of the Good News. It is renewed in Rome in particular, when Peter, at the head of the city's Christian community, feels the hour of his supreme witness of blood drawing near and is aware that his profession of faith together with Christ's reply will remain in the Church permanently. The truth he spoke with the strength of divine enlightenment survives his death. This truth represents a decisive element for the Church's apostolic identity from generation to generation, down the millenniums.

6. The whole Ecclesial Community, gathered to commemorate Peter and Paul, today repeats this profession of fidelity to Christ. This communion of faith is also expressed in today's solemn celebration by the Successor of Peter's significant act of conferring the Sacred Pallium upon many Metropolitan Archbishops from various parts of the world.

Venerable Brother Bishops, the pallia you receive today are the expression of that unity with the See of Peter and that harmonious witness of Christian faith which must characterize your episcopal ministry. In receiving each one of you as beloved brothers in the Lord, I affectionately greet the ecclesial communities entrusted to your pastoral care and I assure them all of a special remembrance in my prayer.

We praise God for faith they kept

7. The solemnity and joy of this day is further enriched by the presence of the fraternal delegation sent here by His Holiness Bartholomew I, to take part with us in the feast of Sts Peter and Paul.

Dear Brothers in Christ, I am pleased to extend a cordial welcome to you and I thank you for taking part in this liturgy. Our fraternal meeting in prayer before the Lord strengthens our commitment to do all we can to overcome the difficulties that still remain, in order to see our desire for full communion and participation in the one Eucharist soon fulfilled. Prayer in common is indeed the nourishment of pilgrims; it fortifies us on our way, directing us towards the goal of every serious ecumenical effort. I extend my cordial and fraternal greetings, together with those of the entire Ecclesial Community of Rome, to you all!

8. "O Roma felix, quae tantorum principum es purpurata pretioso sanguine" (Hymn for First Vespers on the Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul).

So the Church sings as she venerates the holy Apostles, Peter and Paul, "pillar and foundation of the city of God" (Hymn, Office of Readings).

We give you thanks, O God, for the special strength you have given these weak men, entrusting them with the mission of evangelization.

Peter and Paul sealed this mission with the supreme witness of martyrdom. They gave themselves for the world's salvation.

We praise you, O Lord, for the faith they kept; we thank you, for the Truth for which they shed their blood.

"I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth. My soul makes its boast in the Lord; let the afflicted hear and be glad. O magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together!" (Ps 34 [33]:2, 4).

Let us exalt him together, in the hope that the day will soon come when all believers in Christ may once again be fully united in praising that one Name which offers men the possibility of salvation (cf. Acts 4:12).


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