Today, June 29, the Christian world commemorates the martyrdom, in Rome, of Saints Peter and Paul. In this sermon, St Leo the Great — perhaps the most eloquent of the successors of St Peter — extols the virtues of the two Princes of the Apostles.
I. Rome owes its high position to these Apostles.
The whole world, dearly-beloved, does indeed take part in all holy anniversaries, and loyalty to the one Faith demands that whatever is recorded as done for all men’s salvation should be everywhere celebrated with common rejoicings. But, besides that reverence which to-day’s festival has gained from all the world, it is to be honoured with special and peculiar exultation in our city, that there may be a predominance of gladness on the day of their martyrdom in the place where the chief of the Apostles met their glorious end.
For these are the men, through whom the light of Christ’s gospel shone on thee, O Rome, and through whom thou, who wast the teacher of error, wast made the disciple of Truth. These are thy holy Fathers and true shepherds, who gave thee claims to be numbered among the heavenly kingdoms, and built thee under much better and happier auspices than they, by whose zeal the first foundations of thy walls were laid: and of whom the one that gave thee thy name defiled thee with his brother’s blood.
These are they who promoted thee to such glory, that being made a holy nation, a chosen people, a priestly and royal state, and the head of the world through the blessed Peter’s holy See thou didst attain a wider sway by the worship of God than by earthly government.
For although thou wert increased by many victories, and didst extend thy rule on land and sea, yet what thy toils in war subdued is less than what the peace of Christ has conquered.
II. The extension of the Roman empire was part of the Divine scheme.
For the good, just, and Almighty God, Who has never withheld His mercy from mankind, and has ever instructed all men alike in the knowledge of Himself by the most abundant benefits, has by a more secret counsel and a deeper love shown pity upon the wanderers’ voluntary blindness and proclivities to evil, by sending His co-equal and co-eternal Word. Which becoming flesh so united the Divine Nature with the human that He by lowering His Nature to the uttermost has raised our nature to the highest. But that the result of this unspeakable Grace might be spread abroad throughout the world, God’s Providence made ready the Roman empire, whose growth has reached such limits that the whole multitude of nations are brought into close connexion.
For the Divinely-planned work particularly required that many kingdoms should be leagued together under one empire, so that the preaching of the world might quickly reach to all people, when they were held beneath the rule of one state. And yet that state, in ignorance of the Author of its aggrandisement though it rule almost all nations, was enthralled by the errors of them all, and seemed to itself to have fostered religion greatly, because it rejected no falsehood.
And hence its emancipation through Christ was the more wondrous that it had been so fast bound by Satan.
III. On the dispersing of the Twelve, St. Peter was sent to Rome.
For when the twelve Apostles, after receiving through the Holy Ghost the power of speaking with all tongues, had distributed the world into parts among themselves, and undertaken to instruct it in the Gospel, the most blessed Peter, chief of the Apostolic band, was appointed to the citadel of the Roman empire, that the light of Truth which was being displayed for the salvation of all the nations, might spread itself more effectively throughout the body of the world from the head itself.
What nation had not representatives then living in this city; or what peoples did not know what Rome had learnt?
Here it was that the tenets of philosophy must be crushed, here that the follies of earthly wisdom must be dispelled, here that the cult of demons must be refuted, here that the blasphemy of all idolatries must be rooted out, here where the most persistent superstition had gathered together all the various errors which had anywhere been devised.
IV. St. Peter’s love conquered his fears in coming to Rome.
To this city then, most blessed Apostle Peter, thou dost not fear to come, and when the Apostle Paul, the partner of thy glory, was still busied with regulating other churches, didst enter this forest of roaring beasts, this deep, stormy ocean with greater boldness than when thou didst walk upon the sea. And thou who hadst been frightened by the high priest’s maid in the house of Caiaphas, hadst no fear of Rome the mistress of the world.
Was there any less power in Claudius, any less cruelty in Nero than in the judgment of Pilate or the Jews’ savage rage? So then it was the force of love that conquered the reasons for fear: and thou didst not think those to be feared whom thou hadst undertaken to love. But this feeling of fearless affection thou hadst even then surely conceived when the profession of thy love for the Lord was confirmed by the mystery of the thrice-repeated question.
And nothing else was demanded of this thy earnest purpose than that thou shouldst bestow the food wherewith thou hadst thyself been enriched, on feeding His sheep whom thou didst love.
V. St. Peter was providentially prepared for his great mission.
Thy confidence also was increased by many miraculous signs, by many gifts of grace, by many proofs of power. Thou hadst already taught the people, who from the number of the circumcised had believed: thou hadst already founded the Church at Antioch, where first the dignity of the Christian name arose: thou hadst already instructed Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, in the laws of the Gospel-message: and, without doubt as to the success of the work, with full knowledge of the short span of thy life didst carry the trophy of Christ’s cross into the citadel of Rome, whither by the Divine fore-ordaining there accompanied thee the honour of great power and the glory of much suffering.
VI. Many noble martyrs have sprung from the blood of SS. Peter and Paul.
Thither came also thy blessed brother-Apostle Paul, “the vessel of election,” and the special teacher of the Gentiles, and was associated with thee at a time when all innocence, all modesty, all freedom was in jeopardy under Nero’s rule. Whose fury, inflamed by excess of all vices, hurled him headlong into such a fiery furnace of madness that he was the first to assail the Christian name with a general persecution, as if God’s Grace could be quenched by the death of saints, whose greatest gain it was to win eternal happiness by contempt of this fleeting life.
“Precious,” therefore, “in the eyes of the Lord is the death of His saints”: nor can any degree of cruelty destroy the religion which is founded on the mystery of Christ’s cross.
Persecution does not diminish but increase the church, and the Lord’s field is clothed with an ever richer crop, while the grains, which fall singly, spring up and are multiplied a hundred-fold. Hence how large a progeny have sprung from these two Heaven-sown seeds is shown by the thousands of blessed martyrs, who, rivalling the Apostles’ triumphs, have traversed the city far and wide in purple-clad and ruddy-gleaming throngs, and crowned it, as it were with a single diadem of countless gems.
VII. No distinction must be drawn between the merits of the two.
And over this band, dearly-beloved, whom God has set forth for our example in patience and for our confirmation in the Faith, there must be rejoicing everywhere in the commemoration of all the saints, but of these two Fathers’ excellence we must rightly make our boast in louder joy, for God’s Grace has raised them to so high a place among the members of the Church, that He has set them like the twin light of the eyes in the body, whose Head is Christ.
About their merits and virtues, which pass all power of speech, we must not make distinctions, because they were equal in their election, alike in their toils, undivided in their death.
But as we have proved for ourselves, and our forefathers maintained, we believe, and are sure that, amid all the toils of this life, we must always be assisted in obtaining God’s Mercy by the prayers of special interceders, that we may be raised by the Apostles’ merits in proportion as we are weighed down by our own sins. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, etc.
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