By Cardinal Justin Rigali
I recently returned from celebrating the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul in Rome, along with Pope Benedict XVI and the Archbishops who received the pallium, the distinct sign of their union with the Pope. This week, we will look at the great Apostles Peter and Paul and the example they give for our own Christian lives.
The need for models
We may say that there is something within the human personality that has need of models or heroes to look up to. We do not understand this need completely but it seems to manifest itself in many different ways and even transcends age groups. There is certainly nothing wrong with this. In fact, it is a pleasant part of human nature to know that there are other inspaniduals who become a part of our lives in some way and whom we admire so much that we want to be like them. When used correctly, this can make a virtuous life attractive and can show forth the advantages of living a good life in a practical and appealing way.
In the Old Testament, reference is frequently made to the men and women who were a part of Israel’s history and who remained models of fidelity for the Chosen People. Jesus even made the man who would prepare the way for Him, John the Baptist, a figure of virtue and leadership whom Jesus pointed to as a model. With the coming of Jesus, who is the perfect Man as well as the Eternal Son of God, we have Him as our perfect model. For Christians, He is the one whom we are called to admire, love and imitate. Insofar as others imitate Him and live out His virtues, we can also admire and imitate them.
From the earliest days of the Church, Christians pointed to the example of those who had gone before them and who had professed their faith in Jesus with great fidelity and courage, even to the point of death. In the first Eucharistic Prayer of the Mass, the Roman Canon, sometimes you will hear many names mentioned in the course of the Prayer. These are the men and women who gave witness to Christ in the earliest centuries and who were admired and honored by the early followers of Jesus. The fact that the Roman Canon was written in the third century and finalized by the fifth century tells us that these saints were models for the Christian life from the beginnings of the Church.
The saints are not far away cult figures
The Church, acting as our loving Mother, has always been vigilant that the saints be seen not as mere cult figures, who are admired from afar but have nothing to do with the realities of the life of an inspanidual. The Church celebrates the feasts of her great saints, as the universal Church celebrated the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul, so that we may not only honor these men and women but so that we may also imitate them. In this spirit, we see many virtues in the earthly lives of Peter and Paul, but there are two that we can highlight here; sorrow for sin and conversion.
We are all familiar with the fact that Peter denied our Lord, not once but three times. Jesus had predicted this denial in the face of Peter’s protestations of fidelity. A cynical, merely human view of Peter’s denial would be to say: “Look at him. He was supposed to be so faithful to Jesus. Now he denied him. What a hypocrite! What a phony!” However, Peter was nothing of the kind.
He, like many others down through the ages, truly loved Jesus but in his weakness He denied Him. He later professed a beautiful and sincere sorrow. We are told that “he went out and wept bitterly” (Luke 22:62). “Tears like these are the natural reaction of a noble heart moved by God’s grace; this love-sorrow, this contrition, when it is sincere, leads a person to make the firm resolution to do anything necessary to erase the least trace of sin he has committed” (The Navarre Bible: Saint Luke, p. 243). Peter is not a far away figure whom we can admire but not imitate. He is a very practical model for all of us, especially in his sorrow for sin.
We are also familiar with the famous incident in the life of Saint Paul, known as his conversion. Through God’s singular grace, Paul turned away from being one of the greatest persecutors of the Church to being its greatest preacher. Sometimes we are discouraged by our sins. We are discouraged by the fact that it seems that no matter how we try, we keep falling again. Once again, a cynical view of life, not seen through the eyes of faith, would cause us to give up in our efforts. Paul reminds us that the Christian life is one of constant conversion towards our Lord. Sometimes this involves a great conversion from a life of sin, like that of Saint Paul. But for all of us, the Christian life involves constant conversion in striving to be faithful, in sorrow for our sins and in our resolve to do better in the future.
This call to constant conversion is an ongoing theme of the Pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI. He spoke of it frequently during his Pastoral Visit to the United States and he continues to proclaim it at every opportunity. Each inspanidual Christian is called to work toward perfection through constant conversion. The fact that each of us has not yet attained our ideal or that others around us have not yet attained it, is not a cause for discouragement or cynicism but an acknowledgment of the reality of our common struggle for holiness. Saints Peter and Paul remind us that this holiness is attainable, even after sin and misplaced zeal may have drawn us away from God.
Perseverance in our efforts
A priest once told me the following story: He regularly heard the Confessions at the Mother house of a Community of Religious Sisters. According to custom, the senior Sister always saw him to the door. Invariably, as he left she would say: “Pray that I persevere, Father!” This would not be unusual except for the fact that she was ninety-five years old! The point being that we must all strive to the end in our efforts to be faithful to Jesus and to our relationship with Him.
When we read the lives of famous saints, who were known for holiness even in their lifetimes, we sometimes wonder why the Church didn’t proclaim them saints while they lived. This is because the Church is very careful not to encourage a cult of personality, because this type of admiration can sometimes be weak in its foundation and can be based on sentimentality, rather than a sincere understanding of what this man or woman represents and the lessons he or she is giving by the witness of a heroic Christian life. Likewise, we must all pray for perseverance to the end, and the fidelity of an inspanidual is tested to the very last moment of life.
The Church always wants to be as sure as possible that she is encouraging the imitation of someone who truly lived a Christ-like life. As Christians, we are called to imitate those we admire and admire only those whose lives can and should be imitated.
Saints Peter and Paul were filled with zeal early in life. In the case of Saint Peter, it was a zeal which had to mature through sorrow and persecution. In the case of Saint Paul, his zeal was misguided and needed to be transformed in Christ. The grace of God transformed the impetuous but weak love of Peter and the misplaced zeal of Paul into a mature faith, which gave them the strength to die martyrs’ deaths. Their tested and mature faith led them to their martyrdom and to the honor we now give them, along with the need to imitate them. They loved Jesus and His truth enough to die for the sake of this truth. Through their intercession and example may we at least live faithfully in this love and this truth.
9 July 2009