Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us,
Ss Peter and Paul, pray for us,
All holy apostles, pray for us.
The Church is not unlike this monastery. Some bits are in ruins. Others are alive and well, and full of music and prayer. And we are that today!
The Church is a city, a building, a house, a temple, our home. And it’s built, after Christ, on the foundation of the 12 apostles. They were chosen by Jesus. The New Testament gives their names: Simon Peter (always first), Andrew his brother, James and John, the sons of Zebedee, Philip, Bartholomew, Thomas, Matthew, another James, Thaddaeus, Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot (cf Mt 10:2-4). Judas fell away and Matthias replaced him. Barnabas is also called an apostle. And then, quite freely, the risen and ascended Jesus – no longer on earth – showed himself to Saul the persecutor, and made him Paul the Apostle. So, Peter the first and Paul the ‘last’ (1 Cor 15:8). Peter the fisherman, the rock, the key-holder, the shepherd, the first to see the risen Christ, Peter sent to the people of Israel. Paul, the ‘one untimely born’ (1 Cor 15:8), the chosen vessel, the untiring missionary, the Apostle of the Gentiles. Peter and Paul, the book-ends, as it were, of the College of Apostles, and in between them all the rest. Peter and Paul, both guided by God to Rome, both martyred there, Peter crucified, Paul beheaded, and both since the 3rd century AD at least, venerated together on this day.
Ss. Peter and Paul, pray for us.
All holy Apostles, pray for us.
Do we, I wonder, appreciate them? Take the apostles out of Christianity, and there’d be nothing left. How poorer it would be, for example, without the personality of Peter, so warm-hearted, impulsive, Peter who has left us the great gift of his own failure and Christ’s forgiveness. Peter who said, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God’; who said, ‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of everlasting life’; who said, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ What can’t we learn from someone like that? Imagine Christianity without Paul: short and bandy-legged (cf. Acts of Paul 3:3), passionate, tender, ironic, sarcastic, loving, always praying, another man who needed forgiveness; Paul of journeys and places, Antioch, Ephesus, Corinth and the rest, with his extraordinary letters, still being read and argued over and shaping Christian thought. Paul, who said, ‘I live now, not I, but Christ lives in me’; or again, ‘Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation or distress or persecution or famine or nakedness or peril or sword?…No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us’; who said, ‘when I am weak, then I am strong’. We see how the Holy Spirit doesn’t take personality away, but makes it flower. But there’s more than this. All the divine gifts we enjoy in the Church, everything that makes up the New Covenant, comes to us from Christ through the Apostles. They were the men appointed by him, to be with him, to imbibe him, as it were. They were the men sent out – that’s what ‘apostle’ means – to proclaim the Gospel and cast out demons, to pass Christ on. They ate and drank with him after his Resurrection and the Holy Spirit came on them in tongues of fire. Take them away and there’s nothing left. There’d be no New Testament; it was written by them and their colleagues. There’d be no Eucharist, no Mass; it was the Apostles Jesus told ‘do this in memory of me’. There’d be no forgiveness of sins; it was to them Jesus said, ‘those whose sins you are forgive they are forgiven, those whose sins you retain they are retained.’ If I say, there’d be no bishops, some might think that a step forward! But be that as it may, there wouldn’t be. Bishops are the successors of the Apostles, and the chief among them, the bishop of Rome, is the successor of Peter. And if there were no bishops, there’d be no priests or deacons. And we’d be sheep without shepherds, scattered here and there. There’d be no unity and each of us would be alone, doing our own thing, constructing our own religion. Most of all, an Apostle is a public, official witness to the Resurrection, and if we took them away, we wouldn’t know Christ had risen and we’d be without hope in this world. And it would be night for our souls.
No wonder, then, the Te Deum calls the apostles a ‘glorious choir’. No wonder that every month of the year, outside March and April, the liturgy celebrates the feast of an apostle. No wonder there are so many Peters, Pauls, Johns, Ians, Seans, Jameses, Seamuses, Simons, Judes, and Petras, Paulas, Janes, Janets, Joans, Joannas and so on. The apostles are part and parcel of all we are and all we have as Christians, as Catholics. They’re part of our prayer. The different liturgical traditions of the Church often claim an apostle as their initial inspiration. Every Eucharistic Prayer recalls them. The daily Prayer of the Church takes its pattern from the way they prayed. And one day we will meet them face to face, sitting on their thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel. I may have a wonderful computer, but without a server, without an internet provider or router, or some such wonderful gadget, I can’t connect to the web. I can’t communicate with others. It’s through the apostles we access the world of grace and belong to the communion of saints. We’re all of us fish swimming in the nets they have cast and when our time comes they will haul us ashore into eternity. Our fellowship is with them and theirs is with the Father and his Son Jesus Christ (cf. 1 Jn 1:3).
