Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Michael’s Parish, Lowell, MA
Solemnity of SS. Peter & Paul
Mass of Thanksgiving Homily
June 29, 1999
On July 19, 64 AD, Rome began to burn. The fire lasted nine days, destroying 10 of the 14 sections of the city of Rome, including almost of all of the inhabitable sections. Almost every Roman citizen lost his home. Most lost loved ones in the fire. And all the evidence pointed to a team of arsonists who were setting fires simultaneously in various parts of the city. If such a catastrophe had happened here in Lowell, and you had lost everything you owned and those you loved most, you would be looking to bring the culprits to justice. And so were the ancient Romans. And all the fingers started pointing to the emperor Nero, for several reasons. Months before the fire he had joked with others about the infrastructure of the city: wouldn’t it be a shame if Rome were to burn and some benevolent emperor would have to rebuild it, better than ever, from scratch, with his name immortally inscribed on the façade of every building of the rebuilt metropolis? Moreover, during the blaze, Romans were obviously trying to extinguish the flames that were destroying their neighborhoods, but they were stopped by soldiers claiming that they had the authority to stop them from doing so. That was one of the reasons why the fire lasted nine days. The Romans asked the logical question, who could have given them the authority to stop them besides Nero? Lastly, rumors started swirling around the city that Nero was on the Mediterranean sea while Rome was burning, toasting to the torching of the city of Troy in the 10th century BC. In other words, while the Romans were suffering the loss of so much in the city, Nero was celebrating.
Nero was soon in grave political danger. Everyone — from soldiers, to senators, to slaves — was blaming him, and his political and physical lives were now in jeopardy. He desperately needed a scapegoat, someone to blame for the fire, to deflect the criticism of the growing movement against him. And he found a great candidate, a new religious sect in the city of Rome called Christians, about whom were being said several derogatory things. First, that they were atheists, because they did not believe in the pagan gods. And Romans always feared atheists, because they believed if every citizen did not sacrifice to the gods who protected the city, then the gods in their anger might destroy the whole city in battle. Such atheists were even called “haters of the human race” for this reason. Secondly, from their own lips, Christians were said to have confessed that when they convened to worship their God on Sundays, they were eating someone’s flesh and drinking someone’s blood. I presume we all know what they were doing, but to the typical Roman religious pagan, it seemed apparent that the Christians were cannibals. Thirdly, the Christians kept talking about love of one’s neighbor, and in this polemical context, love was interpreted in a sexual way. So ask yourselves: if you have just lost everything in a fire, if your life is devastated, and if you think the ruler is responsible for it, but that he’s trying to frame a bunch of atheist, promiscuous cannibals. Would you send a $500 check to their civil defense fund? Very unlikely. And neither were the Romans going to stick up to defend the Christians.
Nero had found a perfect scapegoat. And a few months after the fire, he brought about 3000 Christians to the circus which his predecessor Caligula had built in the area known as the Vatican valley, right to the left of what is now the present exquisite Basilica of St. Peter. And there he staged a massive celebration for his tenth anniversary as emperor in which the chief attraction was the torturing and the killing of Christians for the fire of Rome. We have an eyewitness account of what the Christians suffered that day, from the great pagan historian Tacitus who was a seven year old boy in Rome when the event took place. He says that Nero punished with the “utmost refinements of cruelty” this class of men and women known as Christians — and that was no exaggeration. He says there were three ways they died that day. The first were covered with wild beast skins to make them look like animals and then were torn to death by dogs. The second group was crucified, a painfully, slow way to die: it could take anywhere from two hours to two days to die, depending upon how much one had been tortured beforehand. In other words, it wasn’t a very exciting way for the bloodthirsty crowd of roughly 100,000 to watch the Christians die. So to spruce things up and keep the crowd interested as dusk began to descend, Nero devised a third way to kill the Christians. He covered some of these crucifixion victims with flammable liquid and lit them on fire — while they were still alive — to serve as lamps for the continuing festivities at night. All of these things happened to real human beings, your Christian predecessors, right next to the present basilica of St. Peter in the year 64.
