Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Glorious Apostles Peter and Paul,
Founders of the Holy Roman Church

Today, the historic Christian churches--Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox, and Lutheran--commemorated the two "founders" of the Church of Rome, Saints Peter and Paul. In this posting, I would like to elaborate a bit on the meaning of today's solemnity and why it is a preeminently "Catholic" holiday.

Note, first of all, that neither Sts Peter or Paul have their own feast day. Indeed, the Church celebrates the "Conversion of Paul" on 25 January and the "Chair of St Peter" on 22 February. The mere fact of conjoining two different classes of 'apostles' on one feast day merits some attention, because Peter was one of "the Twelve" and Paul was not. More to the point, the two once expressed fierce disagreement on the question of Torah-observance among gentile converts to Christ, which Paul related in Gal 2:11-13. By commemorating these two apostles at the same feast, the Church wishes to remind us of two things: first, their preeminence in virtue of their founding of the Roman Church, and second, that despite their earlier disagreements, they confessed and proclaimed the same Faith, and communion with these two apostles ensures communion with Jesus Christ. For this we have the venerable testimony of St Irenaeus of Lyons, who served as a bishop in Gaul (modern-day France), and himself a third-generation bishop in apostolic succession (since he was consecrated by St Polycarp of Smyrna, who in turn was consecrated by St John the Evangelist). This is what St Irenaeus has to say about Sts Peter and Paul and the Church of Rome:

"Since, however, it would be very tedious, in such a volume as this, to reckon up the successions of all the Churches, we do put to confusion all those who, in whatever manner, whether by an evil self-pleasing, by vainglory, or by blindness and perverse opinion, assemble in unauthorized meetings; [we do this, I say,] by indicating that Tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul; as also [by pointing out] the faith preached to people, which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its preeminent authority, that is, the faithful everywhere, inasmuch as the Tradition has been preserved continuously by those [faithful men] who exist everywhere" (Against Heresies, 3.3.3).

This passage is well-known, even to Christians who furiously refuse to submit to the constitution Christ willed for his Church. Opinions abound as to how the full force of Irenaeus' words can be diluted in order to escape the imperative of obedience to the Church's leadership, but this is only weakly effective when Adversus haereses 3.3.3 is lifted from the context of Books III and IV. For example, if one wanted to discover who has the "valid platform" to proclaim the Gospel, Irenaeus responds: "It is possible, then, for everyone in every Church, who may wish to know the truth, to contemplate the Tradition of the Apostles which has been made known to us throughout the whole world. Any we are in a position to enumerate those who were instituted bishops by the Apostles and their successors down to our own times, men who neither knew nor taught anything like what these heretics rave about" (3:3:1). Again, "The true knowledge is the doctrine of the Apostles, and the ancient organisation of the Church throughout the whole world, and the manifestation of the Body of Christ according to the succession of bishops, by which succession the bishops have handed down the Church which is found everywhere" (4:33:8). But Irenaeus' point about the Church of Rome, organized and constituted by Sts Peter and Paul, remains: "For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its preeminent authority..." (3:3:2).

We should not imagine Irenaeus to be an innovator. The priority of the Roman Church was attested in a twofold manner by St Clement of Rome, an early bishop, perhaps third or fourth in succession after St Peter, and probably the same person mentioned by St Paul in Phil 4:3. In his so-called First Epistle, C
lement of Rome strenuously objects to the ejection of presbyters by the members of the Church at Corinth. In so doing, a bishop on the Italian peninsula is exercising a kind of jurisdiction over a local Church in Greece. Already, by A.D. 95, the Roman Church has exerted itself authoritatively. And, to buttress his argument, Clement wrote:

"The Apostles have preached the gospel to us from the Lord Jesus Christ; Jesus Christ [has done so] from God. Christ therefore was sent forth by God, and the Apostles by Christ. Both these appointments, then, were made in an orderly way, according to the will of God. Having therefore received their orders, and being fully assured by the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, and established in the word of God, with full assurance of the Holy Spirit, they went forth proclaiming that the kingdom of God was at hand. And thus preaching through countries and cities,
they appointed the first fruits [of their labours], having first proved them by the Spirit, to be bishops and of those who should afterward believe. Nor was this any new thing, since indeed many ages before it was written concerning bishops and deacons. For thus says the Scripture in a certain" (First Epistle of Clement, 42).

