Rorate Caeli

Fontgombault Sermon for the Feast of Sts. Peter & Paul: Love, in Truth, and without Compromise with the World

Sermon of the Right Reverend Dom Jean Pateau
Abbot of Our Lady of Fontgombault
Fontgombault, June 29, 2018
O God, Who hast made holy this day by the martyrdom of Thine Apostles Peter and Paul: grant unto Thy Church that, as from them she first received the faith, so she may in all things follow their precepts.(Collect)…

Dear Brothers and Sisters,
My dearly beloved Sons,

The Church, and especially the Church in Rome, has never accepted to separate those two pillars, the Apostles Peter and Paul; and to such an extent that in the first centuries of Christendom, the Pope, after he had celebrated Mass in the Vatican Basilica of St. Peter, would go to the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls to celebrate there a second Mass. Such a solemnity did emphasise the fact that it is the preaching of the holy Apostles Peter and Paul that the Church of Rome regards as her sole principle, and the foundation of her authority.

Yet, we have to acknowledge that these two men were very different, both in origin and training. 

Simon, whom Jesus called Peter, is an inhabitant of Capernaum, in the province of Galilee, and a fisherman on the Tiberias Lake. He’s a man who has learnt how to fight the forces of nature, to confront unexpected weathers, a concrete and artless man. He’s generous, he answers right away the calling of the Lord, he immediately leaves his nets, and follows Him. 

St. Paul is a Jew from the Diaspora, of Tarsus in Cilicia. He’s a member of the party of the Pharisees. Also, he’s a Roman citizen. After he has encountered Christ on the road to Damascus, he turns from a persecutor of Christians into a fervent and tireless propagator of the faith.

This sequela Christi, these lives offered in the footsteps of the Lord, will both be crowned by the grace of martyrdom in Rome, Peter being crucified, and Paul beheaded. If the two Apostles’ road is thus completed in the same witness of the blood, their two apostolates will have been quite different, and will have given rise to oppositions. Peter, after his confession, “Thou art Christ, the Son of the living God” (Mt 16:16), receives from the Lord the task to feed the Church, “Thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build My Church” (Mt 16:18). A Jew among the Jews, he considers at first the old Law as a foundation that the Church has to maintain in her prescriptions, for instance those concerning food. Paul, the Apostle of the Gentiles, that is to say the heathens, is aware that it is quite unnecessary to put the burden of all the Judaic observances on the newcomers. 

In a humble openness to the light of the Holy Spirit, Peter and Paul will go beyond their disagreement, and work together for the unity and building of the Church in the truth. The collect of today asks that the Church should “follow in all things the precepts of those from whom she first received the faith.” To remain humbly listening to the Spirit is the foundation of all apostolic life, of all Christian life. 

Which other lessons can we learn from these two pillars of the Church? Assuredly, a lesson of hope. In the first century of our era, the world was every bit as corrupt in terms of morality as the world we’re living in today. Confronted with moral laxity, the Apostles might have chosen to compromise. Yet, they didn’t allow the message of Christ to lose its savour. They have faithfully handed on the doctrine concerning the indissolubility of marriage and faithfulness, for they were conscious to be, not the masters of what they taught, but its trustees, its servants. Paul expresses that in the Letter to the Galatians:

Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ. (Gal 1:10)

Faced with the legitimate and very human desire to conquer and succeed, we are always at risk to put aside hope in God and humility. Confronted with the task beyond human forces allotted to them, and allotted to us, too, the Apostles give us a lesson of trust in God. In his Letter to the Galatians, Paul therefore goes on:

For I want you to know, brothers, that the Gospel I preached is not something that man made up. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ. (Gal 1:11-12)

The protagonist, the first actor of all and any evangelising is Christ. Nothing can be done without God. Paul ought to know, he who was, as it were, God’s victim:

For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. I was advancing in Judaism beyond many Jews of my own age and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers. But when God, Who set me apart from my mother's womb and called me by His grace, was pleased to reveal His Son in me so that I might preach Him among the Gentiles, I did not consult any man, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to see those who were Apostles before I was, but I went immediately into Arabia and later returned to Damascus. (Gal 1:13-17)

Nor are the reasons to trust in God lacking for Peter. Today’s epistle evokes for instance his miraculous deliverance. “Behold, an angel of the Lord stood by him and a light shined in the room.” (Acts 12:7) Isn’t it quite paradoxical that Peter’s rescue should begin precisely when he is asleep, when the angel strikes him on the side, rather than when the soldiers are no longer able to cause any harm?

As she offers us the example of the two Apostles, the Church delivers a very valuable teaching to those who would want to dedicate themselves to an all too human mode ofevangelising, caring for success, compromising themselveswith the world without caring for truth, holiness, and union
with God.

“Love, and do whatever thou wilt,” said St. Augustine. Doing what one wants, that’s not really a problem; but is not loving in truth far more difficult? St. Augustine answers with the distinction of two loves, from which stem two worlds: The love of self even to the contempt of God, the earthly city; the love of God even to the contempt of self, the heavenly city. (City of God, XIV, 28)

In the footsteps of the two Apostles, and in their school, let us work to establish the heavenly city, God received among the men.