Among the crucifixion victims that day — we learn from a source written down about forty years later and treasured by the first Christians and used in their liturgies — was a simple fisherman from Galilee, born Simon son of Jonah, who was proclaiming the Gospel among the Jews in Rome. He was one of those chosen to be killed by crucifixion, but as his executioners were getting ready to kill him, he gave them one dying wish: to crucify him upside down. That request delighted his torturers, who knew that such a death would be infinitely more painful than being crucified right side up. If you don’t know, the way people die in crucifixion is not because of the literally excruciating pain, but because of asphyxiation. They can’t breathe. And when you flip someone upside down, the diaphrapm, essential for breathing, really doesn’t work upside down. So for about five-to-six hours of extraordinary agony, such a crucifixion victim would be struggling for every ounce of air he could take in. Peter made such a request, not because he was a lunatic or a masochist, but because he didn’t consider himself worthy to be crucified right-side-up as Jesus the Lord was 34 years earlier outside the city gates of Jerusalem. Peter’s wish was granted. This 60-something year old man — of retirement age by today’s standards — stretched out his hands, just as the Lord had predicted at the end of John’s Gospel, as they were tied by a belt to his definitive papal cathedra, the upside-down Cross, on which he gave his most glorious Christian witness of all.
Meanwhile, there was a death-march going on in another part of the city. There was a very well-known Christian tent-maker and preacher from the Roman city of Tarsus who was being led by a group of soldiers south of the city. Paul was a Roman citizen and hence could not be killed by crucifixion or by any other torturous style of death. He could be executed, but he had to be executed mercifully and relatively painlessly. Paul’s contemporary in Rome, the great Latin mind Seneca, was given the opportunity by Nero to choose how he’d like to die, and Seneca selected drinking a sweet poison. Paul was not given the choice. He was taken to the outskirts of Rome, which is where he was ultimately poured out as a libation. Rome was where he had written his extraordinarily moving, triumphal words to his spiritual son Timothy which we heard in the second reading, and where those words came to fruition: “I have fought the good fight. I have the finished the race. I have kept the faith.” Rome was Paul’s finish line! And his race went down to the wire; like a sprinter, Paul won that race by a head — his own, gloriously cut off for the faith in a forest just south of the ancient city.
Peter and Paul both were ultimately chosen by God for their respective missions with these ends in mind. They were selected because they could finish the race, because they would never give up on the Lord’s call, no matter how many times they would be imprisoned, no matter how many times they would be stoned and left for dead, no matter how many times they fell on the journey through sin or weakness. They were chosen because they were capable of saying a yes to Christ and meaning it, and thereby allowing God to do such wonderful things through them.
And when you really take a look at Peter and Paul, they were extraordinarily unlikely candidates to be asked in the first place. Peter was a simple fisherman with a thick Galilean accent. He had been married — what exactly became of his wife, we don’t know, but we know from the Gospels he had a mother-in-law. We can imagine that he probably had the vocabulary of a sailor. He was far from a theological expert, just someone who would show up like everyone else at the synagogue on Saturdays. Jesus was extraordinarily simple with Peter, who sometimes was as dense as a rock, but who was chosen to be the Rock on whom he would build his Church. Jesus had one simple message, one straightforward vocation, for him: Follow me! The Gospels record this being said 21 times by Jesus. Follow me, Peter, and I will make you a fisher of men. Take up your Cross, Peter, and follow me. Whoever serves me, Peter, must follow me. Peter begged the Lord to depart from him because he was a sinful man, but the Lord precisely wanted repentant-sinners to proclaim his Gospel, because they would show in their own lives the reality of God’s plan to reconcile sinners to Himself. Later, Peter tried the opposite approach, the macho-proud approach, that he would never let the Lord be crucified and that he would never abandon the Lord, to which in response Jesus called this Rock Satan and a crowing rooster condemned him. Peter continued to sin, he kept falling on the journey, but with God’s help, he kept getting up. Peter had the apostolic boldness to walk on water, but also the habit of occasionally taking his eyes off of the Lord and taking too much account of the winds, and when he did, he sank. But he had the grace and the good sense to call on the Lord to save him, which the Lord invariably did. God ultimately built his Church on this sinful, occasionally weak, relatively ordinary, blue-collar man. This is an amazing fact! Peter was in fact so much like so many people here in this Church tonight, both in the pews and in the sanctuary. And out of all the people in Palestine, all of the great theological minds, great orators and leaders, extraordinarily holy men and women, God chose Peter. Why? Because Peter is an example to every one of us. He wasn’t the smartest, bravest, most talented man for the job. He was just an ordinary man who was capable of doing the same thing each and every one of us is capable of doing: giving a yes to God and meaning it, and thereby allowing God to do such wonderful things with us.
