Peter and Paul are often depicted together in iconography in a circle, embracing one another in a brotherly hug with expressions of affection. In contrast, images of Romulus and Remus, the mythological twins, are usually facing away from each other.
According to legend, Romulus and Remus, after whom the city of Rome was named, were abandoned at birth and cast into the Tiber River. When they grew up, the twins embarked on a quest to found their own city. Romulus and Remus disagreed about which hill to build their city on. Eventually, Romulus just started digging a ditch around the Palatine Hill and building a wall. Remus mocked his brother’s work, and in a fit of anger Romulus killed him; Rome and her empire were founded on fratricide.
Now contrast this with the re-founding of Rome through the spread of Christianity by Sts. Peter and Paul. If anyone had a cause for strife and division, it was these two. Paul was the chief persecutor of the early Christians led by Peter. These two, at first, had little in common. It took divine action to make these enemies into brothers. Peter and Paul were ultimately bound together in a bond stronger than blood: the love of Christ.
It is in this love that Peter and Paul had the foundation of their relationship. Through Christ, these two men were closer than twins in the womb. That’s something I don’t think we fully understand today. Media often portrays the family as the highest and most deserving of our love and loyalty, but there is One who has a higher claim on us. Jesus says, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me.” God must come first in our lives, as he did for Peter and Paul. All of our relationships need to take their cue from this one. It isn’t that these natural, human relationships are bad; quite the contrary, they are good. But they are called to be ordered and rooted in the love of Christ.
For Peter and Paul, Jesus of Nazareth was the source of their relationship. Peter knew Jesus and walked with him for three years before Christ entrusted him with his flock. Paul, formerly Saul of Tarsus, persecuted Christ by persecuting his followers until Jesus appeared to him on the way to Damascus. Peter and Paul eventually met and talked about the workings of God in their lives and in their ministry.
That doesn’t mean they always got along perfectly. In what is known as the “Incident in Antioch,” Paul calls Peter out on the issue of whether or not Gentile converts have to first become Jews and follow Jewish laws in order to be “real” Christians. Peter had previously stated that the Gentiles had no need to follow Jewish custom, and that the new covenant was open to all. However, under pressure from Jerusalem, Peter went back on his word. He traveled to Antioch, where Paul was, and Paul “opposed him to his face because he clearly was wrong.” One can almost hear the exasperation in Paul’s voice as he writes of the incident. But along with the exasperation, one can hear love. Paul is not calling Peter out for the sake of pointing out his spiritual brother’s mistake, but for the sake of the Church and Christ, whom they both love and preach. Peter accepted Paul’s rebuke. In fact, it gave Peter courage to stand up to the Judaizers, those who wanted the Gentiles to practice Jewish customs. Paul always accepted and sought out Peter’s authority as head of the Church, but it didn’t stop him from encouraging his brother to remember the truth and to care for the souls entrusted to him.
Peter and Paul remind us that brothers can be born from unlikely sources. Early Christian tradition tells us they were imprisoned together for nine months before their martyrdoms on the same day. The New Rome and her Kingdom were founded on fraternal love. As we celebrate the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul, let us look to their model of fraternal correction and mutual love as we work to spread the Gospel message in our own lives.
Questions for Reflection: Have you ever had to challenge a friend or family member to become a better version of themselves? Has anyone ever called you out on something you were doing that wasn’t in line with your faith?