In other words, just as Christ came from the Father, the Apostles came from Christ (cf. Jn 20:21). Subsequently, the Apostles appointed bishops and deacons as superintendents and servants over the communities of Christians they had founded. Clement then quotes the Septuagint version of Isaiah 60:17 in a variant no longer extant. The critical text here reads,
καὶ δώσω τοὺς ἄρχοντάς σου ἐν εἰρήνῃ καὶ τοὺς ἐπισκόπους σου ἐν δικαιοσύνῃ, "and I will make thy princes peaceable, and thine overseers righteous." Leaving aside questions of the historical-critical method, Acts 14:23 speaks of Sts Paul and Barnabas appointing presbyters in the Churches they established in Asia Minor; in Phil 1:1, St Paul refers to the "bishops and deacons" in the Church at Philippi.

But we can go back futher still. According to his brief autobiography in Gal 1:11-2:12, St Paul retreated to Arabia and then to Damascus after his conversion (1:17). Three years after his conversion, Paul met with the leadership of the Mother-Church at Jerusalem (1:18). "Then after fourteen years, I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, and also took Titus with me" (2:1). This would correspond with Acts 15 during which the first "dogmatic decree" was issued by the Church. But note that Paul speaks of his companionship with Barnabas, who first emerges in Acts 4:36. Later, in Acts 11:22, the Church at Jerusalem had dispatched Barnabas to encourage the Church at Antioch (good riddance, for his name means "son of encouragement"). Soon, he sought out "Saul" and both of them "assembled with the Church and taught a great many people. And the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch" (Acts 11:26).

What is significant is that while Paul encountered the Lord Jesus on the way to Damascus and from this experience received a transmission of Divine Revelation from Him, he never presumed any authority therefrom. In fact, his mission was not inaugurated until a certain liturgical experience (
λειτουργούντων δὲ αὐτῶν τῷ κυρίῳ, Acts 13:2) at the Antiochian Church, during which the Holy Spirit commanded that Barnabas and Saul be "set apart...for the work to which I have called them" (ibid.). While indeed the experience on the way to Damascus was an encounter with the Risen Christ, we cannot ignore this encounter with the Holy Spirit, or even to set the two in opposition. Jesus Christ invited Saul to believe in him while on the way to Damascus; the Holy Spirit invited him to exercise an office. "Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off" (Acts 13:3). The Antiochian Church was planted as a result of the Christian diaspora following the martyrdom of St Stephen the Archdeacon (11:19); it had also grown due to the witness of Christians from Cyrpus and Cyrene, but it was not allowed to flourish without any oversight from the Mother-Church at Jerusalem: "News of this came to the ears of the Church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch" (11:12). St Luke the Evangelist does not tell us what "rank" Barnabas held when he was sent from Jerusalem to Antioch, but he most certainly exercised an authority, especially in light of 12:23. Later, "prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch," who were, again, authority-figures in the earliest Church (and who, apparently, still flourished when the Didache was composed: "But permit the prophets to make Eucharist as much as they desire," 10.7).

There is no question of the "ordination" of Paul and Barnabas, since the "imposition of hands" is a recurrent motif in the Scriptures which signals a transfer of authority. The classic example of Moses bestowing authority on Joshua in Numbers 27:18, 23) should suffice as a paradigm example.

What is even more significant is that St Paul did not presume to act on his own authority--despite being called by Christ and dispatched by the leadership of the Antiochian Church. "Then after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with barnabas, taking Titus along with me. I went up in response to a revelation. Then I laid before them (though only in a private meeting with the acknowledged leaders) the gospel that I proclaim among the Gentiles, in order to make sure that I was not running, or had not run, in vain" (Gal 2:1-2). In other words, Paul wanted to ensure that his teaching was consonant with the that of the Twelve, and indeed it was, as the verdict of the "Jerusalem Conference" decreed. Later, he was 'promoted': "...and when James and Cephas and John, who were acknowledged pillars, recognised the grace that had been given to me, they gave to Barnabas and me the right hand of fellowship..." (Gal 2:9).

Even after granting a kind of nihil obstat, the Jerusalem Church still saw it fit to provide additional oversight to the Antiochian Church: "Then the apostles and the presbyters, with the consent of the whole Church, decided to choose men from among their members and to send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They sent Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leaders among the brothers..." (Acts 15:22).

