Peter and Paul, the Fathers of great Rome,
Now sitting in the Senate of the skies,
One by the cross, the other by the sword,
Sent to their thrones on high, to Life’s eternal prize.
Elpis, the wife of Boethius, sings the praises of St. Peter and St. Paul in her Latin poem, Decora lux aeternitatis. In another translation of this hymn, these two apostles are referred to as the “twin founders of Rome.” This historical allusion recalls the legend of the founding of the city of Rome by the twin brothers, Romulus and Remus. Their city matured into an Empire that was one of the most powerful civilizations in human history. Yet over 800 years from the founding of the city of Rome, another set of brothers, Peter and Paul, not natural brothers, but united by the bonds of the Spirit in Christ, laid a foundation of a new civilization which would outlast and outshine the Roman Empire.
Early Christian writers often contrasted Peter and Paul with Rome’s founders, Romulus and Remus. According to the ancient Roman myth, Rome was violently established when Romulus killed his brother as they laid the city’s walls. In comparison, Peter and Paul built up the civilization of love found in the Church with brotherly affection. The Roman Empire, in nascent form at the time of the twin founders, would rule the world through fear and violence under the shroud of the pax romana. Peter and Paul would set the example for the Church to serve the world through faith and charity under the mantle of the pax Christi. The spiritual kingdom of the Church would far surpass the boundaries of time and space to which the Roman Empire had aspired. As noted by Pope St. Leo the Great, the Roman Empire which was the great teacher of error became the disciple of Truth under the guidance of the two great apostles, Peter and Paul.
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Through preaching truth in word and practicing charity in deed, Peter and Paul re-founded the city of Rome for Christ. It was their brotherhood established in Christ which produced their fruitful collaboration. Their friendship seemed unlikely since Peter served as the leader of the Church while Paul was oppressing the Church. This seemingly insurmountable obstacle was removed by Christ’s direct intervention. Paul, the former persecutor of the Church, became a member of the persecuted Church. We do not know how many times the two great apostles met one another. It seems that the first visit between them took place three years after Paul’s conversion to Christianity. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul recounts that he went to visit Cephas in Jerusalem for 15 days (cf. Gal 1:18). The Greek word used by Paul for his visit, historeō, has a rich meaning and carries the connotation of seeing, observing, and inquiring. Its root is related to the English word “history” and has the sense of gathering data. We do not know what they discussed on this visit but perhaps Paul went to ask Peter to relate all the details of Christ’s life that he could remember since Paul had never met Jesus before the Resurrection. Certainly, Paul wanted to spend time observing the way Peter lived out his life in discipleship to Christ.
Again, in his letter to the Galatians, Paul mentions another visit between the two 14 years after this first encounter, perhaps at the Council of Jerusalem (cf. Gal 2:1). Paul came to Jerusalem to give his presentation of the gospel message to Cephas, James, and John, the “pillars” of the Church, to verify that he had not been preaching in vain (cf. Gal 2:9) and receives the handshake of fellowship from the other apostles. Even though Peter and Paul were to continue in their mission to preach the good news to both Jews and Gentiles, Paul was confirmed in his special mission to the Gentiles as Peter was confirmed in his preaching to the Jewish people (cf. Gal 2:7). Oftentimes this is depicted in art with Peter crowned for his gathering members of the Church from the circumcised (ecclesia ex circumcision) and Paul crowned for his efforts in collecting souls from the Gentiles (ecclesia ex gentibus).
The last Scriptural record of an encounter between the two is also found in the letter to the Galatians. At the council of Jerusalem, Peter made a judgment that Gentile converts to Christianity would not be bound to observe Jewish kosher laws. However, when Peter is in Antioch with Paul he began to spend too much time with a group of Jewish converts to Christianity who believed that the Gentiles were obliged to observe Jewish dietary laws. In charity, Paul publicly admonishes Peter for his actions (cf. Gal 2:11). Out of love, Paul challenges Peter’s deeds. Often this scene is over emphasized by those pitting Peter and Paul against one another. Rather, it should be read as a passage demonstrating true fraternal correction. Because of the bonds of friendship forged in the love of Christ, Paul objects to Peter’s actions. Paul is concerned with Peter’s deeds not his doctrine. Peter is failing to practice what he preaches and is not giving the true witness of his life along with the witness of his words. An admonishment like this could rupture any friendship. However, a relationship rooted in Christ, like the bond of Peter and Paul, can grow, like theirs continues to do.
According to early Christian traditions, Peter and Paul met again in Rome under the persecution of Nero. They were imprisoned together in the Tullianum, Rome’s oldest prison reserved for the greatest enemies of the state. For nine months, Peter and Paul pray, preach, and prepare for their birth into eternal life. Little is known about this period of their lives but it must have been a time of grace for the friends to spend so much time together discussing the things of God. Artists have rightfully been captivated by the final embrace between Christian brothers as each goes off to give the ultimate testimony of their earthly life. Peter was crucified upside down on the western side of the Tiber River and Paul was beheaded on the eastern side perhaps in God’s Providence so that both sides of the river, the whole city, might be sanctified by their blood.
Since the first Rome was founded on fratricide, Rome needed to be re-founded as a Christian city in fraternal love. Elpis continues her hymn in praise of the great apostles Peter and Paul by extolling the great city of Rome.
O happy Rome! Who in thy martyr princes’ blood,
A twofold stream, art washed and doubly sanctified.
All earthly beauty thou alone outshinest far,
Empurpled by their outpoured life-blood’s glorious tide.
The blood of the brothers united in Christ serves as the seed of the Church which will grow in time. We sing their praises together, according to Tertullian, because they “poured forth all their teaching along with their blood.” Their witness in teaching and blood is what truly makes Rome the urbs sacra and urbs aeterna. It was their martyrdom in Rome that at last led to the unending reunion between Peter and Paul in the true Holy and Eternal City, the Heavenly Jerusalem. For eternity, they are united with one another and with their Redeemer who called them both to the great mission of bringing the gospel to the entire world.