As June came to a close, our Church celebrated the solemnity of the feast of Saints Peter and Paul on June 29th. What strikes me though when I think of both of these leaders of our faith is how both were very different, yet very much united.
One the one hand, Paul was educated; Peter a fisherman. Peter was apparently a better speaker; Paul better at writing. And both had differences of opinion in terms of how to minister to new people coming into the Church. Yet through it all, both men were united and overcame any differences to use their gifts to help the Church grow.
Indeed, if you’ve ever seen an icon of Peter and Paul, they are often depicted closely together giving one another the sign of peace.
Thinking about the situation in the world today, to me it seems Peter and Paul and how they lived and evangelized is more timely than ever. This is because there can be so much division.
On the one hand, there’s nothing wrong with some division. It’s a good thing for people to like different things and have different interests; it’s also a good thing in the Church to have people with different gifts and talents, and even some different liturgical styles. But sometimes things can go a bit too far. When we look at someone who differs from us as less of a coworker in the vineyard and more as a threat or someone we have to “fix” this can be a problem. Certainly there is a balance, in that there are some things that are non-negotiable in our faith and moral teachings. We also believe that our Church is exclusive in that Christ created one, holy, catholic apostolic Church, not thousands of denominations. But what we can learn from Peter and Paul is how to both work together and how to evangelize to others.
A starting point is knowing that we are all the same: equally sinners, but equally loved by God. Humility is a good thing. All the great saints have it; remember Saint John the Baptist who said He was not worthy to untie the sandals of Jesus and who humbly pointed the way to the Lord. Paul would often boast of weaknesses or call himself least of the apostles for his past in persecuting the Church. Peter’s first words to Jesus are to depart from me Lord for I am a sinful man. Neither of these holy men assumed they had a right to anything, yet Jesus calls them. And His love and the Spirit transform them. As Christians, we must always be aware of the two sides of the coin. On the one hand, recognizing that we have gifts, and also having fortitude because there may indeed be a “right” way and a “wrong” way, in particular when we work with others on faith and morals. But on the other, we also must remember we are works in progress. Sometimes it can be easy to slip into arrogance or a condescending demeanor to others. Even after they followed Jesus, both Peter and Paul sinned again like we all do. But they are saints because they never let that authority and power given to them get to their head.
We also must recognize that there is often more than one way to do something. Peter and Paul knew this well thanks to the Holy Spirit. At the Council of Jerusalem, where the two initially disagree about the requirements for Gentile converts, Peter learns from the guidance of the Spirit that he needs to back off on being so rigid and set in his ways for new converts to follow certain dietary laws and circumcision. Stubbornness can be a real obstacle to spiritual growth and also developing new friendships. Change can be difficult at times, but we have to trust in the power of the Holy Spirit and in one another too. This means being open to change, listening to others, and recognizing the gifts that we each have. I also encourage people to try different things to help in their own spiritual growth. There’s so much our Church offers spiritually in terms of practices and reading material and ways to pray. Maybe you’ve never tried a retreat, a Taize prayer service or a rosary. Check these things out and don’t get stuck in a rut.
We also have to accept the fact that because we are many, we have to let things go at times. The Church is not a democracy; we are guided by the pope and bishops who work with us, and love us, but ultimately will also challenge us. The content of the faith never changes, but our understanding of it and how we live it out does change over time. At the universal level, we may see liturgy changes, or receive a teaching from the pope or bishops that might challenge us. The struggle isn’t a bad thing – but taking an attitude of “the pope and bishops have no authority to change the structure of the Mass” or “Who’s the pope to tell me whether I can or cannot use birth control” is a problem. He is the vicar of Christ, but he works in conjunction with the bishops of the world and of course the guidance of the Holy Spirit. At the local level, it’s also important we work with one another and accept changes too. Changes are inevitable in parishes on many things; we might not all like them and may disagree, but we need to work together and give our brothers and sisters the benefit of the doubt that we are both working towards the same mission, namely making our local and universal Church better under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Thinking things through with prudence is also key. Sometimes we can get set in our ways, but we need to listen and to be open to other ways of doing things. Of course this includes prayer, listening to the voice of God. But it also means listening to others who have different ideas just as Peter listened to Paul at the Council of Jerusalem. We might find that a person we disagreed with initially may in fact be on to something.
Lastly, prayer should always be a part of all that we do. Working with others can be difficult, both in the parish and in the world. When we disagree with people, it can be easy to get frustrated. But they are still our brothers and sisters in Christ. We should open our eyes to their gifts and always keep them in prayer, and pray also for ourselves to be patient and try to see their positives and not just the negatives.
Indeed we are many parts but one body. In an era where things can be so divisive, Peter and Paul remind us to work together with one another to build up God’s Kingdom. We may always have different ideas of how to do it, but hopefully we can strive to focus more on what unites us rather than what divides us.