This is the homily that I preached in 2009 at First Vespers of Saints Peter and Paul in the Cathedral of the Holy Family in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The liturgical references are to the reformed rite.
Spiritually in Rome
This evening, with the Church’s evening sacrifice of praise, we enter into the festival of the Apostles Peter and Paul and bring the Pauline Year to a close. The Vespers hymn given us by the Church would have sing: “The beauteous light of God’s eternal majesty / Streams down in golden rays to grace this holy day (Aurea luce). We find ourselves on pilgrimage to the Eternal City; spiritually we are in Rome at the tombs of Peter, the Keeper of Heaven’s Gate, and of Paul, the Teacher of the Nations. Describing Rome as the eyes of faith see her, the hymn goes on to say:
O happy Rome! who in thy martyr princes’ blood,
A twofold stream, art washed and doubly sanctified.
All earthly beauty thou alone outshinest far,
Empurpled by their outpoured life-blood’s glorious tide.
Grace Abounds All the More
The mere tourist on a Roman holiday, rushing from one attraction to another, and distracted by a wildly delicious assault of sights, sounds, smells, and tastes, misses the city’s most precious secrets: the mortal remains of Saints Peter and Paul, and the immortal holiness of streets, and stones, and earth soaked in the blood of a host of other martyrs. “But Father,” you may object, “I have been to Rome” — it is rife with sin and thievery.” Saint Paul, addressing the Romans, answers, saying: “Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Rom 5:20).
A Cascade of Graces
Mystically transported to the tombs of Saints Peter and Saint Paul and enveloped by the liturgy of the feast, we are already standing under a cascade of graces coming down from the Father of lights (Jas 1:17). Every feast in the Church’s calendar, indeed every Hour of the Divine Office of every feast, is the vehicle of a particular grace: one coloured by the saint or mystery being celebrated and divinely adapted to whatever our present needs may be.
The first antiphon, taken from Mathew 16:16-17, is composed of a word pronounced by Peter, and of Jesus’ reply. Peter confesses his faith: “Thou art Christ, the Son of the living God.” Straightaway Our Lord confirms him in his faith: “Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-Jona.” This first antiphon framed Psalm 116 for us: the shortest psalm in the Bible. Psalm 116 has but two verses: a clarion call summoning all the nations to praise the Lord because His mercy over us is confirmed, and because His truth will abide forever.
Blessed Art Thou
If you would enter into the grace of the first antiphon and psalm, make Peter’s confession of faith your own, and then listen to Our Lord say to you, “Blessed art thou.” If your own faith is beset with doubts, and uncertain in the face of suffering, lean on the faith of Peter and of the Church. Persevere in repeating Peter’s prayer — “Thou art Christ, the Son of the living God.” Say it even if you feel nothing. Say it even if you think that your prayer is going nowhere. Say it even if you think no one is listening. The mercy of Christ will, at the appointed hour, break through the darkness that surrounds you, and you will hear Him say to you, as He said to Peter, “Blessed art thou.”
The second antiphon is taken from Matthew 16:18. Our Lord Jesus Christ speaks, saying: “Thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church” (Mt 16:18). These words, once addressed to Simon Bar-Jona have been repeated to each of his 265 successors as Bishop of Rome. This is the antiphon sung to greet the Pope every time he solemnly enters Saint Peter’s Basilica. And this is the text written in monumental letters around the base of the great dome of Saint Peter’s.
Pray for the Pope and for the Church
Today, this antiphon opens and closes Psalm 147, a hymn in praise of the Lord who so loves His Church that He blesses her children, places peace in her borders, and fills her with the wheat of the Most Holy Eucharist, the swift-running efficacy of His Word, and the very Breath of His mouth, the Holy Spirit. Both the antiphon and the psalm invite us to pray fervently and gratefully for Pope Benedict XVI and for the Church. Prayer for the Pope is as old as the Church herself. We read in Acts 12:5: “But prayer was made without ceasing by the Church for him [Peter]” (Ac 12:5).
The third antiphon is addressed to Saint Paul. It is an artfully crafted composition, made up of Acts 9:15 and 1 Timothy 2:7. This illustrates, incidentally, that the Church is sovereignly free in her use of Sacred Scripture in the liturgy. Guided by the Holy Ghost, she so grasps the unity of the Bible, that she knows how to lift out first one verse and then another. She then reassembles them in such a way that they become a fitting expression of her prayer for all times.
