We celebrate this weekend our parish’s titular feast day, the Solemnity of Saint Peter and Saint Paul. This feast takes place on June 29th, but over the last few years we have switched its celebration to the nearest Sunday so that it may be celebrated more solemnly at our Sunday Masses. It is obvious why we call Saint Peter our titular saint— the parish being named Saint Peter’s; but perhaps the connection to Saint Paul is not so clear. It is because of the many years of faithful service that the Paulist Fathers rendered to this parish that we also honour Saint Paul as our parish’s other titular saint.
We are fortunate to have two such amazing saints as our parish’s titular patrons. Both St. Peter and St. Paul have so much to teach us. I believe these two great saints teach us by their lives both who we are and what we are called to become. Their lives show us the power of God’s grace to transform our lives and the way in which we are called to witness to what that grace is capable of doing in each of us.
It would be hard to find two people more unlikely to be “super-apostles.” As I have said about St. Peter often, he had a great temper, was always doubting the Lord and in the end, he denied the Lord three times. In fact, even after he had acknowledged that Jesus was the Son of God and the Messiah, Peter immediately is accused by Jesus of being Satan come to tempt Him. Peter will pull out a sword and try to prevent Jesus from being arrested. As the Lord tells the disciples that He will be handed over to the Romans and condemned, Peter attempts to tempt Him not to accept this fate. It is also Peter who professes His faith to Jesus before He dies with the bold words, “even if everyone else betrays you Lord, I will never deny you. Of course, we all know that he did so three times after the Lord was arrested. Peter ran away and abandoned the Lord as Jesus was dying to save him and us. Saint Paul has an even more colourful story. He was a proud Jew who denied that Jesus was the Christ. He actually set out to have Christians arrested and put to death for believing in Jesus. As he is out on one of his missions to capture Christians, Saul, as he was known then, had a vision of the Risen Christ in which he was struck blind. In his vision, Jesus says to him: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Paul is healed by Ananias and disappears for several years as he grows in his understanding of the faith. While he is away, he studies about Christ and will emerge as one of the great preachers of the faith. So strong was his reputation for persecuting Christians that when he reappears many are still frightened of him. When he goes to visit Christian communities, they remember his past and are initially untrusting of his motives.
These two dramatic stories show us what these two people were without God in their lives. With God they are completely transformed. Once the two of them come to believe not just in Jesus, but in the power of His resurrection, they allowed this Good News to change their lives. They become the two greatest apostles in the Church and are willing to die for their faith. Both Peter and Paul are in many ways considered to be the founders of the Roman Church. St. Peter was regarded with James to be the head of the Church. We see that Paul went up to Jerusalem to get the approval of Peter and the other disciples for his mission to bring the Good News to the Gentile people— those who were not Christian. Peter goes to Rome and becomes the head of the Church that is gathered there. He was eventually crucified upside down in the circus which was where St. Peter’s Basilica now stands in Rome. St. Paul travelled the entire Mediterranean Sea and established Churches in many different cities. As he had persecuted many Christians, he was also persecuted and suffered greatly for his faith. Once he was arrested for his faith, he appealed to Rome, saying that as a Roman citizen he had the right to appeal to the Emperor. This appeal brought him to Rome where he was eventually beheaded. A statue of these two great saints welcomes pilgrims to St. Peter’s Square when they go to visit.
When he was here seven years ago for the farewell Mass for the Paulist Fathers, Cardinal Collins spoke very eloquently about the role of these two apostles in the life of the Church. He said that Peter was the witness to the great faith and tradition that is at the heart of the Church. Just as Paul went up to Jerusalem to make sure that the faith that he was preaching was authentic and correct, the role of Peter and his successors, the Popes, are to keep all of us united in faith and true to the teachings which Jesus passed on to His disciples. St. Paul is the great model of evangelization and the example to all of us that we are called to witness to our faith in all situations. Paul dared to take his faith everywhere he went and proclaimed it to all people. He reminds all of us that we are called to preach the faith to all whom we meet and share with them the certainty that Christ is the savior of all people. St. Peter calls us to share the faith that we received from Christ, not one that we have made up on our own. St. Paul calls us to share it with as many people as we can; his life reminds us that faith is something that we are given in order that we might both be saved and share it with others.
