Today Fr. Joel and Fr. Benjamin celebrate five years of serving Jesus and His Church as Catholic priests. God is very good, and these years have been filled with many challenges, and with many blessings.
Pope Benedict must have known about our priestly anniversary yesterday, since he hinted at it in his homily for the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul. If you were listening, you would have noticed he was giving us some advice for our priestly ministry:
In front of Saint Peter’s Basilica, as is well known, there are two imposing statues of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, easily recognizable by their respective attributes: the keys in the hand of Peter and the sword held by Paul. Likewise, at the main entrance to the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls, there are depictions of scenes from the life and the martyrdom of these two pillars of the Church. Christian tradition has always considered Saint Peter and Saint Paul to be inseparable: indeed, together, they represent the whole Gospel of Christ. In Rome, their bond as brothers in the faith came to acquire a particular significance. Indeed, the Christian community of this City considered them a kind of counterbalance to the mythical Romulus and Remus, the two brothers held to be the founders of Rome. A further parallel comes to mind, still on the theme of brothers: whereas the first biblical pair of brothers demonstrate the effects of sin, as Cain kills Abel, yet Peter and Paul, much as they differ from one another in human terms and notwithstanding the conflicts that arose in their relationship, illustrate a new way of being brothers, lived according to the Gospel, an authentic way made possible by the grace of Christ’s Gospel working within them. Only by following Jesus does one arrive at this new brotherhood: this is the first and fundamental message that today’s solemnity presents to each one of us..(June 29, 2012)
In the Old Testament stories, brotherhood is a tumultuous and conflicted relationship. Cain killed his brother Abel, Jacob and Esau fought one another for their birthright, and Jacob’s sons came just short of murdering their brother: instead they threw Joseph in a well and then sold him into slavery.
This reflects a number of other brother stories in history, including the famous brothers at the foundation of the city of Rome, Romulus and Remus. Usually they are depicted together as little boys, being nursed by a wolf (family life was just as rough back then as it is today). They were adopted and raised by a shepherd and his wife who had no children. In the process of trying to found a new city the brothers argued and Remus was killed by Romulus, according to one legend.
What I love about the Biblical stories is the way grace breaks through our violence: Jacob and Esau eventually forgive one another, and Joseph forgives his brothers. Grace cannot be seen in the Roman legend, only conflict. There is something profoundly disturbing about claiming that your civilization was founded by a wild, abandoned orphan boy who murdered his own brother. Civilization, even today, as a nasty streak of violence as those in power oppress those without power. There has always been a need for reasonable and limited government.
Jesus refused to play this game: Jesus chose to suffer from violence rather than to be on the “winning” side. It says a lot about your Church that it was founded by a boy who was wanted by his mother, lovingly adopted by her husband, and who chose to be murdered rather than oppose violence with violence. Saint Peter and Saint Paul made the same choice Jesus did: one was crucified and the other was beheaded.
The Church never puts St. Peter and St. Paul in competition. Today they stand on top of two ancient columns and look at one another across the city of Rome. They also appear together in Christian art as two pillars of the Church, and they are commemorated together in the same Solemnity. These two were certainly passionate men whose conflicts could have easily torn the infant Church apart. Instead, by God’s grace, they channeled their energy into suffering and spending their lives together, side by side, in the vineyard of the Lord. The grace of Jesus Christ points brothers away from fighting each other and towards fighting against evil and sin, a good lesson for everyone who has a brother!
People frequently ask me “So, who thought about priesthood first?” and I have never liked this question. The truth is that neither of us can remember who thought about priesthood first, and our parents don’t remember this either. The deeper truth is that I never liked this question because it tries to define us in competition with one another. I think I might start answering this question differently, “It doesn’t matter who was called first.” After all, Peter was called much earlier than Paul but in the end they both put in a full day’s work in the the vineyard of the Lord.