Forgive me if I egg the pudding a bit more. Fortunate Scotland to have an Apostle as a patron, the same one as this Vale of St Andrew did even before the monks came. How much Indian Christians look to St Thomas! How popular pilgrimage is, and especially to Compostela in northern Spain, the shrine of the Apostle James! I’m glad to have lived to see Leningrad lose its name and St Petersburg came back. And where did England recently lose to Uruguay? So Peter has a city in the far European north and Paul far south in the Americas. Think of London. It’s a city, like Aberdeen, made of originally two: the City of London proper and the City of Westminster. The great church of the first is St Paul’s, and the jewel of Westminster is its Abbey of St Peter. Both go back to Saxon times. So, there’s a city clasped by those two saints. Who thinks of that, I wonder. They do!
SS. Peter and Paul, pray for us!
Strangely, as I was preparing this homily, an email came from an Orthodox bishop friend in Romania. ‘This Sunday it’s 5 years since with God’s help and the prayers of Ss Peter and Paul I was installed as bishop. The time has gone quickly. Pray for me on Sunday. It is our patronal feast and a great one for us.’ So, pray for him, Bishop Cornelius! He was very happy when he heard all of us would be praying for him! Ss. Peter and Paul, pray that east and west may be one again! And it’s 32 years since Fr Abbot and I were ordained priests and 62 years since Mgr Robert MacDonald was.
So what is the grace of this feast of Ss Peter and Paul, of this pilgrimage which falls on their feast? It’s rediscovering the apostles. It’s realising, really realising, that the Church we’ve been called to is one, holy, catholic and apostolic. In October last year, there was a diocesan pilgrimage to Rome, the city of Peter and Paul. We attended a General Audience of Pope Francis. And he spoke about precisely this: the Church as apostolic.
Pope Francis loves threes, and the Church is apostolic, he said, in three ways.
She’s apostolic because she’s founded on the preaching and prayer of the Apostles; a building with them as foundation.
She’s apostolic, secondly, because everything the apostles left her lives on within her, because ‘with the help of the Spirit dwelling in her, the Church keeps and hands on the teaching, the “good deposit”, the salutary words she has heard from the Apostles’ (CCC 857). ‘Over the centuries, said Pope Francis, the Church conserves this precious treasure, which is Sacred Scripture, doctrine, the Sacraments, the ministry of Pastors, so that we can be faithful to Christ and share in his very life.’ Yes, all these things are alive, all this apostolic legacy, and through it we can be close to Christ, have the mind and the heart of Christ. ‘This is the beauty of the Church, the presence of Jesus Christ among us. Do we ever think about how important this gift that Jesus gave us is, the gift of the Church, where we can meet him? Do we ever think about how it is precisely the Church on her journey through the centuries – despite the difficulties, the problems, the weaknesses, our sins – that transmits to us the authentic message of Christ? She gives us the certainty that what we believe in is really what Christ communicates to us.’ Yes, brothers and sisters, do we realise this? Any attachment to the Church is better than none – long live bad Catholics! And which of us isn’t? But better to pay the full fare and make the whole journey. The more we accept the teaching of the Church, even if it’s hard, and the more we enter her life, then the more we are with the apostles, the more with Christ, and the richer our lives will be, the more hope we will have of salvation. And the more we will have to give.
And so, thirdly, said Pope Francis, Church is apostolic because ‘she is sent to bring the Gospel to all the world’, because ‘she continues in history the mission which Jesus entrusted to the Apostles.’ This is one of Pope Francis’ big themes, and so he became passionate here. ‘This is what Jesus told us to do…go out and encounter others. He sends us. He asks us to move in order to spread the joy of the Gospel! Once again let us ask ourselves: are we missionaries by our words, and especially by our Christian life, by our witness? Or are we Christians closed in our hearts and in our churches, sacristy Christians? Are we Christians in name only, who live like pagans? We must ask ourselves these questions. They’re not a rebuke. I ask myself as well: what kind of Christian am I, is my witness true?’ (General Audience, 16 October 2013).
So there’s the Pope!
And there’s the grace of this feast, this pilgrimage. Let’s be apostolic in all these ways. Let’s not be Christians with amnesia or only taking the ‘feel good’ bits. Let’s be like the apostles who received the whole Christ and went the whole way. Let’s think of them, pray to them, be pilgrims to their shrines, keep their feasts, read their writings, aspire to their closeness with Christ. Let’s enter into the life and thought and prayer of the Church they founded and have never abandoned. Let’s catch something of their zeal to share our faith. And may they, gathered round Mary their Queen, hold us in their prayer and pray us all together all the way to heaven.
Mary, Queen of the Apostles, pray for us,
Ss Peter and Paul, pray for us.
All holy apostles, pray for us.
Diocesan Pilgrimage, Pluscarden Abbey, 29 June 2014