This responsibility of sharing the true faith with others is a very large part of our parish history. The Paulist Fathers, who served our parish for so many years, were founded by Father Isaac Hecker. Father Hecker was a convert from Protestantism, and believed so strongly in the Church, that he took it as his mission to bring Catholicism to the predominantly Protestant United States. When the Paulist Fathers came to Toronto, they shared the faith with everyone who was interested. The Catholic Information Centre that they built in the 1950’s was the place where people came in Toronto if they wanted to become Catholic in the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s. This changed in the 1970’s as a result of something that happened at the Second Vatican Council. The Council asked that the Rites of Christian Initiation for Adults be restored for the entire Church. This stands for the “R.C.I.A.” These rites were to be celebrated in every parish. Because of this, people were no longer to come here to take a course, but to join their parish community and become Catholic by learning about the faith and celebrating the Church’s liturgy in their own parishes.
The Rites of Christian Initiation for Adults are rituals that are celebrated in the parish community to help make an individual a member of their Christian community and the Church. We are all of us members of the human family; but we belong to the human family because we are members of our own particular family. In the same way, we belong to the universal Church because we belong to a particular parish community. I cannot just walk into any Church and do what I like. I am only the parish priest here, because this is the Church I have been assigned to and attend. The same goes for all of you. If you are parishioners here, the Church says that it is here that you have to be baptized, married, and celebrate the sacraments. The Church defines a parishioner either as someone who lives at the present time in the parish boundaries or who attends Mass here every Sunday. I cannot baptize people who are not parishioners here without the permission of that person’s pastor. The rites of the R.C.I.A. make a person a member of the universal Church by making them a member of a particular parish.
I mention the rites of the R.C.I.A. because this week as we celebrate the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul, as I do every year at this time, I would like to ask you to follow their example and consider inviting someone to think about becoming Catholic. If there is someone in your family, at the office, or a friend who has expressed interest in the faith, please ask them this week to consider attending the R.C.I.A. in their parish this September. Most R.C.I.A.’s run from September to June, following the school year. They begin to meet in September and celebrate the rites of initiation— Baptism, Eucharist and Confirmation — at Easter. Most groups meet after Easter until mid-June, usually until after Pentecost. In our own parish, the R.C.I.A. meets on Tuesday evenings and discusses what takes place at the Sunday Mass as a way of sharing and learning who Jesus is and how to be a member of His Church. For those who wish to attend the R.C.I.A. here, Sunday Mass attendance here is a must. Here in this parish, the R.C.I.A. has been animated in a very lively way by one of our pastoral workers, Gabriel Nakonechny. The Christian faith is not a course that we pass, it is a life that we are invited to live. Both St. Peter and St. Paul show us examples of how God’s grace can transform the life of every person. They were so excited about what God had done for them, that they had to tell others about Jesus and invite others to share their faith in Christ.
This summer I would like to ask you to take the time to invite someone to consider becoming a Catholic. Please speak to them about the R.C.I.A. in their parish. If they live near here and are interested in coming to Church here regularly, please ask them to give me a call and speak to me about attending our R.C.I.A this September. If they do not know anything about Catholicism and have never been to Mass, invite them to come to Mass with you one Sunday. Saints Peter and Paul witnessed to their faith and invited others to consider becoming Christian. You may feel embarrassed to speak about the faith to another person. However, after the events of the pandemic, and in the midst of the present world turmoil, you may be surprised to discover that the message of our faith may be exactly what some people are searching to hear. As we celebrate the feast day of St. Peter and St. Paul, which is also our parish feast day, I would like to invite you to do the same work of evangelization that they did. Please ask someone who you think might be interested to consider becoming Catholic.
May God continue to bless our parish as we celebrate the Solemnity of Saint Peter and Saint Paul.
Fr. Michael McGourty,
Pastor— St. Peter’s Parish— Toronto.
This reflection is based upon the readings for the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul: Acts 3: 1-10; Psalm 19; Galatians 1:11-20; and John 21:15-19.