Space necessitates passing over many more details of St Paul's ministry, especially with respect to his work in perpetuating the Church's authority and leadership. In the chapter following the narrative of the "ordination" of Paul and Barnabas, St Luke reports that "After they had appointed presbyters for them in each church, with prayer and fasting they entrusted them to the Lord in whom they had come to believe" (14:22).

Where is St Peter in all of this? Apart from his role at the Jerusalem Conference, he appears to have been a travelling bishop who, on the basis of his authority as primus inter pares among the Apostles addressed the Churches scattered across "Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia" (1 Pet 1:1)--quite a large expanse of territory to address a letter, for which reason we must assume was intended to have an "encyclical" quality. Towards the end of his first epistle, St Peter speaks about the exercise of the Pastoral Office: "Now as a presbyter myself...I exhort the presbyters among you to tend the flock of God what is in your charge, exercising the oversight [
ἐπισκοποῦντες]" (5:1-2). The Apostle here speaks clearly of the exercise of episcopal authority, that is to say, the authority of a bishop. The scarcity of New Testament witness to the ministry of St Peter makes the witness of the Early Fathers--especially the Apostolic Fathers and the Apologists--to be invaluable. We cannot delve further here.

Finally, let us consider the evidence of the Epistle to the Hebrews on the question of ecclesial leadership. The author makes use of the Greek noun hegumenos (pl. hegoumenoi) to denote the officers of the Church to whom Christians owe obedience. "Remember your leaders [
ἡγουμένων], who preached the Word of God to you, and as you reflect the outcome of their lives, imitate their faith (Heb 13:7); "Obey your leaders [ἡγουμένοις] and do as they tell you, because they must give an account of the way the look after your souls; make this a joy for them and not a grief--you yourselves would be the losers" (Heb 13:17); "Greetings to all your leaders [ἡγουμένοις] and to all the holy ones" (Heb 13:24). Jean Galot explains that "hegoumenos which is the participle of a verb that means 'to walk in front of, to guide, to lead, to command,' and implies 'preeminence, authority, direction'" (Theology of the Priesthood, San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1985 [63]). These leaders cannot be anyone other than those established by the Apostles and, in turn, their successors (cf. 1 Clement 42 above).

Both Sts Peter and Paul brought their testimony of Christ to Rome. The 'grand finale' of the Acts of the Apostles is that St Paul arrived at Rome, first as a confessor (cf. 28:14b, 30-31) and then as a martyr, for which the Papal Basilica of St Paul Outside-the-Walls stands as an eloquent memorial. On 6 December 2006, it was announced that this glorious "Apostle to the Nations" was indeed interred at this church. St Peter hints at his presence in Rome by the code-word "Babylon" (1 Pet 5:13). He is interred beneath the high altar at the Patriarchal Basilica of St Peter on the Vatican Hill. From Rome, then, emanated the Church's mission to proclaim the Gospel to the whole world, since it was to the Successor of Peter and the bishops in communion with him that the task of evangelism was entrusted. Today, this communion is manifested, in part, by the bestowal of the pallium by the Successor of Peter to the metropolitan archbishops. It was on this date in 2007 that the Archbishop of Edmonton, the Most Reverend Richard Smith was invested with the pallium to signify his charge to "tend to the flock of God" that is in his charge (1 Pet 5:2). On this Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul, the Church commemorates our ecclesial communion that is effected, in part (albeit significantly) by our own communion with the local bishop. As St Ignatius of Antioch--who received the office from St John the Evangelist--said, "Wheresoever the bishop appears, let the people be, even as wheresoever Christ is, there is the Catholic Church" (Epistle to the Smyrnaeans, 8).

For Further Reading

Henry Chadwick, The Early Church (London, UK: Penguin Books, 1993).

Frederick J. Cwiekowski, The Beginnings of the Church (New York, NY: Paulist Press, 1988).

J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines (San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins, 1979).

Adrian Fortescue, The Early Papacy to the Synod of Chalcedon in 451 (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2008).

Veselin Kesich, Formation and Struggles, Part 1 (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir Seminary Press, 2007).

Francis Sullivan, From Apostles to Bishops: The Development of the Episcopacy in the Early Church (New York, NY: Paulist Press, 2001).


This entry is dedicated to the Most Reverend Lord, +RICHARD WILLIAM SMITH, Archbishop of the Metropolitan Church of Edmonton. Ad multos annos.