Paul’s calling in some ways is even more extraordinary. Unlike Peter, Paul was a genius, the greatest student of the greatest Rabbi, the towering figure of Gamaliel whom we meet in the Acts of the Apostles. No doubt Paul was talented. He was basically good at everything, with his mind, but also with his hands as a tentmaker. But when we come right down to it, there was something else about Paul that we cannot sugarcoat, because he never did. Paul was killing Christians. Executing them. Probably torturing them as well. He was directly responsible for the stoning of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, outside the gates of Jerusalem. He had received special orders to go to Damascus with the Temple guards to carry out a reign of terror among the Christians of Damascus as well. Paul was basically doing in the 30s AD what Nero, Domitian, Decius, Valerian, Diocletian, and eight other emperors did to Christians in succeeding centuries. When Christ appeared to Ananias in Damascus and asked him to go baptize Paul, after he had been struck on the horse, Ananias thought the Lord was crazy. Such a request to him would be asking a Kosovar Albanian to go take care of Slobodan Milosevic, or worse, a Jew to take care of Adolf Hitler. But in the space of time of a lightening bolt, God chose Paul. “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Paul had been persecuting the Lord himself in killing the members of his body, Stephen and so many other Christians. Jesus converted arguably his greatest persecutor at the time and turned him into his greatest and most tireless evangelist. God’s ways are truly not our ways. If someone wrongs us, we want justice. If someone kills, so many in our culture, including Christians, say they must be killed in return. Jesus, rather, in his eternal plan decided to take his greatest persecutor and turn him into the chosen vessel by which his Gospel could be preached to the Gentiles.
In light of the extraordinary nature of each of their calls, calls that basically defy all human logic, how can any one of us here tonight rest easy? One might say, I’m a sinner, and therefore, I could not possibly be worthy or credible at proclaiming the Gospel. Take a look at Peter, a sinful man, or Paul, who killed Christians for a living. I’m a simple person, not very well educated, and wouldn’t really know what to say? Take another look at Peter, a simple tradesman, with very little formal education at all. Perhaps I’m very well-educated, and think that therefore I should spend my intellectual energies more profitably in other pursuits? Look at Paul, who eventually poured his energies into the bottomless treasure-trove of the faith, finding his ultimate wisdom, the ultimate satisfaction of his extraordinary mind, in the Cross, castigating the pseudo-wisdom of the Greeks and the scandal-mongering of the Jews. Perhaps I’m married and therefore God couldn’t be calling me to spread the faith? Peter was married too.
That bottom line is: God calls all kinds of people for all kinds of service in building up his family of faith here on earth. He calls relatively few men and women to consecrated religious life, and relatively few men to become priests. He calls everyone, though, every single Christian, to first strive for holiness, to strive to grow in the love of the Lord every single day; and second, to try to spread the faith, to try to spread the love of the Lord to others, no matter what one’s state of life. And there are no excuses: Peter’s and Paul’s lives show us that. We can’t be any worse candidates than they were. Each of us, with God’s help, is capable of doing what they did, giving a yes and meaning it, following through on this assent by following Jesus all the way, in every moment, come what may. He wants to inspire a new Acts of the Apostles, with each of us, whether silently or publicly, playing a starring role.
There’s no better place to start on this journey than right here in the Upper Room of our beautiful St. Michael’s Church. It was here that I first became aware that I had a vocation, when I, before I had started kindergarten, about the age of four, was sitting in the front pew off to the right aisle at daily Mass with my mother. Fr. Jon Cantwell, the holy and devout pastor of St. Michael’s, was celebrating Mass. When he pronounced the words of consecration, “this is my body,” “This is the cup of my blood,” he said them with such tenderness and love and held Jesus in his fingertips with such care that I was convinced that Jesus was truly here just as my mother had previously taught me that he was. Later, when I watched as he distributed communion to others, I had the simple insight that the priest has to be the luckiest person in the world, capable of holding Jesus in his fingertips and giving him to others. I then asked God for the vocation of a priest, which he confirmed for me 18 years later. But it started here, which is why I am so honored to be able to celebrate Mass on that very same altar.
Everything for us Christians starts here at Mass, when that very same sacrifice offered once and for all for our salvation on Calvary is represented. In a way perhaps even more amazing than what happened at Nazareth, when the Son of God became flesh within the womb of the Blessed Mother, here he completely takes over the substance of bread and wine changing it into his body and blood, offered on the Cross out of love for us. This is the summit to which Jesus called Peter and Paul and each one of us to follow him. This is the source from which each of us is sent at the end of Mass, to go in peace to love and serve the Lord and bring this Lord to others. This is the true ground and sign of our Christian dignity, that God loved us so much that he considered it a bargain that his only Son be tortured and killed upon a Cross rather than to live forever without us. This is the price of our salvation! This is the truth Peter and Paul died for. This is the truth Peter and Paul lived for. This is the truth we’re called to proclaim. And as we will sing in just a few minutes, my brothers and sisters in Christ, my friends, Love so amazing, love so divine, demands our souls, our lives, our all. God love you!