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A centenary of making saints

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Archbishop homily St peter - The Catholic Weekly
Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP celebrating Mass at St Aloysius Gonzaga Parish, Cronulla. Photo: Patrick Lee.

This is the edited text of the homily given by Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP of the Solemnity of the Apostles Peter and Paul and Parish centenary of St Aloysius Gonzaga Parish, Cronulla, 28 June 2024.

Twenty-five years ago, on this Solemnity of Peter and Paul, Pope John Paul II, 263rd successor of Peter, referred to the two apostles as “the pillars of the Church.” Thanks to their faith and witness, the early Church was able not only to survive but to flourish. After Jesus their names are the most common in the New Testament: Simon/Peter’s appears 191 times and Saul/Paul’s 239 times. On hearing them described as pillars, we might naturally think of them both as particularly reliable and steadfast, born leaders with the attributes of a CEO in their DNA. Yet a closer look tells another story. Like all of us, they had their shortcomings. Their path to leadership and sanctity was less a fait accompli than a work in progress.

Take Peter. His excitability and impetuosity were legendary. He famously dropped everything and followed Jesus (Mt 4:18ff et par.). Later he leapt into the Sea of Galilee, chasing after Jesus before almost drowning in panic (Mt 14:22ff). After the resurrection he jumped into the lake again, this time almost naked, so great was his excitement (Jn 21:7). He babbled incoherently at the Transfiguration (Mt 17: 1ff). On another occasion he was rebuked for behaving “Satanically” in trying to divert Jesus from His course (Mt 16:23 et par.). At the Last Supper, he tried to stop Jesus washing his feet in what was effectively the apostles’ baptism, first holy communion and ordination (Jn 13:8). Asked to keep watch with Jesus, he fell asleep on the job, whether out of tiredness or drink (Mt 26:40ff et par.). Things went from bad to worse that night.

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Waking up to an armed mob, Peter flailed about with his sword, injuring a servant, despite all of Jesus’ teaching on non-violence (Jn 18:10f). And finally, having promised to die rather than betray Jesus (Mt 26:35), he went weak at the knees and three times denied ever knowing Him (Mt 26:69ff et par). He’d have done better just to run away like the other disciples did (Mt 26:56)! Pete’s track record up to this point was hardly the stuff of a future pope and Christian hero…

Paul’s LinkedIn CV is no more impressive. He ran the cloakroom at the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr (Acts 7:54ff). He then took up the role of chief persecutor of Christians and so of Christ (Acts 8:3; 9:5; 26:4f; Gal 1:13; Phil 3:5f). But even after he turned to baptising Christians rather than brutalising them, he was notoriously difficult to work with. Domineering, uncompromising, much more comfortable giving orders than taking them, He wrote some stinging letters to his various congregations. He fought with his pastoral associates and burnt through parish secretaries at a great rate. He even fought with Peter (Gal 2:11ff). Paul’s personality didn’t exactly scream CEO material.

All of which makes the talk of Peter and Paul as pillars of the Church hard to square with their actual performance. More like pillars of jelly, you might say!

Yet it’s precisely their shortcomings that proved to be Peter and Paul’s making—or at least their shortcomings as graced by Christ. When everyone held back, afraid to express an opinion as to who Jesus was, Peter’s impetuosity meant he came forward with the Church’s first creed: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Mt 16:13ff). With the same confidence he later declared to a cripple at the Beautiful Gate that “Silver and gold have I none, but I’ll give you what I have: in the name of the Jesus of Nazareth the Christ, walk!” (Acts 3:1-10)

After many deserted Jesus because of His teaching that the Eucharist is His actual flesh and blood given for us, He asked if they wanted to leave Him too; Peter again jumped in and said: “Lord, who else could we turn to? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and profess that you are the Holy One of God.” (Jn 6:67f) After initially resisting Jesus playing the servant in washing the disciples’ feet, Peter came to realise he must allow the Lord’s sacraments to work in him and the Lord’s mandate to inspire him, and so he pleaded to be washed all over (Jn 13:1ff). We can imagine him stripping down again for total immersion before Jesus got a chance to stop him! Later that night, he follows behind Jesus in the garden and at His trial before the Sanhedrin (Mt 26:58ff). After the Resurrection, he rushes to the empty tomb (Jn 20:2ff) and at the Lake he obeys the strange Master’s command to cast his nets for a great catch (Jn 21:4ff).

In tonight’s Gospel (Jn 21:15-19) we hear Peter’s triple profession of contrition for his betrayals and of love for his Master so that, despite Jesus’ predictions of his martyrdom, Peter would be the one to stand up from Pentecost onwards and lead the disciples in professing the faith, receiving converts and directing the future course of the Church (Acts 1:15; 2:14ff; 15:7ff etc.). Told to shut up by the authorities, he said, “We can’t help but speak about what we’ve seen and heard.” (Acts 4:20) Now he would lead by loving and, like his Master, stretch out his arms for crucifixion as the price for his love. For as was once so beautifully said by either St John of the Cross or St Aloysius or both, “In the twilight of our life we shall be judged according to our love.”

Paul’s stubbornness, though a bane for his colleagues, was what made him so relentless and effective as a missionary. After encountering the risen Lord, he came to realise that God’s plan for him from the womb was to spread the Good News everywhere (Gal 1:15-16), and he put his intellectual and rhetorical gifts and sheer stamina to that end, even though like Peter it would cost him his life.

What do these two pillars of the Church say to the community of St Aloysius now a century old? Can two guys from all those centuries ago really have anything relevant to say to us? Well, one interesting fact is just how different they were to each other. Peter was an uneducated fisherman, Paul a theological scholar. One was inconstant, fickle and impulsive, yet humble and loveable; the other neither humble nor particularly loveable, yet the greatest teacher-evangelist in our history and endlessly solicitous for his flocks. In celebrating them as the Romulus and Remus of the new city of Rome—we see that God can choose very different characters to serve His purposes.

What’s more, He uses each of us, “warts and all”, to build up His kingdom. Though His grace heals and elevates, the stories of Peter and Paul testify to how the gifts and virtues of each, but also the impulsiveness of one and stubbornness of the other could also serve the mission. Divine grace elevates rather than obliterates, and its transformative action of is often gradual, so Peter and Paul were not saints till the end. Which means there’s time for each one of us, too!

For twenty centuries now, all around the world, God has called all sorts of fish into His fishing net and barque, the Church; He has loved them warts and all and turned their personalities to the service of His kingdom; He has transformed them gradually into the saints they were made to be, His works of art (Col 3:13). For one of those centuries, he has been doing that here in Cronulla and will do so some more in the century ahead. Whether you are more like Peter or like Paul, or like one of the other saints, this is the place He has called you to be saints. Fr James is here to encourage you, as did his predecessors, most of whom are with us today. Their invitation, the Church’s, Christ’s is simple: “Follow me.” Thanks be to God for you all. Congratulations hundred-year-olds. Ad multos annos!

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