In Acts 9:15, Our Lord appears to Ananias in a vision. When Ananias protests to Him that he wants nothing to do with this hateful Saul, Our Lord answers, “Go thy way, for this man is to me a vessel of election” (Ac 9:15). That is the first part of the antiphon. In the second part — 2 Timothy 2:7 — Paul boasts of his divinely conferred credentials: “I am appointed a preacher and an apostle, (I say the truth, I lie not,) a doctor of the Gentiles in faith and truth.”
This antiphon opens and closes a canticle that Saint Paul either composed or learned from hearing it sung in the assemblies of the Church. It is a song of praise and thanksgiving, glorifying God the Father for having chosen us in Christ, His Beloved Son, for the praise of His glorious grace. In this canticle, grace is the keyword. Grace is the graciousness of God in action, through the Son, by the power of the Holy Spirit. Grace is what changed Saul into Paul, making him God’s vessel of election, and the preacher of the truth in the world. Grace is what will change us from what we are — frail, broken sinners — into the saints God wants us to be forever. Hold fast to the Our Lord’s own words to Saint Paul: “My grace is sufficient for thee; for my power is made perfect in infirmity” (2 Cor 12:9).
It comes as no surprise that the short lesson this evening should be from Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. It is, in fact, the salutation from the very beginning of his letter: “To all that are at Rome — and, spiritually, we are there this evening — the beloved of God called to be saints. Grace to you, and peace from God our Father, and from the Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom 1:7). This is a greeting that delivers what it wishes. It is the word of God uttered in the midst of the Church: no vapid sentimentality here, but rather the efficacious Word of God sent like a flaming arrow into the hearts of those who hear it.
The Reponsory tells us that the Apostles spoke the Word of God with confidence and boldness, bearing witness to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Latin text has cum fiducia, with assurance, confidence, and trust. Trust in whom? Trust in our Lord Jesus Christ and in the Holy Spirit. “I will ask the Father, and He shall give you another Paraclete, that He may abide with you forever” (Jn 14:16). There is no reason then to be timid and shrinking about our Catholic faith, even in an intimidating culture that mocks it, rejects the hope it offers, and would have us dilute it. Apostolic Catholic Christianity is to be lived cum fiducia, with confidence, and boldly.
The Magnificat Antiphon will have us sing: “The glorious Apostles of Christ, just as they loved each other in life, so too, are they not separated in death.” Did Peter and Paul love each other? Yes. Did they always agree about everything? No. It is this that makes their fraternal love credible, even more compelling. What was this charity with which they loved each other? It is the charity that Saint Paul describes in First Corinthians: a charity that is patient, is kind, that envieth not, that dealeth not perversely, and that is not puffed up; a charity that is not ambitious, that seeketh not her own, that is not provoked to anger; a charity that beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, and endureth all things” (1 Cor 13:4-7).
The Collect, in its own way, tells us quite a lot about God and about ourselves. It is proper to this evening and different from the one that we will hear at Mass and at the Hours tomorrow:
Give us, we beseech Thee, O Lord our God,
to be lifted up by the intercession of the blessed Apostles Peter and Paul,
so that through them to whom Thou gavest Thy Church
the first proofs of heavenly gifts,
Thou wouldst provide us with helps for everlasting salvation.
We pray to God as a people in need of being lifted up. We are fallen and falling . . . but God is ever ready to lift us up. Today He does so by the intercession of Saints Peter and Paul. Both of them knew what it is to fall. . . and to fall in a spectacular way. Now, in the glory of heaven, they are well placed to help us rise from the sin that, again and again, knocks us down. In the beginning, God gave Saints Peter and Paul signs and demonstrations of His heavenly protection; what He did for them in the first days of the Church, He is ready to do for us in 2009, at this end of the Year of Saint Paul and beginning of the Year of the Priest.
A Lamp to Our Feet
Under Saint Peter’s watchful eye, Saint Paul is handing the torch to Saint John Mary Vianney, the Curé d’Ars. Pray that this torch be for all of us, but especially for the priests of our diocese of Tulsa, “a lamp to our feet, and a light to our paths” (Ps 118:105).