According to venerable ancient tradition, the city of Rome was founded on April 21, 753 BC, by twin brothers, Romulus and Remus, whose father was Mars, the god of war. Abandoned as infants, they had been nursed by a wolf in a grotto beneath Rome’s Palatine Hill. It is said that the two argued about which hill to build on – Romulus preferring the Palatine and Remus the Aventine. In any case, when Romulus began building his city wall on his hill, Remus ridiculed his brother’s work and then ominously jumped over the wall, thus belittling his brother’s accomplishment. Romulus responded by killing him - thus guaranteeing which one of them Rome would be named after! In time, of course, Rome would become the greatest city in the world, the capital of the greatest empire the world had ever yet known.
To that same city, some 8 centuries after its 1st king’s murder of his brother, came two men, Peter and Paul, brothers not by blood, but by their common faith in Jesus Christ, who had called them to be apostles. The Christian community they found in Rome was small, socially and politically insignificant - an easy target when the Emperor Nero needed scapegoats to blame for a destructive fire in the year A.D. 64. Among those who gave their lives as witnesses to the Christian faith in that 1st Roman persecution of the Church were the apostles Peter and Paul.
Presumably Peter and Paul could have found ways to avoid martyrdom. Many others did, after all. One famous story recounts how Peter could have fled to safety but returned to Rome and embraced his martyrdom after meeting Jesus on the road. “Lord, where are you going,” Peter had asked. “I am going to Rome to be crucified again,” Jesus responded.
If the small, threatened Christian community of Rome required encouragement and confidence to persevere in their new faith, what more powerful reinforcement could they have had than the witness offered by the martyrdom of those two illustrious apostles - Peter, crucified on the Vatican Hill, and Paul, beheaded on the Ostian Way - who were the Church’s link back to the Risen Lord himself!
In the words of the ancient 5th century hymn - Decora lux aeternitatis auream (ascribed to Elpis, wife of the philosopher Boethius) – which is sung on this annual solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul: Founders of Rome, they bind the world in loyalty; One by the sword achieved, one by the cross his fate; With laurelled brows they hold eternal royalty.
The old Rome, which Romulus had founded – powerful pagan Rome – founded on the murder of one brother by another, was, for all its grandeur, a human city like any other, a warring conqueror city to be conquered in turn by other warring conquerors. The new Christian Rome of Peter and Paul ultimately conquered the old Rome, but in a new way. The powerful pagan Rome, founded on the murder of one brother by another, was itself conquered by the faith that empowered the brothers-in-Christ to die together as witnesses to a new way of life.
This feast of Saints Peter and Paul is, not surprisingly, celebrated with greatest solemnity in Rome itself, where 2 famous churches - St. Peter’s Basilica and the Basilica of St. Paul’s Outside the Walls - rise above their tombs. On this feast, newly appointed metropolitan archbishops receive from the Successor of St. Peter the pallium, a band of lamb’s wool, blessed in January and placed on St. Peter’s tomb, before being conferred as “a symbol of unity and a sign of communion with the Apostolic See, a bond of love, and an incentive to courage” (Ceremonial of Bishops, #1154). This year, three American archbishops will be among the group receiving the pallium – the new archbishops of Cincinnati. Miami, and Milwaukee.
As we celebrate this day made holy for us by the mission and martyrdom of SS. Peter and Paul, let us also, as St. Augustine once said on this occasion (Sermon 295), “embrace what they believed, their life, their labors, their sufferings, their preaching, and their confession of faith.”